by Thulasi Muttulingam
Landscapes, nudes and portraits in charcoal, pencil and watercolours dot the living room of Mervin Mendis, a retired civil servant, now dedicated artist.
“Even as a child, I had a fascination for drawing,” he recalls. “In the absence of other media, I would even draw portraits of people on the sand, with my big toe.”
His talent was identified early by family members and teachers but no one encouraged him to pursue it as anything other than a hobby.
“We have to accept that there is no financial security for artists in Sri Lanka and that was especially true back then so…” he says philosophically of the failure of those around him to develop his talent and his thus having to forego it altogether in adulthood in order to pursue a more mainstream career.
As soon as he retired however, he returned promptly to his first love – Art, and though not having painted for years, soon picked it up again. It is his all consuming passion now to which he dedicates all his time and resources.
As a young man, he was interested enough to learn painting under the well artist, A.C.G. S. Aamarasekera. The Art Guru was impressed enough with his skills provide him a full scholarship and actively encouraged him to take up Art as a profession. When his beloved teacher died aged 98, in the late seventies however, Mendis who became employed in the government sector and settled with a family, eventually gave up painting altogether.
It is the oft known case of the creative spirit having to be stifled in order to be more mainstream and earn a living. He does not evince regret or bitterness over it. He had been conditioned from childhood to accept that it was so.
He remembers that as a boarding student at St. Mary’s College, Chilaw, the boarding prefect, Brother Andrew, even got him to draw film portraits of Tarzan and other action figures, well known at that time.
“Brother Andrew was a movie enthusiast who regularly organized public screenings of his favourite movies. He used to get me to draw the action figures on posters and blackboards, to be displayed at the convent and in town, in order to attract people to come for the screenings.”
He was only 11 years old at this time. Asked if he was able to draw so well without tutoring or guidance at such a young age, he shares a quote of Picasso’s to elaborate the point. “When I was a child, I was as good as Raphael (famous renaissance painter). Now in my eighties, I am trying to find that inner child to be that good an artist.”
Mendis, who is now 72 years old is in constant search of that inner child as well. He seems to have achieved it to some extent. His paintings are uncluttered and straightforward, with all the direct simplicity and forthrightness of a child. There are no hidden meanings, agendas or interpretations. What you see is what you get.
But with that childlike simplicity and innovative perception, an innovative portrayal and interpretation also sometimes arises.
A fisherwoman shown walking with a disproportionately huge fish on her head symbolizes the huge load that fisherfolk of the artist’s younger days carried on their heads, from the sea to market.
“As a child in Chilaw, I saw some of these people walk miles with these massive loads on their heads as they had no other means of transportation. They also carried water pots balanced on top on each other on their heads on these journeys, as they had no access to fresh water.” A separate portrait in side profile, shows a woman carrying those water pots.
Though he paints landscapes and still life as well, he says his main fascination is with the human figure. And so, many of his paintings are portraits – some modeled for, while others are based on the artist’s imagination or remembrances of real people whom he saw and was sufficiently impressed with to recast.
He has been seriously reading up on artists and art work starting from cave paintings right up to modern times but says he is most influenced by the renaissance painters. As such his second solo exhibition (the first was held last year), is titled ‘A Return to Classicism.’
The exhibition will be declared open by the Minister of Cultural Heritage, Dr. Jagath Balasuriya, at 5.30 pm, 25 July at the Alliance Francaise de Colombo. It will be open to the public from 26 – 30 July. courtesy: Ceylon Today