The Soul Gallery, Parts IV, V, VI, VII & VIII

I never got round to posting the last 5 articles of my column in The Nation titled ‘The Soul Gallery’. I did an 8 part series of interviews with some of the finest creatives souls on the island, unearthing and showcasing their work and process.

Parts I, II & III can be found here:

Part I – Sunara Jayamanne

Part II – Ruwangi Amarasinghe

Part III – Nihara Fernando

Here’s the rest:

Part IV – Shehara De Silva (BLUDGE)

(FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATION – APRIL 2013)

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An interview with graphic artist Shehara De Silva, on how failing art can create a successful artist

Shehara De Silva or Bludgy as she better known, has become an iconic designer who opts to use t’shirts as her canvases and medium of expression. Together with her partner Sala, she launched ‘Bludge’ a label of limited edition t’shirts just over two years ago after quitting a long time career in advertising. The label is not only a derivative of Shehara’s nickname but was also named in reference to a Bludger, loosely translated as slang for a lazy person. Her designs are anything but lazy however, they are packed with a myriad stories, interpreted on so many levels. I’d like to think that these very artistically imprinted t’shirts stand for the anti-rat-race, because from the outside world’s perspective, if you’re not going to work, you must be a lazy person, a failure. With Sala, Bludgy and their very different way of life, this is most certainly not the case.

I sat down with Bludgy a few days ago in her colourful and very chilled out home, to talk about what life has been like, working from home, creating art, making a living and managing to squeeze in plenty of lazy time by not going to work anymore. My conversation with her is the fourth installment of the Soul Gallery, a series of interviews with some of the most dynamic artists in Sri Lanka’s currently expanding creative scene. I am reminded of the new wave of many people quitting their jobs to make a go of it on their own; tired of working for someone else’s gain and unable to express themselves in environments that predetermine the expected outcome. “At office, you have to work to someone else’s timetable, at home I set my own pace and I’m free to work the way I want to” says Bludgy, in addition to all the other obvious benefits of not having to worry about to what to wear, fight through morning traffic and get to work already exhausted. Remove the unnecessary elements out of the working process and you just might get a better outcome.

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Bludgy’s life embodies a credo that the Bludge brand itself stands for – do what you love and love what you do. I wanted to know how this manifested itself in her art so I ask her where the inspiration comes from. “My designs have a lot to do with the life I lead.” she tells me, “Bludge is a way of life and all my designs wind up reflecting that”. I delve deeper wanting to know what her creative process is like: “I really don’t know where the design is going until I am finished. I simply ask myself ‘what if’ along every step of the way”. She tries out every possible perspective with each element, breaking obvious design rules to create some truly memorable designs, each printed in a limited number to retain its artistic exclusivity. She goes on to tell me that all her designs are “essentially creating different faces. And everyone who looks at it tends to see a different aspect to that face, one they can relate to”. Looking over some of her designs such as ‘TransPorter’, ‘LunaTrip’, ‘Bludgersaurus’, ‘Spaced Out’ etc, you recognize the truth in her words, meeting the strangest of characters, each with familiar elements such as the Flower of Life, Rasta iconography and even what I would like to think is a graphic imprint of a Sri Lankan yaka mask, all becoming calling cards to a dynamic, new breed of free thinking Sri Lankans.

In an attempt to find common threads across the different creative people I have interviewed I ask them all the same question: did your education shape the creative person you are today?  “I failed art in school” says Bludgy completely unabashedly, “but I always had colouring books at home, because I loved art”. The art classes in school defined what she would have to draw and “I don’t like drawing scenery and stuff really. Besides the good food in the hostel, school in general was a waste of my time”. Some of the most successful and creative minds of the past century have been drop outs and failures in school – names as big as Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Thomas Edison.  Einstein grew up to become one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time, with one of the most creative intellects in human history but left school at 15 with no certificate and poor grades overall. Edison, went on to become the greatest inventor of his time but was called ‘addled’ by one of his teaches at age 8 after which he was taken out of school. Darwin revolutionized the science of biology but was called a disgrace by his father after he failed at numerous subjects that had merely bored him at the time. Our children are taught of their successes, but maybe there maybe some merit in letting them know that the system doesn’t work for everyone. Some children are made to feel like complete failures when they fail at the school process and it makes you wonder if they could have become some of society’s greatest contributors instead.

We talk about how the average person opens their minds to different types of art, especially in the context of how much art has suddenly begun to explode across the country since of late. There would be no point to this new wave of expression, if they aren’t going to be understood or appreciated. But Bludgy tells me that art is about connecting things and to be able to make those connections, you need to open your mind. “People have to possess a need to learn more and see more. That curiosity and that need is a must. That’s how you open your mind to art. People need to think more”. You can’t change your perspective if you only expose yourself to the same things over and over again. And according to Bludgy, to experience art you must experience the world at large and not limit yourself to the same spaces and places. Changing your perspective helps you change yourself and changing yourself, is quite possibly the only way to change the world.

PART V – Malaka Premasiri

(FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATION – MAY 2013)

An interview with photographer Malaka Premasiri, on the passion for artistic experimentation

Malaka Premasiri - Self Portrait

Not many Sri Lankans deem photography an art form. We hire photographers to cover our events, special occasions, capture moments, photograph our brands for advertising – but the pictures that take our breath away aren’t usually the ones we consider paying for. We stop to look, admire and move on. What we fail to realize is that these very photographs are the ones the people taking them are most passionate about. Ones that make them push the photographer to experiment and take the medium’s boundaries a step further.

After interviewing four women artists, I thought it would be good to get a man’s perspective on the expanding arts scene for my fifth interview; Malaka Premasiri, a photographer with a passion for experimentation whose work is standing apart simply because he didn’t compromise his craft simply to make the sale. “A friend once told me you shouldn’t go after money, you should just do what you’re doing” he tells me and it’s exactly what he did; a policy which is paying off now.

A few years ago, Malaka had no idea that a photographer’s eye instinctively resided within him. He started taking photographs of landscapes that caught his eye with a phone camera just for the fun of it. People started to notice the work he was doing and encouraged him on. This lead to him purchasing a small point & shoot camera and eventually a DSLR a couple of years ago. Incidentally I came across a photograph of his taken of the Kalutara Bodiya a few years ago (shown here), with the lights of the traffic on the streets captured by a technique called ‘long exposure’, which basically means you expose your image to allow light in for a longer period of time during the time of capture. The result was breathtaking and I have since followed his work diligently, always curious to know the man behind the photograph. He tells me now that it wasn’t even captured with a DSLR because he didn’t own one at the time. “I sold it for more than what the camera was worth. It’s really not about the camera you use”, a valuable point to note to the many photography enthusiasts who assume that equipment makes the photographer.

A recent series of captures by Malaka grabbed my attention again just over a month ago. He was invited by theater director Ruvin de Silva to take some headshots of the cast of his new play, ‘After Class’ for pre-publicity purposes. Malaka had other ideas brewing in his head, however. “I asked if I could do something different. I watched a few rehearsals, to get a feel for the play and the characters and only then brought in my gear to shoot. By the time I came to watch the play as an audience member I had already seen in about 4 times over”. It probably helped that the client was also a creative soul because the results, (shown here) were other-worldly to say the least. Sometimes it pays to allow the photographer to have a creative input into the job you ask of them, because they just might see something from a perspective that you haven’t. I think it applies to all creative fields that we commission work from, in fact.

After Class - Drama Kalutara Bodiya sdf

As with my other interviews, I broach the topic of school,  having been told by my other interviewees that school had very little bearing on the people they are today, including a very successful artist who failed art! Malaka smiles and agrees, because his discovery of photography happened completely by chance with a phone camera after all. I laugh, not finding the need to delve further, simply because this forming pattern is coincidentally similar; school has nothing or very little to do with the many faces behind the arts scene today. I’m learning to accept that.

We go on to discuss the subject of making it in a world that sometimes pays more attention to their busy lives than pause to notice art. He thinks social media has become a great motivator and learning base. But, “you have to find a clever way to display your work, both inside social media and outside it.” he says, “It’s how different you make yourself as well, you need to create yourself along with your art”. This is true, I think – recalling that the most standout artists of all time are also those with distinct personalities. I recall the first names that come to me when I think of art – Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol and Alex Grey – all eccentrics, remembered equally for their work as well as their individuality.

Social media still has its limitations in Sri Lanka. While it is a good starting base for an artist or photographer, it helps to expand your horizons in terms of exposure. We discuss the role that mainstream media could possibly play; “Established artists always have publicity. I think mainstream media needs to give new artists more exposure or even the public won’t see anything new after a while”.

I am curious to know of his process, how he learned and what drives him as a photographer. He tells me he learned by reading online and experimenting with his camera. He says he loves freezing time, and from what I am gathering, also slowing it down. “I used to wake up early morning and walk around with my camera. I used to go to the Bellanwila Temple, the Pettah Market…. I miss that, I should start doing it again. He pauses for a moment, “Firstly I am a selfish photographer. I take the picture for myself. If I like it, then someone else can see it.”. 

It is probably a good way to go about it. You can’t expect the world to be moved by your work unless it can also affect you powerfully. “I want my work to be an eye opener to people from my perspective, but first it has to be an eye-opener for me”.

PART VI – Deeandra Bulner 

In conversation with artist Deeandra Bulner, on appreciating the tiny things in life

Deandra Bulner

“I’d like to shrink everything and create a little fantasy world” says Deeandra, reminding me of the miniature world Alice visited after having a shrinking portion in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. Deeandra Bulner is a young artist who creates and sculpts miniatures with clay, polymer and paint. In a world where everything is blown out of proportion and the demand is always for things that are larger-than-life, it’s been a refreshing experience to discover this little universe of miniatures that she has created.

This is the sixth in a series of interviews that I’ve been doing with the aim of introducing a few of the myriad new genres of art happening in the country as well as the faces behind the work. Interestingly I have found many common threads among these many artists that may serve as a learning point when it comes to the aesthetic learning experiences of our children. Each coming from different backgrounds, opting for varied tools and mediums, all told me that learning art in school was one of their least favourite experiences, and Deeandra is no exception to the rule. “I didn’t care much for the art stuff in school because they would always tell you what to draw, like Vesak Night or a waterfall.” she tells me. In reference to her art of making miniatures, she tells me that “as much as I would love to thank my school education for this, I really can’t. I didn’t really pay attention to art in school, but you would have been able to spot my text books, because all of them were covered in doodles”. On some level, you would probably think it shocking that artists were not good at art in school but it is sadly becoming the gospel truth in most cases. The very institution created to help us discover ourselves has very little to do with the people we eventually become and this is especially apparent with artists today.

I am interested to find out why she opted to make miniatures in the first place. “It’s very simple really, I just thrive on taking a normal day-to-day thing and scaling it down. And I like that it can be very personal. People who buy them relate to the same things I make. A photographer wanted miniature camera earrings, another wanted a boom box.” Her work however, isn’t only for custom orders, her creative process involves making things that catch her eye, having always loved modeling with clay since she was a child. “I always wanted to work with clay and I used to make miniature clay things as a kid too. Like coconut trees and slippers.” I also observe how her miniatures have multiple uses, allowing her to make jewelry, household wall and counter décor pieces, paper weights, other items for workspaces and much more. The possibilities seem endless. “Most of the time I try to replicate something and then my mind will tell me that it might look cool hanging off someone’s ear. Or I’ll make bowls and owls and indigenous faces….” she trails off.

What does she really want people who purchase her pieces to get out of it? We take her jewelry as an example. “You could say that I never think about the functional. I love when it’s personal because it almost always that adds so much of detail. I’d like for them to think that jewelry doesn’t need to be precious stones and gems – its value is not in how many karats but who gave it to you and what it meant. That being said, sometimes I just make things because they look nice or trendy… but that is also part and parcel of making the person who buys it look or feel good I guess.”

I direct our conversation to a topic that’s been on my mind, the sharing of knowledge. The greatest of artists are acclaimed for creating novel pieces or styles, like Picasso for instance. But when you discover something new, do you keep the secret to yourself or pass on your knowledge to anyone else who also wants to do what you’re doing? Deeandra gives me a very candid response: “I’ve actually already told someone else how to, about the clay and where to get it from. I don’t know what she is doing with the info I gave her but I gave it. I’ll be honest, I was a bit hesitant at first but I made myself do it because when I approached a few people, (not to ask them how to but more like where do I get this from and how do I buy it) I noticed the hesitation to not want to give me the details.” I am taken aback by her honesty. “It’s important to share so we also can improve. I might not be able to do something that someone else will do with this clay and that notion itself is kind of a challenge to do something new to come up with something new and to be able to share a craft is also kind of cool right?” I’m smiling right through her response. Yes, Deeandra, it’s very cool.

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Deeandra was open and honest enough to tell me she was hesitant to pass on her knowledge, but clearly the risk was worth it because she is now in discussion with other artists and artist forums who make similar art, exchanging information and ideas regularly, each aimed at helping each other improve and possibly even collaborate. Honesty is a very refreshing discovery in such a young artist, but it’s an essential one; art is one of mankind’s few means of honesty. It makes you feel at all because it has come from an emotional place within the artist. In a world of constant deceit and lies, art is a possible opening for each of us to at least be honest with ourselves.

PART VII – PUSH Skateboards

In conversation with graphic artists Hash & Umanga, on starting a skateboard culture in Sri Lanka

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Skateboarding culture maybe new to Sri Lanka with the recent launch of PUSH Skateboards by graphic artists Hash Bandara and Umanga Samarasinghe, but is in fact a sub-culture even older than the 80’s punk era which brought skateboarding and graffiti, into prominence. Skateboarding first began in the 50’s when California surfers wanted to ‘street-surf’ when the surf wasn’t up.

One of the most interesting things about the new movement of art in the country is that it takes elements of different cultures, giving it a Sri Lankan interpretation. This is also the case with PUSH Skateboards, with Hash and Umanga creating graphic art based collections of skateboards and accompanying t-shirts that relate to Sri Lankan youth.

Why would artists want to create a brand of skateboards, using them as their canvases? “We were into skateboarding since we were small.” they tell me, but they couldn’t find proper skateboards in the country which lead them to the idea in the first place.  They also believe it can be a positive influence. “Skateboarding became our life and helped us become who we are today. Every teen goes through issues and skating became an addiction that kept us away from other issues. It made us feel more independent”. They want to pass on the influence it brought into their lives to other young kids as well. “We want them to get a feel of freedom, a feel of art and we also hope that skateboarding will help these kids concentrate on something productive rather than something negative.”

Not every kid in the country knows how to skate however, so I ask them how they plan to reach kids through a medium that they are unfamiliar with, i.e. skateboarding. “We teach everyone who wants to learn”, they tell me. Hash and Umanga host a series of weekly events called Skate Sunday’s, where they teach children how to skate and also visit schools, explaining the concept of skateboarding. They are planning a skate jam in early June as well.

I ask them what inspires the art behind the collections itself, noticing the fascinating and colourful imagery that is the brand’s calling card, creating strange personalities and mythical creatures that seem to come together thematically. Hash says she is inspired by nature, music and Asian culture, while Umanga is drawn to fantasy and mythology. “We both do different designs, but we keep to one theme with each collection”. They are incidentally both designers who come from very different design disciplines, Umanga being a fashion designer and Hash, a graphic designer. They didn’t start out planning on being artists at all, incidentally. “I could never draw in school, I hated arts. One of my teachers told me I can’t draw so I never wanted to draw. I did my degree in law for two years and figured it’s not what I wanted to do with my life. So I took a year off. Travelled around Asia a bit and then decided to study design. Umanga started studying to be a pilot & ended up studying Fashion” says Hash.

This piques my curiosity wanting to know the story behind how a would-be lawyer and would-be pilot are now artists and owners of Sri Lanka’s first skateboarding brand. When did they realize that there was an artist inside each of them? Hash goes first “I realized it when I was doing my LLB degree. I started doodling all over my books because the subjects were so boring and it became a habit. I started putting my thoughts into my doodles. My brother saw one of them and said I should be in advertising. That’s what made me give up law and go in to graphic design.

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The would-be pilot tells me a funny story: “I realized I could draw since I was small. I realized it when all the kids in my class started asking me to draw birthday cards and do their art homework. I was also asked to draw cover pages a children’s books when I was 16.” Then why decide to become a pilot, I wonder. “I wanted to work for the forces and become a pilot but the Air Force didn’t take me because I was short”.

I laugh along but I also realize that what she is doing now is no less heroic. Artists change the world too, they do it by changing the way people see things. They make themselves vulnerable by pouring out their hearts into their work to help others find a sense of honesty and something they can relate to. That makes an artist a hero too.

PART VIII – Sachini Perera

In conversation with photographer Sachini Perera on the art of live music photography

Sachini Perera

When I think of live music photography my mind is instantly drawn to iconic photographs from the 60’s like Jim Marshall’s epic portrayal of Johnny Cash giving the camera his middle finger in the middle of the legendary Fulsom Prison concert or his depiction of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire at the ’69 Monterey Pop Festival. Photographs served to make musicians just as much as their music did in the era before the music video and the craft has continued today, even in Sri Lanka where gig photography is becoming a booming passion with a host of shutterbugs lining the stages at most live music events today.

One of the first few people to start covering these events as far back as 2006, and in fact the first person to start taking gig photography seriously is Sachini Perera, who will be having her debut photography exhibition of live music photography titled ‘The Show Must Go On’ next weekend, the 8th & 9th of June at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery. “At first it was just me playing around with a point and shoot camera, trying to manipulate the lighting at gigs” she tells me, “and I used to take a camera and take a few shots because I used to blog about these gigs and wanted accompanying photos. But then as I started taking photos, I realized that there was drama and theatrics in these performances, especially in heavy metal which I was new to at the time”.

Slowly her work started getting recognized, with both the bands and their respective fans eagerly awaiting photographs from the gigs they performed at or attended. The bands she chose to photograph like Stigmata, Paranoid Earthlings, Thriloka, Funeral in Heaven etc., were not mainstream musicians and since of late the social media boom along with her photography and those of others who have now joined in the passionate pursuit of gig photography have contributed immensely to bringing their music to the limelight. “I started receiving some positive feedback for the moments I captured. It was new territory because most of these bands had a limited audience to begin with. After a while, the performers also started to respond to my camera and to the cameras of others”.

She has to date not charged a single artist for the photographs she has taken, other than for a few media publications who have featured her work. Instead, her payment is “just the thrill of adding an extra element to the experience of live performances and the satisfaction of the feedback I receive from the performers as well as the audience.” Her focus is on “wanting to portray these performances in the best ways possible, of wanting to promote them so that they receive the support they need to continue what they do.” Interestingly Sachini doesn’t only shoot heavy metal and rock & roll concerts, her live music photography extends to classical music, jazz, fusion artists, experimental sessions, informal jams and many others.

With this new boom of live music photographers, many opt for a lot of post production work and image manipulation instead of releasing their original captures. I was interested to know Sachini’s take on this. “With the technology and tools that are available, it’s easy to manipulate photos to look good on computer screens. If you’re only looking for the gratification of a bunch of people “liking” your photos, then I supposed that would be enough for you, but if you’re interested in honing your skills further then you need to take a step back and critique yourself. Selecting photos for this exhibition has made me look at my work more critically than ever before and I’m very grateful that I’m not dependent on editing for the final outcome of my photos

As a huge fan of the godfather of Rock & Roll photography, the late Jim Marshall, I feel the need to draw another example from his life in relation to what Sachini told me next. Jim wasn’t just an impersonal photographer, he became close personal friends with the musicians her captured, shooting them off-stage as well as at informal off-stage session, which lead him to becoming the only photographer allowed behind the scenes at Woodstock. Sachini’s story, in a local context, is similar. “I’m very biased towards Thriloka and have been following them from the very beginning with my camera and all the shots I’ve taken of them are associated with great memories. Especially some shots taken when they invited me to photograph them on the first day of recording for their last album.

I move on to my favourite topic with all the artists I interview – did your education or schooling play a role in the artist you have become today? Sachini says it didn’t play much of a role at all. “It was actually my family and upbringing that was more influential in me picking up the camera. I have been truly lucky to have parents who have given me a free rein from a very young age to pursue anything I’m interested in, which has made me fearless to pursue things that my school teachers actually tried to stop me from pursuing. I come from a family of doctors and many people, including my teachers saw that as the natural progression for myself as well. My father had to personally come into the school I was in at the time and tell the teachers that he is completely on board regarding my plan to do Arts and moved me to a school that catered better towards this.” She is blessed to have had parents who didn’t leave it to an academic system that has clearly failed the aesthetically inclined.

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We close our conversation on the topic what it takes to make an artist and the need for disruption. “Recently I gave a TED talk on positive disruption and my concluding message was that you need to take a leap of faith in order to positively disrupt. The tools are available. You just need to put yourself out there.” She tells me disruption is necessary “because that is the only way we can progress and move forward. It is imperative to think out of the box, to disrupt tried and tested methods, to shake things up, to make some noise. Many things that I now consider achievements in my life so far are happy accidents from disrupting” Most artists have discovered themselves purely by accident; a point to note for the many young people out there, who have no idea that an artist’s soul resides within them.

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