Friday, February 20, 2009

Art for art’s sake

The Bangalore-based Shirley Mathew is an upcoming artist who excels in abstract and still-life paintings

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Corcoran School of Design, Washington, a few years ago, Shirley Mathew was given an assignment. Along with other students, she had to draw a plump, middle-aged nude Russian model. “I was just not inspired by her face,” she says.

On the other hand, the other artists found her very compelling. Shirley walked around feeling artistically blocked. She thought, ‘I need to do something!’

By the end of half an hour, she had to produce a large work on paper. Then Shirley got excited and did the drawing in the exact manner she had reacted to the model.

When the instructor, William Christenberry, looked at it, he said, “Oh my God!” The reason for the shock: Shirley had drawn the figure only from the neck downwards. “It turned out to be a very powerful drawing,” she says.

Her good performance there also led her to have an opportunity to train at the Escola Llotja in Barcelona, where Pablo Picasso studied in his early years.

“I received training from world class artists like Carmen Miguel and Tom Carr,” she says. “My palette changed completely because of the Mediterranean influence, and I began experimenting with colours.” Later, she also did a short stint at the Garhi Studios of the Lalit Kala Akademi.

Shirley, a Malayali, brought up in Delhi, lives in Bangalore and has established a reputation for abstracts. In her ninth year as a professional painter, she has produced more than 250 paintings and has been involved in several solo and group exhibitions.

Barcelona artist Carmen Miguel says, “Shirley’s work is very impressive. I love her colors, and the brush strokes look very fresh and vibrant. It is probably blessed by the light she enjoys in her surroundings. There is a Cezanne touch to it.”

Lina Vincent, an art critic based in Bangalore, who has been following the painter’s work for several years, says, “Shirley has mastered an individual language of abstraction, with each canvas being an intensified, but simplified version of her experiences. As an artist she is constantly evolving.”

Right now, Shirley is doing paintings on nature as well as on structures like walls and arches. “After all, I grew up in a city,” she says.

She says that she was much inspired when she went to the Dali museum in Figueres, near Barcelona.

“It was mind-blowing,” she says. “He had these optical illusions which were very interesting. You saw an abstract painting from far away. And when you looked through a keyhole, there was (American President) Abraham Lincoln’s face embedded in the canvas.”

She loves abstracts, but readily admits that art lovers prefer realism. “Most people are non-reflective,” she says. “They don’t want to go into the deeper sensibility of what the artist is trying to say. They want to buy paintings which are pleasant and charming.”

Her studio is part of a 100-year-old English home. “So the ambience is very beautiful,” she says. There is a courtyard with fruit trees. It is here that she holds frequent solo shows, where she puts up the whole range of her work: from abstracts to still life. Her aim is to introduce art to those who do not visit galleries.

And she discovered an unusual form of behaviour on the part of visitors. “The husbands always went for abstracts,” she says. “The wives preferred still-life paintings.” Shirley says it is the rare woman who likes abstracts. “It could be that women are practical and down-to-earth people,” she says.

But is she, as an artist, grounded like most women? “I am forced to be,” says Shirley. “Unlike a male artist who can go into the studio and forget about the outside world I have to deal with maids and cooks and look after the house. It is only in the evening that I can concentrate on my painting.”

Shirley was in Kochi recently to spend time with her widowed mother Annie George. Married to a planter, Shirley has a 19-year-old son who is a 3D animator. Apart from painting, during the day Shirley works as a HR manager in a private firm. So, like any woman, she has to play several roles.

“I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a worker, but in the end the question arises, ‘Who am I?’” she says. “You have to go into your inner self to find out. And what I have discovered is that I am, first and foremost, an artist.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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