ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 37

Images from home always on her mind

Back home to mark a milestone in her journey as an artist, with an exhibition, ‘50 Years In Retrospect’, Winitha Fernando talks to Renuka Sadanandan

The years sit gently on Winitha Fernando….she has passed the Psalmist’s life span of three score and ten, she tells us with a warm smile, but her inspiration has never flagged, her hand is still steady, her vision clear and the urge to paint still strong within her.

Winitha Fernando

Though resident in the UK for long years, it is a very special occasion that brings her back to the island this time around. This year, this illustrious artist marks a milestone in her life, fifty years of art and it is the feeling that she needs to share this with the country and people that have been her inspiration that brings her back to hold an exhibition.

‘Fifty Years In Retrospect’ with fifty of Winitha’s paintings, some dating back to the very early days will be on at the Alliance Francaise in Colombo from February 16 to March 2 and even to those unfamiliar with her art, will represent a significant body of work from this unassuming artist who has achieved much, most of it beyond our shores.

After settling in the historic university and cathedral town of Canterbury more than a decade ago, she formed a Christian art group which has attracted artists not only from the UK but also from many European countries. They held an initial exhibition in 1998 to coincide with the Lambeth Conference (the Anglican Church’s main synod) bringing together some 800 bishops from all over the world and are now excitedly planning a bigger exhibition to go with the 2008 conference.

In recent years, her work has strongly reflected her Christian faith yet always stayed rooted in her motherland. Writing of a solo exhibition she held at Canterbury cathedral in 2002, art critic Roger Turner says “There are some discernible cross-cultural characteristics in the works. For instance, there is a clear interest in orthodox Christian icons, and the composition of ‘The Ascension of Christ’ has an oriental flavour… may be that the breadth of her art stems from her exposure to the cultural plurality of her native Ceylon.”

Winitha affirms her abiding connection to her motherland, remarking how even despite decades of living in the UK, she was never inspired to draw an English rose or a market scene; it was always the figures and scenes from home that lingered in her mind’s eye. “The pictures in my mind were different. I painted the fisherfolk, village scenes from Moratuwa, Lunawa, where I grew up. Even when I was there I was constantly drawing these subjects which I was very familiar with,” she says, adding that regular visits home through the years kept these pictures fresh.

Hers was an artistic household where her mother Cissie too painted ‘though never exhibited’, but the larger influence was that of her famous uncle David Paynter under whose tutelage she came when she got into the Ceylon College of Fine Arts fresh from school, one of 300 chosen from some 3000 applicants for the very first batch. “My first lessons in oil painting were from David Paynter,” she says. She recalls wryly the story of a portrait competition that Paynter, then principal of the college held among the students and finding hers the best work, called in renowned artist Stanley Abeysinghe for a second opinion. When Abeysinghe also picked hers, he reluctantly gave her the prize; one rupee. “Enough for a packet of peppermints to share around,” she laughs.

Paynter was a figurative artist and Winitha recalls how she too came to like figurative studies, rather than doing landscapes and pots of flowers, the ‘chocolate box covers’ as she calls it. She wanted something deeper and found it in the human figure which she believes encompasses all balance, rhythm and beauty. After all, she says, God created man in His own image, making each one of His creations special.

Mentioning too the influences of the Impressionists in her work, she says she looks to emphasise composition in her work and does many sketches before she begins a painting. “I want to place my figures in a certain form and the painting also has to have a lyrical quality and harmony; not just the colours but the figures must relate one to another.”

From Paynter she learnt much, she says, including the nitty gritty stuff like washing and cleaning brushes with meticulous care, “with soap and water and then rubbing it on the palm of your hand to get rid of the oil”, so much so that when she went to the UK in 1969 on a scholarship awarded by the World Council of Churches to Heatherley College of Art more than a decade after passing out from the Ceylon College of Fine Arts, her teachers there were amazed at how she managed with just one or two brushes while others had literally hundreds.

The Heatherley scholarship opened many doors, also affirming without a doubt her considerable talents. True, she had exhibited at home a few times, with her first solo exhibition in 1967 (also at the Alliance, then at Ward Place) gathering many approving reviews, but Heatherley was her first taste of success on foreign soil. “I was a newcomer, a bit of a curiosity,” she recalls, “but they liked my work.” This was the school that had nurtured the likes of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson and Winitha still feels she was privileged to have been there, and welcomed so warmly with the principal even inviting her home for Christmas.

From there, the doors across Europe opened and then followed the ‘French phase’ where invitations to exhibit in prestigious galleries came like a flood; notably to the Paris Salon at the Grand Palais des Champs Elysees in 1975 and 1976. After solo exhibitions, the International Arts Guild invited Winitha to submit two paintings to be hung at their Silver Jubilee exhibition alongside paintings by Picasse, Matisse and Paul Klee at the Artotheque in the Palais de la Scala in Monte Carlo. She was also awarded the Honorary Diplome de Societaire, Paris. It was all heartening for someone who thought the world of the Impressionists, to be exhibiting in galleries where some of these Great Masters had had their work rejected.

Looking back, she feels, there was no period where painting ever ceased to be a vital force in her life. Returning to Sri Lanka in 1989, Winitha anticipated ‘a time of recollection, reflection and recuperation’ but was soon prevailed upon by organizations like the George Keyt Foundation to exhibit in the SAARC Asian Masters and the Major Triennial in Delhi and found herself painting even more.

Going back to the UK in 1994, she moved to Canterbury and the recent years, she says, have been largely devoted to her religious art, confessing to a new absorption with Christian icons, where she says she has devised her own technique using pastels and gold leaf rather than follow the laborious method used by the traditional painters of such Greek and Byzantine icons. Her icon paintings, she says are much sought after in the UK, though sadly, they will not be on view at this exhibition.

Maybe in the autumn of my life, I am painting on a smaller scale, she muses, but it is obvious that the skill and technique needed for these exquisite works is considerable.

The exhibition will also coincide with the launch of a book on Winitha’s 50 years of painting. And though a milestone has been passed, lovers of her work will hope that her journey that has brought her this far, will continue.

‘50 Years In Retrospect’ is on at the Alliance Francaise from February 16 to March 2

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.