Painter and sculptor. An appreciation

VALERIE Bloomfield-Ambrose, who has died aged 83, was celebrated painter, sculptor, actor and singer whose compassionate nature and eccentric demeanour made her a much loved and now greatly missed figure to a great number of people the world over.

Born against the backdrop of 1930s Glasgow, the then Valerie Wilson grew up exploring the artistic enclave of the city's west end, later coming to exude the same spirit of creativity and expression that had nurtured her in her youth.

Growing up, she idolised her brother David, admitting later to pretending to be him in situations where she felt insecure. Later in her life she would find her confidence and expression through her work and would inspire others with it.

The younger daughter of Max and Rena, she attended Laurel Bank School where she was noticed early for her talent in art and began attending extra classes during her lunch breaks to develop her skills. During this time she also found a love for sports, earning herself a place at Junior Wimbledon. However, due to the instability of the family business at the time, her father was unable to pay the train fare to London and her dream of playing at the championships ended.

Further hardship put pressure on Valerie and David to contribute financially to the family. David was forced to leave school and work at the ship yards. However, being an A-grade student, Valerie was able to continue with her schooling while working evenings and weekends.

Despite these setbacks, she gained entry to the Glasgow School of Art in 1953. During her time at art school she developed a love of teaching that would later lead her into the profession. She also became a fixture on the Glasgow tennis circuit, where she met her first husband Andrew. In 1959, after achieving a qualification from Jordanhill Teacher Training College the couple moved together to his native Jamaica.

She taught art at several Jamaican schools including The Priory School, Jamaica College, Wolmer’s Girls’ School and the Jamaica School of Art, and she is credited with inspiring a generation of students, particularly women, to express themselves through art and to see it as a viable career. Her former students include celebrated artists such as Hope Brooks and Phillip Supersad.

In the 1960s she began to develop her own career as an artist. Starting in a small shared studio she created work that would later lead her to represent Jamaica in the International Women’s Year Exhibition. Her portraits were celebrated for their realism and ability to capture the essence of a sitter. Her particular skill for rendering the pastel light of the Caribbean made her one of the most popular artists of the period. Her sitters included, amongst others, Michael Manley, fourth Prime Minister of Jamaica, fellow artists Barrington Watson, John Maxwell and Kofi Kayiga, Sir Alister McIntyre, Rex Nettleford and Governors-Generals of Jamaica Sir Florizel Glasspole and Sir Kenneth Hall.

During this time she also created the striking statue of The University of The West Indies founder Sir Phillip Sherlock which stands prominently on the university grounds. In 2012 she would be awarded an honorary doctorate by the institution.

Her artistic contributions to her adopted home country of Jamaica cannot be understated. However in the 1970s Valerie, now married to her second husband John, a civil engineer who had emigrated from England, left for the USA and initially settled in Washington DC.

Upon graduating from the American University in 1980 with a masters degree in fine arts, Valerie began lecturing at several institutions including The Corcoran School of Art. In 1982 she relocated again to New York City where she performed at the off-broadway theatre La Mama, having already appeared in a number of productions whilst in Jamaica, opposite figures such as Lloyd Reckord and becoming an active part in the development of Jamaican performing arts, post-independence. With this experience she established herself within the performing arts community in New York and made friends that she would keep for the rest of her life. Throughout this period she was in high demand as a portraitist and was commissioned by several institutions and private individuals across the state.

A born raconteur, she never lacked for material to tell stories, whether these were of her early years trying to succeed in school despite the lack of support from her alcoholic father, or of the many people she brushed shoulders with as an artist and performer. Her ability to find interest in and common ground with people was one of the reasons she earned many valuable friendships during her life.

In 1993 she moved to Florida where once again she made a splash on the artistic scene. Now in her sixties, she continued to develop her skills both as painter and sculptress, completing several commissions, the most well-known being the statue of Henry Rolfs Sr in West Palm Beach.

A highly praised retrospective of her lifetime work in 2013 was considered to be a highlight of a long and productive career spanning both fine art and sculpture, an unusual combination in the artistic world where excelling equally in both disciplines is rarely achieved.

After ten years of living with cancer, Valerie Bloomfield-Ambrose died at home on 9 January. She is survived by her husband John, her step children Jason and Tracey, and her siblings Joyce and Brian.