Remembering Candia Atwater Shields: Art Collector, Visionary, Museum Founder

Candia Atwater Shields (Submitted photo)

Candia Ann Atwater came into this world on May 4, 1943 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. She grew up in Buffalo – raised by her aunt Kitty and uncle John Kenneth Galbraith, studied at Old Westbury, N.Y., and worked in Albany, N.Y.

Candia Atwater Shields was married, divorced, and raised three sons, Mark, Christopher, and Evan, in Port Washington, N.Y. After visiting St. John when the boys were young, the islands became a draw for her. “The warm waters here were good for her; my mom had a bad back,” said Evan.

Candia embraced the island of St. Croix and became a part of the community sometime in the late 1980s. She sowed her visionary seeds on its soil as a Crucian of choice, and it is where she made her earthly transition on March 5, with her son Evan beside her.

Carmella Richards and Candia met as next-door neighbors in Estate La Vallee in 1992. In their breakfast times together and talks across the fence, Candia’s topic of conversation was always about starting a museum, Richards said.

“She was a really good friend. She got me into gardening. We always got along well – we went out together and I would do the driving at night.”

Candia and Carmella Richards at Candia’s home in La Grange, April 2017. (Photo courtesy Carmella Richards)

Richards began to work with Candia when her ideas of developing the first  “Art and Soul Calendar” for 1995 became a reality. There were many community folks on board to help with layout and design, photography, editing, and multiple chores to get the calendar printed and distributed. There were meetings and organizing, all in preparation of the calendar. Richards helped with typing the proposals and transporting work in her truck. The calendars were sold in stores across the island. A lot of the artwork in the first three calendars was from Candia’s own collection. 

Richards moved to New York in 1996, and on her subsequent visits to St.Croix, she and Candia would pick up where they left off from the last visit, Richards said.

With financial support from her family, Candia’s dream came true with the move in 2003 to the Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts on Strand Street in downtown Frederiksted. 

“She wanted something for the children of the V.I. Candia worked as an Assistant Attorney General in Paternity and Child Support Services. That kind of work showed her what our children needed on this island and she was determined to provide diverse programs as outlets for them,” Richards said.

Candia, according to her friends and her son Evan, was very social. “She had a very protective and loving adopted family of women friends over the years,” longtime friend Downing Child shared.

Candia and Downing Child (Photo courtesy Downing Child)

Downing and Candia met in 2002 and they both brainstormed about the museum. “In the process, she became one of my best friends in my life.” 

“She was very supportive with my struggles and my subsequent divorce,” she said.

“Candia understood that actions are more powerful than words and she was always so present for people. She showed up. She had this wonderful warmth and earthiness to her,” Downing said.

“When I would call, she would say, ‘Hi Hon.’ I can still hear her voice. She is someone you would want to call at the end of the day. There was nothing she couldn’t handle. There was no judgment,” Dowling shared.

“Candia’s Carambola home was filled with wall-to-wall paintings of artists that she valued and wanted to understand their story. The museum center was a place where she could unpack most of it,” Downing said.

Downing saw in Candia what most people saw — she cared so much about inspiring young people and really cared about the young people of St. Croix and the Caribbean who were isolated and exposed to violence and all the things that challenge the youth in the American inner cities, generally. She gained this knowledge from her work in the AG office. 

“When I go to the museum website, there is not a detail, the domains, the depths and possibilities that Candia did not envision or talk obsessively about. It’s all there — the artist residency, the classes for children, the social gatherings in the courtyard — all of it. It’s incredible to see this life played out with this wonderful gift,” Downing said.

Downing’s son Harrison visited Candia during his spring break. They had lunch together the day before Candia passed. Harrison is interested in law school and Candia told him all about immigration law and the power to change people’s lives, Downing said. 

“She was funny. She was just fun and funny. She loved life. I wish I could have had some more time with her.”

Harrison and Candia at lunch the day before she passed. (Photo courtesy Downing Child)

Downing said she is touched knowing that she is one of many women who counted Candia as one of their closest comrades and friends. She looks forward to returning to St. Croix for a “hugabout.”

“You don’t have to be an artist to love art. Candia embodied that — the gift of art. She believed that you can travel the world through art. Art is the human condition,” Downing said.

Artist Janet Cook-Rutnik met Candia in 1993. She also remembers the multitude of art Candia bought — helping so many artists with the dream of creating a museum. That was the beginning of her collaboration and communication with the artists.

Janet and Candia under the mango tree in La Grange, February 2023. (Photo courtesy Sigi Torinus)

“What Candia did was very innovative,” Cook-Rutnik said. “She did great things — founding the museum and increasing the level of interest in the arts. There was no institutional support for the arts,” Cook-Rutnik said.

“There were incredible shows in the main floor gallery,” Cook-Rutnik remembers. 

Luis Camnitzer and Candia were enrolled at Old Westbury. She looked him up and Camnitzer and his wife exhibited their photographs in 2008 at the inauguration of the upstairs gallery. Some of those photos were in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art. The community knew little of those big international names. 

Mujeres a Mujeres — Women to Women Isla de Isla — Island to Island Group exhibit. (Photo courtesy Janet Cook-Rutnik)

The museum began the annual fall exhibitions of VI/PR Friendship. There was a series of guest artists with Janet Cook-Rutnik, LaVaughn Belle, and Gerville Larsen, who partnered with the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Juan, P.R. They brought work from their permanent collection. 

“There were very important events that came to CMCARTS through Candia’s efforts in the years 2002, 2003, and 2004 — a few big shows at the museum and Fort Frederik — a very collaborative effort, well received and really excellent. The public loved it because Crucians were in it. They could recognize their relatives in the transfer photos IDs,” Cook-Rutnik shared.

“Candia and I were good friends. We had a lot of fun together. She’s such a vibrant personality. I still feel her liveliness so strongly. I could not have had a better friend. She cared so much about everyone. She was easy to be with. Candia genuinely loved people and took a lot of pleasure in friendships and connected well to people. I will miss her terribly. The museum was her baby. I told her, ‘You’ve got to be pleased, You’ve got to be proud. This museum is everything you dreamed of,'” she said. 

“Candia told it like it was. She took no prisoners!”

Evan visited his mom every two years around Christmas. “She knew how to put people to work.” He helped her tend her garden and helped with the Art and Soul calendars.

“She pushed them to help the artists and gave a lot of them away. The cost was higher than most calendars and were not easily sold. She didn’t earn any money at the beginning,” Evan said.

Candia and son Evan in their last photo together at Off the Wall on St. Croix on March 1. (Photo courtesy Evan Atwater Shields)

Candia was very generous in giving the artists 10 calendars each as payment for having their artwork in the calendar. 

Wire sculpture artist Waldemar Brodhurst shared his work with someone at the museum eight years ago, but he was turned away. When Candia saw his sculptures she asked why she had not seen them before. He explained that there was no interest in his kind of art. Candia encouraged him to bring his art to the museum and show it in an exhibit. His three pieces were sold in that exhibit. She also gave him the information to go to the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts to request a grant to further his art. He received the grant and is doing multiple sculptures and is in many shows.

Waldemar volunteered his services at the museum whenever they needed someone to work. He is employed as their maintenance worker with a regular salary. 

“Candia believed in me and she supported me. She saw the art in me,” Brodhurst said. 

Evan used the analogy of Candia’s museum goals as laying an egg that was maternalistic and protective. As she removed herself a little, it began to hatch. Candia admitted to Evan that she was a micromanager. She had a lot of trouble letting go. 

Evan’s brother Mark took his own life. This was a wake-up call for his mom, Evan said. “My mom had a rough life and losing Mark was one of  the roughest on her.” The museum library is dedicated to Mark.

The barber next door to the museum spoke to Evan about Candia. He was very encouraging and said that Candia had it “spot on” about the youth in giving them direction so they wouldn’t derail. He said a little bit of coaching, a space, and supplies and people could go far. And further with a little bit of nurturing and a little bit of attention. He spoke about sports and the athletes needing a coach. He likened Candia to a coach — saying that’s what she did with the museum — dancing, music, painting, drawing — it’s all an expression — funneling energy that may go to waste.

Evan said his mom was organized. She knew what she wanted. She was faced with so many projects simultaneously, that he called his mom a “scatterbrain” because she wanted this and she wanted that.

She encouraged Evan to look toward the future in the simple act of planting an avocado pit as opposed to throwing it away. You must utilize the things you have to get the things you need were her teachings to him. 

“My mom found the right people. She sent a lot of letters appealing to family and friends for the finances required for the museum. It’s a wonderful thing. It is honorable,” Evan said.

Candia used to buy the nets for the tennis courts and basketball courts in Frederiksted. That’s the kind of person she was — generous and altruistic. 

“Her presence is still alive,” Evan said.

“Art Raises The Spirit”
— Candia Atwater Shields

Candia and Evan in Holland in one of Evan’s favorite photos. (Photo courtesy Evan Atwater Shields)

A Celebration of Life for Candia Atwater Shields:

Saturday, Celebration is 3 p.m.- 6 p.m. and a Memorial begins at 4 p.m.

The family and friends of Candia request that attendees wear all white in her honor. 

Limited seating will be available.

The event will be live-streamed on YouTube.

Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts
10 Strand St., Frederiksted, 340-772-2622

Visit cmcarts.org for more information.