New Fathima Street in Ponmalai, Tiruchi, and maybe, Sweden and Australia. These are the places to find the art of Eugene d’Vaz, a former professor of English who has redrawn his retirement profile as an artist and poet, transitioning from copyist to creator in a slow yet steady manner.
“When someone paints something and shows it you, you should be able to see it as design, rather than something that should have a ‘meaning.’ That’s probably why many people don’t appreciate abstract art,” says Eugene, laughingly sharing some of the back-handed compliments that his own work has met from the general public.
Still settling down in his new residence when we meet him, the septuagenarian has decorated the living room and study with some of his paintings, and wonders whether he’d ever be able to fit in the innumerable canvases stacked up in his old studio-cum-house.
“The interior decor of Indian homes rarely has space for original artwork,” says Eugene. “I have a few friends in Australia who buy my paintings when they come down for Christmas. My real gallery is their home in Sydney.”
Similarly, visitors from Sweden once saw his artwork in a friend’s house down the street and came over to chat to Eugene and buy some paintings to take back with them.
Eugene’s drawing skills were among the reasons for his popularity in school, he says, especially during inspection days, when classrooms were expected to be filled with charts based on the lessons. “I used to be in great demand among teachers, and once I had to copy out a whole bunch of pictures of birds’ heads ahead of inspection,” he says. “My childhood years were the most wonderful part of my life as my craft got connected to my emotions at that age, which doesn’t happen anymore.”
At home, the young Eugene was encouraged by his mother to draw pictures with devotional themes. He combined this with his own passion for painting replicas of wintry Christmas scenes from greeting cards. “My relatives were my first fans, always encouraging and praising my work,” he recalls.
But he would have remained a dedicated copyist had it not been for the encouragement of a professor at St Joseph’s College called L C Richard, who asked him to try creating something original for a change. “I had started working at the college in the 1970s. Professor Richard loved art, but couldn’t draw. He used to see me copying out pictures, and said, ‘Paint something of your own, and don’t worry about how it looks.’ So I splashed some colours on and tried drawing from my imagination. He was very appreciative of the result,” recalls Eugene.
Eye on the abstract
Since then, he has taught himself to move away from representational art and set his sights on the abstract. “Art should always be one up on the camera. You don’t need to have a copy of what you see in Nature. You may mix it up and present it in your own way,” says Eugene, though he stresses that it is important for artists to love Nature. “Leonardo Da Vinci advises artists to observe clouds in the sky and moss-stained walls to draw true inspiration from the environment around us,” he adds.
These days his free-wheeling online searches have introduced him to the work of Brazilian artist Beatrice Milhazes, who is known for her decorative abstract paintings.
A painting by Eugene D’Vaz. Photo: M. Moorthy/THE HINDU
Diligent learner that he is, Eugene has produced quite a few of his own interpretations of this type of graphic design, in acrylic colours that pop out at the viewer. Resembling ornate rangoli patterns in their precision, they owe quite a lot to Eugene’s love for mathematics (he did his undergraduate degree in the subject, and opted to study English Literature for his Masters). “Geometric uniformity is emotionally satisfying,” he says. “As a cross-disciplinary student, Mathematics gave me the eye for design, while Literature gave me the spirit. Though the act of painting is emotionally satisfying, the artist must be careful not to overdo it. Once the artist experiences epiphany, he must stop working on the piece.”
Which brings us to his poetry, that he continues to write, despite the many rejection letters from publishers. “Just because they won’t print my work, doesn’t mean that I have stopped writing,” he says.
In 2005, after 30 years of effort, Eugene released a CD of illustrations to accompany 103 verses of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. “Printing the book in colour would have been too expensive, so I have recently brought out a black-and-white version as a study aid for college students,” he says.
The Writer’s Workshop, Kolkatta, published his first book of poems as Fire Rose. Eugene’s writings (poems and short stories) have featured in Indian English Literature journals and magazines. The anthology Rhythm of the Falling Rain records his verses on a wide range of topics.
Recently, a collection of his black ink drawings was compiled in an anthology titled The Journey Continues by a Coimbatore-based publisher.
The exodus of fellow members of his Anglo-Indian community from Tiruchi tends to sadden him, but Eugene D’Vaz is not one who feels blue for too long. “I enjoy the little notes of appreciation that come my way through Facebook from people who see my work online. That’s enough for me,” he smiles.