“I’m so glad you’re here. Come in and have a drink. You didn’t ride here on that scooter did you?” Elaine points to the little red UM at the end of the fence. When we tell her we have, we receive a scolding about the dangers of riding scooters on the island. Fortunately another couple arrives and Elaine turns to greet them. My husband and I are off the hook for a while.
That is my introduction to Elaine Estern, watercolor artist from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her home is Coconut Coast Studios near Cruz Bay, where she has been living and painting the last 19 years. Although a late-bloomer to painting (she didn’t begin until after finishing two other careers) it is now something she cannot live without.
“I see more paintings in my head than I have time to paint,” she tells me.
Elaine is known throughout the Caribbean for her “two-world” paintings that show scenes both above and below the water.
Often the subjects of her paintings, sea turtles, hibiscus or her two chocolate Labradors, Godiva and Truffles, will spill out of the borders giving them a three-dimensional aspect.
Her work is featured at Westin resorts, General Electric and Subaru among others. In 2007, she received a special honor when she was invited to paint a Christmas ornament for the White House Christmas tree. It now hangs in the National Archives.
We are at Elaine’s home for one of her Sunset Parties. She has them every Wednesday night from 5:30 to 7 p.m., November through April. They include champagne or rum punch, hors d’oeuvres and a flute duet. Guests can peruse the first floor of her indoor/outdoor home, which doubles as her gallery.
Smaller prints and souvenirs occupy a small room off the patio. Godiva and Truffles serve as guest greeters. Elaine’s assistant, Cecille Valdez, ladles a sweet and sour rum punch into cups for us. Elaine has been having these sunset parties for six years and has no plans to retire from them anytime soon.
She tells me her parties usually have around 20 people, but this week is Spring Break for much of the United States so her home is full with 40-plus guests.
My husband and I spend most of our time in the kitchen where Cecille warms the hors d’oeuvres, which we sample before she takes them into the gallery.
We meet Elaine’s son, Jon Schutt, who lives nearby on St. Thomas, a couple from Pennsylvania who have been visiting St. John for 16 years, and another couple from New Jersey who have been visiting for 23 years.
We all share stories about our favorite St. John snorkel spots while Jon gushes with pride about his mother going to the White House for the tree-lighting ceremony.
Godiva stands in the middle of our conversation circle hoping that someone will drop a morsel on the floor. Truffles wanders in hoping the same. Above our conversation, the soft notes of the flutes rise from the gallery behind us while the shuffle of the surf hitting the beach comes from out front.
Near 7 p.m. the flute players stop and visit with the other guests. The food and drink have almost run out, but the conversation still flows. We head to the front patio, where the sun has already set but the fading sky maintains some stripes of color and we can see the silhouette of St. Thomas across the water.
Elaine has one of her easels out here. The patio railing frames Elaine’s front yard creating a calm picture of her hammock between two palm trees and Frank Bay just beyond. Elaine tells me she paints every day and that she has two other easels. One is just above us off her bedroom and another is on the back porch for “when there’s too much sun out front.”
Elaine has created digital images of her works since 1999 and has them made into all kinds of objects for people to display, use or enjoy. Her most popular are the Jamaican Boxes. Handmade of cedar scraps by a Jamaican artists’ company called Harmony Hall, Elaine sends them postcards with her images, which they then adhere to the box tops.
They come in small (3”x2”x2”), medium (4”x3”x2”) and large (4.5”x6”x2”), perfect for holding seashells from Leinster Bay or bottle caps from Skinny Legs. She also has her images placed on tote bags, caps, mouse pads and t-shirts. Another service she provides is enlarging her images onto multiple specialty tiles, which can be used to create mural-sized images of her works and placed on kitchen backsplashes, bathroom showers and office lobbies.
With the sunset party over, we get ready to leave, but not before giving Godiva one last ear scratch. As we put our scooter helmets on, Elaine warns us again about St. John taxi drivers and implores us to be careful. We promise we will because we certainly plan to enjoy future sunset parties.
If You Go
Coconut Coast Studios
Carrie Dow has been writing off and on for over 20 years, starting with a small-town Nebraska newspaper back in 1992. Most recently, she was published in Islands Magazine. She is currently working on a children’s book to be published at the end of the year.