Artists / Gardeners / Painters / Poets / Sculptors / The Sunday Times

Laki Senanayake: Laki’s owls all flock together

Pic courtesy Dominic Sansoni–three blindmen photography

Laki and his owls: he’s lost track of how many he’s sketched, sculpted and painted into life but the closest you’ll ever come to seeing them in the same place is in a book launched last week. ‘Laki’s Book of Owls’ delivers exactly what the title promises and catalogues an obsession decades in the making. It also demonstrates not just the artist’s wonderful aesthetic, but his mastery of multiple mediums, his understanding of biology and anatomy and his ability to evoke a creature while discarding all but the simplest of outlines – piercing eyes, a hooked beak and from the page, the bird stares back at you.

Laki once put an ad in a paper, offering to buy back his own paintings. So prolific that he’s lost count, he knows only that his work is out there in the world. Looking at this slice of it collected together here appears to give him the greatest pleasure – he says his real hope is to see his entire oeuvre represented in one book. But so varied is his work that photographs and reprints alone cannot hope to do them justice. Take his sculptures for instance – the mesh of wires that seem to have fallen into a shape with outstretched wings; the little owl sculpted of burnished metal that perches on the roof of his home in Diyabubula – they become a part of the landscape he places them in.

Flipping through this book, one could be forgiven for pausing to reconfirm all these works were indeed by the same artist. Laki is the happy victim of a kind of multiple-artist disorder – someone who produces the most incredibly detailed and accurate botanical paintings and then transitions into a fierce water colour of a mythic beast before slipping in to the bright,warped shapes of an abstract. Along the way, he takes another detour, to play with a photograph of a fibre glass boat in the sunshine, and convert it into – what else? – an owl.

Clad in an orange sarong and a t-shirt with a tiny, white flower tucked behind one ear, Laki is in great form as he discusses his book. He has a particularly fine repertoire of grisly and ominous tales about owls, most of which he would have readily believed as a child. Growing up on his family’s estate in Madampe, Laki says he heard the owls cry out at night and was terrified of them. (In his nightmares, an enormous owl stood watch over the outdoor latrine.)When his brother “foolishly” shot an owl, Laki got his first chance to look at one up close and he’s been a little obsessed ever since. As an adult, he can only marvel at the place they claim in the legends and myths of the world – from being known as a harbinger of death and tragedy in Sri Lanka to being hailed as the wisest of birds and the companion of the goddess Athena in ancient Greece.

Today, Laki happily keeps company with a pair of fish owls that roost on his land. Several others are of the inanimate variety, including a series of owls on and in stone. “Most of these pictures, when I started, I didn’t think it was going to be an owl,” says Laki. The pictures would emerge, rising up from his sub-conscious, until he recognised the bird in the image. In a particularly lovely pairing, two owls sit on adjoining pages – one is a sketch, the other a sculpture inspired by it. Laki says most of his sculptures begin with such drawings but that he abandons the pictures almost as soon as they’re done, preferring to sculpt with a free hand. To do it any other way would be boring.

To be bored is anathema to Laki who continues to find the world to be filled with inspiration. He has been dubbed Sri Lanka’s renaissance man more than once, and in his 75th year of life, Laki continues to live up to the title. Aside from his near constant sculpting, painting, drawing and innovating, he is also an architect, an ex-farmer, a batik and screen printer a dyer, a currency designer, a landscape gardener, a book illustrator and an irreverent poet with a gift for rhyme. (The epilogue of this book is one of his poems. It begins with the line: why doesn’t the owl/that “elegant fowl”/howl?)

Though his friends would advise him to do otherwise, Laki is impatient with appearances and unlikely to cultivate the air of a rarefied artist. Instead he produces work in a cascade, in a flood, sometimes finishing multiple paintings in a day. Whatever the style he’s chosen, Laki works quickly and fluidly – he holds that it is the only way to draw well. “People think these are painfully and carefully drawn, on the contrary they’re drawn extremely fast.” Even the most detailed pieces demand this approach – “if you try to draw these carefully, the line loses its strength, its zing.”

It’s clear Laki paints straight from the gut but the subject leads us from his work and onto one that he would much rather talk about. “I wish journalists would ask me why more people don’t paint and draw,” he says wistfully. He’s certain that everyone can and should draw…but while that may or may not be true, we can only be pleased that Laki Senanayake chooses to do so. ‘Laki’s Book of Owls’ is priced at Rs.2250 and is available at Barefoot.

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 15 December, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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