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Friday, 19 April 2013

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Walking through a path of imaginary words

Artists are legendary party people and so it's best to do this walk early evening when they are in their gallery shops or studios and happy to explain why they used an abandoned rock to paint on with their old tooth brush, or porcupine quill and even in some cases their big toe. The timing is of paramount importance as with these artists, one can never be quite certain as to when they have recklessly abandoned their muse in search of Bacchus and Succubus or when the muse has fecklessly abandoned them to reclusive hermitage in search of solitude and isolation.

Galle Fort's Sithuvili Gallery on 56, Leyn Baan Street is as good a place to start as any. Here you can meet the local artists in the Dutch courtyard of Janaka De Silva's art gallery shop, which you will find at the back after walking through a very colourful elongated building. Janaka is no ordinary artist and from the moment he could draw whether it was with toothpaste or a porcupine quill using inks he made from bits of old tree bark Janaka was always creating work that not only came from the environment, but also reflected his love of it. He thinks artists should look back at the great master painters of the Sigiriya Rock Fortress palace murals. Like King Kashyapa's artists, Janaka prefers to use natural paints from the forest and colours that are not only environmentally friendly, but will also last for centuries.

Like most artists he is a great lover of life and the journey he has taken is reflected back in his work at the Sithuvili Art Gallery, where you will see everything from his religious inspired masterpieces framed on old doorframes and windows to recycled Dutch boxes on sale only for the serious collectors.

Turn left out of Sithuvili onto Pedlar's Street and walk one block to Printers Private Hotel at 39, Pedlars Street, an art piece in its own right with a giant bronze front door key replete with magnificent restoration work done by Channa Daswatte, the great architect Geoffrey Bawa's protégé. A stunning original merchant house made with coral, like all the great houses of the Fort, including the Dutch prisons it has been many things - a bank, school and printing works before it became a boutique hotel and gallery in 2003.

Here there are regular bi-monthly exhibitions of leading artists from around the country, both local and international. You can look around the gallery and enjoy the setting over a coffee or lunch in the courtyard restaurant and pool area. Refreshed one can hit the crossroads of the fort and be part of the hustle of street sellers from wood carvings to lace makers and the vibrancy of Barefoot across the road, whose woven fabrics are always set off by interesting photography exhibitions and a corridor of art. Further along the street is Peddler's Inn gallery with watercolours and photographs of the Fort. The verandah gallery as it has become known is a charming place to see watercolours of the local characters and familiar Fort scenes that capture the real life and spirit of the place.

For something modern, bright and bold head back to Church Street and to Exotic Roots where you will discover a family of female artists, who paint on everything from leather to handmade terracotta tiles to trays and coasters. They also painted the cover of the bestselling book Around the Fort in 80 Lives and have their large acrylic on canvas pieces, sought after by villas all along the coastline on display. Catherine is in situ on Fridays and is always happy to talk about her latest works of passion and what it took to map Galle Fort, the centre piece of her shop. She is very proud of her two daughters Asia and Inca who love to show the beauty of the country's wildlife whether it's the majestic peacock or the elephant.

The power and creativity of Asia is perhaps most poignantly remembered in the fading afternoon light, underneath an ancient banyan tree in Law Court Square when she drew a tree on the Galle Literary Festival graffiti wall and woven along the branches she wrote: 'Colours fade, temples crumble, empires fall but wise words endure.'

Law Court Square is a few minute walk further up the street and where you turn right by the Cinnamon warehouses (now the Maritime museum) into Law Court square, where the Magistrates and High Courts are situated. The place is also famous now for contemporary art with new painters and artisans showing their creative works every month from 8.30am to 5pm on the last Sunday at the Golden Flea Market and in the innovative and bi-monthly Saskia Fernando Gallery collections, which are now exhibited and available to see daily on the top floor at Number One, Law Court Square.

Open Tuesday to Saturday and by appointment on Sunday and Monday, this white washed gallery with a bijou balcony overlooking the square is all about contemporary artists living and working in Sri Lanka and also emerging designers. Exhibition artists have included Saskia Pintelon, Jagath Weerasinghe, Jagath Ravindra, Mika Tennekoon and Kingsley Gunatillake and more recently Saskia has included designer chairs and jewellery, even socks, all locally designed and produced - begging the question what is art?

Wandering back along the other end of Leyn Baan Street you can stop and see Olanda Boutique and Antiques with their designer collection of chairs and original hand carved wooden doors. Every object is a masterpiece in its own right. Finish your tour off at the Serendipity Arts Café and enjoy Australian contemporary artist Nigel Sense's pop art excursions adorning the walls with their provocative statements.

Whether you come out snagging the next Turner prize painting of the next master to make your ardent collector friends back home jealous or just had your curiosity piqued or concluded that what you saw was definitely in its own realm of badness, this is one walk you will never forget as memories and nightmares will collide in that part of the brain that is your imagination. For more on art, read The Power of Sri Lankan Art by Sri Serendipity Publishing Housea, a highly academic coffee table chronicling 70 years of Sri Lankan Art starting with the 43 Group. The Power of Sri Lankan Art can be bought at Barefoot, Odel and all leading bookshops. It can also be purchased from Sri Serendipity Publishing House, who will happily gift wrap the book as well.

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