Pictures worth a thousand words in conversation with Dillai Joseph Rodrigo

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By Shehara Rizly

Our cover personality this month hails from a family of academic and musically inclined individuals, who revolutionized the Sri Lankan music arena with their family performance of the Winslow six. The talent we share is different as you can gather from the headlines.


In our fast paced life, we do not have the time to reflect on the beauty of various people, places and simple happenings around us. Dillai Joseph Rodrigo is a talented artist and Creative Director who has been in the advertising sector for quite a long period of time. She has a keen eye that makes her go into every little detail about various people and their surroundings. She is preparing for her solo art exhibition titled “People, Puddles and Paradise” which will be held from 23rd to 25th October 2015 at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery.

Her works of art

If you carefully observe her works of art, it will truly speak volumes of every detail she has captured. There is a painting where a young man is sitting on a few boxes which says “handle with care”; I was quite curious to ask her the reason; “I wanted to show that his life is just as fragile as the box he is sitting on. There is no foreseeable future which can put him in a better situation.” There were a few other paintings that captured my attention and they were the “lottery outlet, Muslim man selling caps, oil spill, bus scene and the woman who looks sad and lost.” The lottery outlet depicts the notion which many people prefer, to get rich in an instant, whereas the Muslim man selling the caps seems as if he is refusing to be disturbed. The oil spill has the perfect blend of colours that we can witness when oil actually spills on the tar road in the busy streets of Colombo – captured in Pettah on one of her many trips, a favourite hunting ground for many of her images. The bus scene is painted in three different frames which shows the different types of people who commute and the girl holding the phone taking an actual picture of the painter. The lady looking lost with her handkerchief reminds you of a person who may have lost her love and is uncertain about her future.

“I believe that there is beauty in everything I see. Everything I encounter, which is truly Sri Lankan; the various people in Pettah, puddles, beggars on the street, people in a bus, the imperfect human body; all these excite me. Even the dirt, rust, imperfection; they all have a hidden beauty which I have tried to  portray in my paintings. Nothing thrills me more than combining colours with textures, the mundane with the exotic, light with shadow, water colours with oil colours. I consider every single painting to be a new adventure as every concept is filled with potential for yet another new discovery.”

Family Background

She is married to a banker Dilshan Rodrigo with two children aged nine and six, Avin and Anya. Her parents are both doctors and her sister has followed the footsteps of the musical line whilst Dillai followed her grandfather on the path of art. A past pupil of Holy Family Convent Colombo 4, she is the daughter of Dr. Christy and Dr. Manela Joseph.
“My mom was into music from the time she was a kid and had her own band called the Winslow Six and my father had great taste in music which helped us to develop our own taste. We, as a family were very musical and my sister and I used to sing along with our mother at many concerts. Later on, my sister Dillain developed her musical side to a different level whilst I pursued art. My grandfather Basil Fernando and the I used to paint together and he influenced me to appreciate art at a very tender age. I chose advertising as my career but kept enhancing my painting skills studying under Nadine David, who was a disciple of internationally renowned Sri Lankan artist David Paynter, a pioneer creator of a Sri Lankan idiom in what was essentially a western art form with celebrated works of the famous murals at the Trinity College Chapel in Kandy and the Chapel of the Transfiguration at St.Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia.”


School time favourites

At Holy Family Convent, my school days were spent either involved in music or art while doing my studies. It is a very enriching experience to appreciate all those people and surroundings beside me and to be able to put it on canvas. As I said, it was my grandfather who discovered my skills in art which was thereafter developed and inspired by Nadine David. She taught me the way to appreciate the subtleties, the great masters, the human form and more than anything to appreciate what is around me, to see beauty in the least expected places. I studied fine art with Nadine David for years and held two exhibitions previously at the Harold Peiris Gallery.


Meeting of two worlds

I met my husband when we both took part in a singing competition which later on led to a relationship and ended with us tying the knot together in marriage. Although we are in two completely different fields, he appreciates music and art therefore encourages me every step of the way. I could say that he is my greatest critic as well as the pillar of strength. I can see my daughter having the love for music as she keeps singing at every conceivable moment whereas my son is just crazy about dinosaurs.



Chosen career path

My career is in advertising and I studied communication design at ACBT and thereafter CIM. I went into advertising as a creative intern and went onto further my career as a creative director. I started off at Grey Worldwide and then to Minds FCB and my last destination was Words Advertising headed by Rohan Rajaratnam, who was the most supportive boss I ever had. If I didn’t have that support to balance work and personal life I would not have had the opportunity to continue my career.  Now I have my own venture called ‘The Next Big Think’, co- founded with Megan Nithyananthan. We work with a niche clientele specializing in conceptual design and communication.

Paintings worth a thousand words

As for my art, I can say I have a classical touch to what I do. I love the human form, their faces and all the imperfections. I love the dirt, the puddles, the rust. Love the people in Pettah. Love the moss that forms on a tree. My fascination for life drawing has always been the fuel for my paintings. I connect to the world with all the characters I paint. Almost every painting has a story for me to share.

I paint in the early hours of the morning. Some days  3 am and most days at 4 am where I find peace. It’s difficult to paint when you are constantly bombarded with regular life and its demands. To me this time is my time to escape to my world.  I do my research on my subjects during day time, while doing the rest of my day’s work and think about my composition. I also like to research on how the old masters have played with light, strokes and colour. It helps me in what I do when I come to a standstill or a creative block as people say.


Challenges in life

Balance has always been my challenge. The more areas of interests you have the more challenging it is. As a woman I am constantly trying to be a good mother, have a great career while following my heart. Especially when you are painting you get carried away and you want to get carried away. But knowing in the back of your mind the million things that need to be attended to is what keeps you tied. I guess that is inevitable. This is also a reason why I paint in the morning, when everyone is asleep and time becomes mine. I also feel the best of me is in the morning. My mind is fresh, positive and peaceful.

The exhibition

Although I am having this exhibition this year I have been preparing my work for it over the last two years. I was part of two joint exhibitions in the past at the Harold Peiris Gallery. I took a break from art for a while after my kids were born. Now I’m ready to hold my next exhibition since they are slightly bigger, having put in years of hard work into my latest collection. My work now has taken the shape of classical technique mixed with a contemporary theme. I believe with the art world presently trending back to realism this is a great time to showcase my work. The speed at which I work is slow due to time constraints therefore I did not want to give up on my passion but I have been systematic and relentless to find time so that I will have enough pieces for the exhibition. My exhibition will be on the 23rd, 24th 25th of October at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery and it’s called People, Puddles and Paradise.  In this exhibition I portray people and scenes that have inspired me and are truly Sri Lankan.

Future aspirations

I will keep painting finding new themes and enhance my knowledge. I want to be true to my passion and continue in what I always wanted to do. I also want to find a cause that I can support, for there are many artists who are talented, yet because of financial constraints they are unable to pursue their passion. I want to see how my exhibition with the sale of my paintings can help. And I am in the process of identifying such people who may be in need. I understand the frustration most people face when finances become the stumbling block even when you are immensely talented.


Thoughts from Dillai’s husband

“We come from two different worlds. Dillai epitomizes a true artist at heart. She wakes up every morning at 4am to make time to paint balancing her busy schedule with her work, home and kids. Her gift is to bring out the inner beauty of everything that inspires her. These include every day Sri Lankan people –a Muslim hat seller,  a lottery ticket vendor, a three wheeler driver, a beggar, the human body and facial expressions, oil spills…   She is truly committed to painting and this is epitomized in her random visits to Pettah, extensive research on the old masters ( I rarely see her reading a book outside of art or creativity) and visits to art exhibitions locally and overseas.  She is highly passionate and emotional about her paintings which I believe is her first and enduring love. (I must come second!)”


Few words of inspiration to aspiring artists

Have a burning passion no matter what. Especially as a female artist many start off and with time tend to give up because of marriage, kids etc. Therefore to keep going and finding a method to keep it alive is key. Also as a young artist it’s important to read on the old masters and keep abreast of what is happening in the world and strongly route yourself in the basic principles of theory. To break the rules you need to know them well :)
“Hard work and hunger to paint is all you need. It is important you don’t do it to gain financially. Success is a bi-product. There are no short cuts. Rather you do it for the love of beauty and the subject. The rest should follow seemlessly. May not be the time you want things to happen but it may even be years later that you reap what you sow. As people say it’s the labour of love.”
We wish Dillai success in her future endeavours and hope to see you at her exhibition from 23rd to 25th October at the Lionel Wendt!


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Photographs by Nirmala Dhananjaya  

Hair and make-up by Shanaka of ramani fernando total care borella


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