28th November 1999
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Ayesha Rafiq meets Neville Weereratne and Sybil Keyt who are still passionate about Sri Lanka

Natural strokes

"If you don't have a relationship with nature, then there's not much left to paint," Neville Weereratne shoots at me. And after half an hour in the company of an artist who has spent the last 50 years capturing nature on canvas, I'm not about to disagree with him.

For someone who has been painting for so long, Neville is not just enthusiastic but passionate about the world he lives in, particularly the little corner of it- that is Sri Lanka.

Sybil KeytAnd it's easy to see that his wife Sybil Keyt who has been painting for almost as long as Neville, is just as passionate about the world they live in, particularly the little corner of it that is Sri Lanka.

With fifty years of painting and countless exhibitions behind them the husband and wife duo have teamed up once again to hold an exhibition of their art and a celebration of their talent.

The exhibition which goes on the boards, or rather on the walls, from December 2 to 12 at the Gallery 706 is the product of two years of painting 'what we know and love', as Neville puts it, both in Sri Lanka and abroad. 

Neville and Sybil both belong to a generation of artists who have kept company with or been under the tutelage of the likes of Lionel Wendt, Richard Gabriel and Cora Abraham who are part of societies such as the Group of '43 and the Ceylon Society of Arts.

Neville WeereratneNeville, a member of the illustrious Group of '43 which was formed in 1943 under the leadership of Lionel Wendt has had his work exhibited in London, quite an achievement for someone who used to be beaten on his knuckles for wasting time and drawing on the back of exercise books as 'art paper was very expensive way back then'. Sybil studied art under the personal guidance of Cora Abraham. They are both personalities who need no introduction to the Sri Lankan art scene.

The couple also have another reason to thank their lives' passion. And that is each other, as it is through their mutual interest in art that they met, and are now the proud parents of four children and grandparents of seven youngsters.

Both have subtly introduced first their children and now their grandchildren to art, and Neville fondly calls his wife 'the original magpie', because she is always on the lookout for odds and ends to collect for them to use creatively.

As for their views on teaching children art, both believe that straight lines, squares and coconut trees crossing each other on a sunset bathed beach are not what children should be drawing. They believe that children should be allowed to play around with the paints and chalks and other materials, and experiment with shapes and colours while getting a feel for art.

A member of the Professor Suzuki (no relation to the car) club, Neville feels that it is only once a child has got a feel for what it is doing that he or she can be shaped and guided to produce good work– a thought that so many years ago led to the introduction of child art (that children should be allowed to draw what they want and not be told what to draw). This was something former Chief Inspector of Art Geoffrey Beling advocated.

The couple's work was first exhibited in 'house exhibitions' during the time of the Group of '43, which simply means that the art is exhibited in houses instead of in galleries. The reason for this being that 'paintings are meant to be lived with, so how better to exhibit them in a house' as Neville says.

Neville and Sybil have also exhibited their work in Australia where they lived for over 25 years at the popular 'Highway Gallery', and Neville jokingly says that 'for the price we had to pay, it was highway robbery'. Apart from being an artist, Neville is a one-time journalist, having been the features editor of the Observer in the early 1960s and also having worked as a journalist in Australia.

Both being artists who have spanned an era in Sri Lankan art, the couple feel that whether modern or conventional art, a relationship with nature is essential.

"Most modern paintings I find difficult to relate to because the artist has taken a shape or colour which has no relation to nature and therefore no relation to people, and tried to fill a space with it," says Sybil.

Neville however has a stronger view to express. While admitting that he is being harsh, he says that "people don't draw at all now. 

It's just a dot here and a splash there, simply because there is no skill now, and artists have lost their feel for humanism, and are unknowingly dehumanising art".

And where do the couple get their inspiration from? "Right here," they both say, meaning Sri Lanka.

"I paint because I want to preserve something. And the people and the places of Sri Lanka are something I always have and always will love. 

I paint the fisher- folk, monks, rural families and beach scenes, because I want to preserve the images of the people who made Sri Lanka and who are the essence of the country, as opposed to the city folk who are all around us now," Neville says.

And as such, inspiration is never wanting. 

"Sometimes I paint from imagination, but there again, you can't imagine something you have never experienced," says Sybil, and true enough there is a quality of peace and calm to her work that she evidently experiences herself, giving the impression that she has weathered the storm of life well and can handle anything else that may come her way.

Together the duo have produced some wonderful paintings which capture Sri Lanka at its best and you might not want to miss their exhibition if you're looking to capture and hold a tiny part of Sri Lanka just for yourself.

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