FERNANDA MERLINO PENNINGTON
‘THE SMELL OF PAINT’
BY FERNANDA MERLINO PENNINGTON
Dedicated to the memory of Moy Keightley, my unforgettable mentor at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, 1998.
The mysteries I like… I like their… their illogicality… their burning illogicality: the flame… the flame which consumes all our filthy logic”(…)
- Samuel Beckett, Conversations with Charles Juliet.
If my art could speak a verbal language, it would happily quote Samuel Beckett in Conversations with Charles Juliet. The iconography in my work comes from a lifetime of personal and cultural experiences, not always logical or linear.
As a young lady in 1998, I resented the limiting, exhausting and excessive role of the logic in everyday objects in still-life images. I have always imagined constructing an image, but then deconstructing it afterwards, as this process seems a lot more interesting and original to me. It was my first encounter with art and first time in England then, so coming from Brazil and from a different culture, I had a huge urge to perceive all my ideas, imagination and dreams through my drawings. I had been studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design at the time, and my work was influenced in the early 1960s by the New York school of abstract expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman and Robert Motherwell. What drew to me to this work was its sense of improvisation, high energy, spontaneity and an emphasis on the painting process. I drew like I was painting at the time, so that I could embrace thick expression using charcoal and oil pastel crayons that I used to buy at a shop in Covent Garden.
One of my favourite lessons at Central Martins was Life Drawing, as I could embrace the feminine with its conflicts and complexity. I enjoyed applying contrast with my black and white charcoal, enhancing curves and mystery. Again I went beyond the subject matter body, recreating its meaning, building narratives and telling stories; in fact I was the main character in these stories. The feminine matter became myself, with hopes and fears of living in England as a foreigner, becoming a new artist in England when I had graduated in Journalism in Brazil, my love for art and England, etc. They were all exciting but contradictory feelings, as it was all really scary at the same time. These bittersweet emotions were part of my discovery process in England and all translated in my drawings, so my art almost turned into my graphic diary. I did not need words, only my drawings. I was really inspired by The Diary of Frida Kahlo at the time.
When the course was over, I sadly left Saint Martins and a fantastic teacher and practising artist, Moy Keightley, my tutor and mentor, the one who motivated me to pursue my career as an artist instead of a journalist. However, studying and learning so much from her made me want to write a book called ‘The Smell of Paint’, but unfortunately I have never had the chance to begin it. Just like me, Moy felt that ideas and experiences were better perceived through drawings and paintings rather than spoken or written, as one would if one was a journalist for instance. I believe that artists have an ‘inner eye’, a tool that enables us to embrace and express what we see and feel deep inside. When I left Saint Martins to do my BTEC in Foundation Studies at Kensington and Chelsea College of Art and Design, Moy wrote me a letter that read: ‘Fernanda has been attending a Dali course this term, apart from this, she has also shown her strong initiative to continue with her work at home – in her own time. She is particularly single-minded and her drawings demonstrate a very personal repertoire of dynamic ideas – inventive and powerfully imaginative. As a student she is determined to succeed. I feel she thoroughly deserves a place on a Fine Art course where this potential can be fully realised and I commend her to your sympathetic attention. Moy Keightley, Tutor, Central Saint Martins, 27 June 1998.
I started my Foundation at Kensington and Chelsea College in 1999 and it was completely different to my magical experience at Central Saint Martins. Simon Betts was also a practising artist, but a lot tougher as a teacher in comparison to Moy. It was hard at the beginning, especially when I called Saint Martins once to speak to Moy and tell her all the news and found out she had passed away. I was silent on the phone and broke into tears.
Simon used to say that I should aim to find a balance between my contrasting emotions and my logical side within my work. By the end of the course he told me I had achieved my ‘goal’, but I am unsure whether I have ever found that balance! One thing was certain though, my work looked a lot different. I started painting at the time, but because I did not want to express my personal ideas and feelings to a level I would feel ‘exposed’ as I naturally and spontaneously did at Saint Martins, I did become more abstract as an artist. I suppose there were less figurative elements in my acrylic paintings, so I remember having a group exhibition with the other students at the college when the course finished and people were trying to figure out what I had tried to express. Only I knew it was all about cells, organs, the inside and the organic aspects of the body, yet not in a biological way, but emotional and poetic. My paintings looked huge on those exhibition walls, so the public could see vibrant, energetic and a full variety of paintings depicting texture in visceral paintings. All that work involved a consistent amount of research, including my own idea of breaking eggs, adding paint to their yolk, taking pictures of the unpredictable outcomes afterwards to represent cells and also creating uncountable sketchbooks containing photos, poetry and own drawings of cells. I was influenced by Helen Chadwick, Lucien Freud, the Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum (I love her work), Kiki Smith, the Brazilian artist Adriana Varejão and Terry Winters.
After the course I took part at the Notting Hill Arts Club in 1999, which enabled me to have two private views in the same evening of the festival, which was a success. I exhibited my work during the Notting Hill gallery trail, so I spread my drawing and paintings out in two different gallery-cafes at the time, attracting a lot of people around London and the country.
In January 2000 I travelled to São Paulo, Brazil, for my biggest solo exhibition, titled Visceral. I brought all my drawings and paintings home and exhibited them all at ‘Nanquim’ (Ink) Gallery. It was a fantastic opportunity to display in my home town the hard work I had done in England for so many years of passion and dedication, sharing my skills, ideas, experience and success I have had in London. That success was shared with art curators and directors, art dealers and owners of prestigious art collections. My sister Tatiana Merlino, a renowned journalist in Brazil was the one responsible for all the press release of the show, promoting and advertising the event.
The Nanquim exhibition was such a success that it was like a powerful tool for my own inspiration; in June 2000 I was actually solo exhibiting again in São Paulo. The venue was a public historic farm called ‘Casa da Fazenda’ (Farm House), a beautiful setup within a green environment in the middle of São Paulo. At the time I had started taking photographs of trees and comparing them to the human body. I painted some pictures from my photos; others I simply added or recreated its shapes, textures and colours, whereas with some pictures I only used as a source of inspiration and did not actually produce a painting from them. I found some curves and expressions on trees extremely similar to the human body, especially when looking closely at some women’s figures. It was incredible to realise that some trees expressed movement, as well as the human body. I then started a green body/tree series, so because the oil paintings were abstract, it was not always obvious whether the pictures represented trees or bodies – or both combined! The title of the show was Arborescent and created by my father, Adalberto Dias de Almeida, a very creative and supportive dad who passed away four years later after the show. ‘Arborescência’ (in Portuguese) was the perfect title for the exhibition, representing abundance, blossoming, treelike, to grow to be a tree, flowers, butterflies and all the living organisms emerging from the magical natural environment.
I was then back in England in September 2000 to start my BA at Chelsea College of Art and Design. It was five years of intensive theory and practice. My work changed again at the time, so my oil paintings became a bit darker, possibly because I was slightly homesick. I started questioning where home was, so that had an impact on my work. The colours were darker and the textures denser; I also started looking at the work of Tacita Dean and admiring her enigmatic themes of placement versus misplacement, disappearance, isolation, death, loneliness, presence versus absence, distant lands/islands/seas, maps, geographical issues, lack of communication and obscure worlds. The paintings ‘Disappearence of the Sea’ and ‘Bleeding World’ depict these ideas. I was also a member of the Tate Modern at the time, so I never missed a show there. The White Cube in Hoxton Square was – and still is – one of my favourite galleries too, so after seeing the amazing work of Anselm Kiefer at the exhibition ‘The Sea’ at the White Cube in 2005 I was massively impressed and influenced by his fabulous work.
During my degree at Chelsea the other students and I organised an exhibition titled ‘Brightlights’ at The Menier Gallery, situated in Southwark, within the historic Menier Chocolate Factory and located at the heart of one of London’s artistic hubs. It was an extremely valuable experience to share the space, gathering and promoting all our work as artists from Chelsea College. I exhibited about four pieces, all based on body, skin and internals. The work consisted of large oil paintings, displayed on the wide walls of the gallery.
I graduated at Chelsea College in 2005 and hired a London bus with the other graduates for our final exhibition. The bus was the actual show venue, so the aim was to produce and design work that was suitable for the actual bus. My work was a textiles piece, depicting a pillow with a poem I wrote with a black sharpie in the actual cushion about life as a journey. The function of the pillow was resting people’s heads when sitting on the bus during the journey, or offering shelter and comfort during the journey of one’s life when interpreting it metaphorically.
Whilst doing all my studying, I had also been teaching Art and Design. However, after I graduated at Chelsea I felt I needed the official qualification of a PGCE to become a fully qualified teacher in England. I then went to Goldsmiths College in 2007, so I completed the course in 2008. During my PGCE I also had an exhibition at Goldsmiths College, where I exhibited new oil paintings and also a film installation I had made, featuring myself as the main character of the film.
Since finishing my PGCE I have carried on painting, teaching and taking part in exhibitions. I had a wonderful group exhibition called ‘Somos Todos Vulneráveis’ (We Are All Vulnerable) in August 2014 with some Brazilian and Irish artists, including Elizabeth Cope, who also painted my portrait in May 2014. The show was at Shankill Castle during the prestigious Kilkenny Arts Festival in Ireland, including painting, poetry, film, sculpture and installation at the castle, garden and stable yard. We all counted with the presence of the Brazilian Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Afonso Cardoso for the private view.
I have had people in my life I will never forget, such as Moy Keightley, my first Art teacher as an adult, mentor and friend. If my path had not crossed Moy’s one I would not be a painter today. My father was always so supportive of my art work as well that even when he was poorly and knew he would not make it, he still made sure that I promised him I would come back to England to finish my degree and become a successful painter.
I also have people in my life who make me want to live and paint everyday. One is my mother, Regina Maria Merlino Dias de Almeida, also a painter, so it is in the blood! The other one is my best friend and husband Richard Pennington, who makes me smile every day. Richard and I have created our own business to promote my paintings and Art lessons. It is called Merlino Arts & Languages, so it is a fusion and combination of my paintings to inspire the public where my work is also for sale; it is also a business that offers private or group lessons of Art, Portuguese or English. Merlino Arts & Languages is international, so if I am in England or globetrotting I will obviously provide Art and Portuguese lessons, whereas if I am in Brazil I will obviously offer Art and English tuitions.
Painting is my life, a unique experience; it is part of me, my history and who I am now. I paint what I feel and how I feel, as an instinct. Feelings are not always logical, so I try to express what the unconscious tries to hide at times. As my personal history and different cultures overlapping in my life’s foundation, my work keeps changing. I would say I am experimenting with different media again, so I squeeze so many layers of paint in my palette that it gets everywhere in the house and on me! However, each layer I paint on canvas builds a new story and begins another chapter of my life as an artist. I love the smell of paint and always will…