Artist Turns Trash Into Beauty

Left with few supplies, a young Brazilian artist turns trash into treasure.

AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 17, 2008 -- When Vijai Patchineelam was an undergraduate student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, some of the art he and his friends made looked like vandalism to others.

As fine arts students, they had to create art. His university offered them a warehouse-style studio, which was the size of three basketball courts, but it didn't offer paint, canvas or brushes.

"The situation was really bad. The studio building itself was falling apart, the ceiling was falling off, and sometimes we didn't even have water available," he said. "I was a student and didn't have money to buy the material I needed." So the group was forced to innovate and work with what it had.

"We just had this huge space and trash, like old chairs, old pianos and old easels." Patchineelam carried out most of the work he has completed so far in that studio, also known as "Pamplonao." He used the pianos. He used the chairs. He and his friends did paintings on the walls.

"Everything was trash already, so I don't think it was destruction of public property." Most of his professors did not agree with that.

"But we were trying something new. We were bending, not breaking, the rules," he said. "I don't understand how come we're in a painting school and people feel that painting is dirt and destroying property."

'Very Powerful' Images

Just a year after graduating with a degree in industrial design, the 24-year-old Brazilian artist won the Ibere Camargo grant, which gave him the opportunity to spend two months in Austin on an artist-in-residency program with the University of Texas at Austin Blanton Museum of Art. Ibere Camargo is a Brazilian foundation that supports contemporary artistic production.

The foundation's jury, composed of national and international art experts, selected Vijai's application from a pool of 400 others.

Ursula Davila-Villa, Blanton Museum's curator of Latin American Art, was one of the jurors.

"I was amazed at how he developed different works in the process of finishing his undergraduate program. The images he conveyed were very powerful," she said.

Patchineelam uses photographs to document his work.

In his Frame Series from 2005, Patchineelam did paintings using a white concrete stage and a black wooden frame. He also used different objects, such as chairs and pieces of PVC pipe, instead of paint. The artist placed the frame on the white stage so that it looked like a framed canvas.

"Between the stage and the frame, I threw objects," he explained. He used a tripod and a digital still camera in order to shoot the objects in motion. The result: "Since the camera shutter speed is a little bit slow, you get this blur effect. So I'm trying to paint with these objects ... I'm not painting per se, but it's still painting," he said.

"When an artist manages to depict movement in a still photograph, that's really when it becomes interesting, it becomes a representation," Davila-Villa said.

Finding Studio Space

Patchineelam arrived in Austin in October. The young artist spent his residency working in a movable studio -- a pod that was placed on the parking lot of the Creative Research Lab, which is the department of art and art history's site for contemporary art and design.

Jade Walker, director of the CRL, said the Blanton program doesn't offer a studio space, and the CRL doesn't have a space to offer, so the alternative was to provide him with the outdoor pod.

"It was really important that he had a studio space because all his work is based on that," she said.

In this sense, everyone could have imagined that working in an empty pod would be very challenging for the artist. His small pod doesn't have old chairs, tables or pianos he can work with. Hence, he decided he wanted to do paintings.

"And he's been very consistent on his paintings; he has adapted the space to them," said Davila-Villa. "I'm thinking that, by the end [of his residency], it will be easy to find the connection between his paintings and the space he's in," Walker suggested.

His name reflects his Indian descent. At age 24, he has been everywhere. His resume features a solo show at the Bombay Art Gallery, in India, earlier this year, as well as group shows in La Paz, Bolivia, where he won an important award, and in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Before Austin, he spent a couple of residencies in India.

"Most 24-year-olds haven't gone to residencies, especially abroad," said Walker.

When it comes to cultural influences to his work, Patchineelam said it doesn't have any strong connection with the Brazilian or the Indian cultures he grew up in.

But Julie Nordskog, coordinator of the Brazil Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which co-hosts the artist-in-residency program with the Blanton Museum, believes that Patchineelam's upbringing in Brazil does play an important role in his work.

'There's No Such Thing as Talent'

"He is a Brazilian artist because he comes from a system and a structure that led to his given expression. One of those was the limited resources at his university for the arts, so I definitely think he is a product of his upbringing and environment," she said.

"Resources aren't the solution. Resources do not equal quality or exciting work," said Davila-Villa. "The solution is knowing what you have. Vijai's group of friends was his solution. It became a very collaborative experience, and it's something that we rarely see here [in the U.S.] . It has to do with the context, with lack of resources, which really serves to create very exciting things."

When asked about his talents as a child, a confident Patchineelam said, "There's no such a thing as talent," but perseverance to make things work. He said some people may find it easier to accomplish certain tasks, but that doesn't mean they don't need to work hard. "Take basketball players. Some of them don't jump so high or are not basketball types, but their effort is so big that they are able to succeed."

As for his work philosophy, "I don't sit around the studio and wait for my moment of inspiration -- I just work, work, work and work. You are working, you are testing everything, and you are pushing things and you, you are not really thinking, it's not like [finger snap sounds] 'oh, let's do this.' One thing leads to another and they start developing and evolving and then work may appear. That's why I don't really believe in creativity and talent, it's more of a daily process, so the process leads the ideas instead of the ideas leading the work."

'He Lives By the Moment'

"But I think it takes a talent to use your instincts," says Walker, who is an artist and sculptor herself. "Talent comes from perseverance. Vijai does have the talent to be able to see what's good."

Davila-Villa agrees. "If you find what better suits you as a mode of expression, I think that's your talent. It might not be precisely what you're touching and doing, but when you find your own way of expressing yourself. And that's not an easy thing."

People around him, even those who don't know him well, said he's easygoing, gentle, adaptable, fearless and somewhat shy. Davila-Villa said that, although she hates stereotypes, she has noticed something very Brazilian in him. "He lives by the moment." But he wants to go beyond. "He's looking to climb a ladder, but not through the given channels," she said.

Nonconforming Work

At the same time, Walker feels Patchineelam doesn't want to conform to the norms. He recently gave a talk about his work during the Brazil Week, organized by the Brazil Center. "To hear him say the 'F' word three times during his talk … it shows me that he doesn't feel the pressure of conformity in situations like that. And that's good for his work. And I hope he's able to keep that," she said.

During his teenage years back in Rio de Janeiro, Patchineelam used to play basketball for his city team and, for Davila-Villa, being sports-oriented is not a common trait among artists. "Artists usually drink and smoke a lot," she said, laughing.

If she could define Patchineelam's work and style in one single word, Walker would say "freedom."

"Vijai belongs to a new breed of artists that doesn't say I'm a photographer or I'm a painter. He's all of that. He doesn't limit himself," Walker said.

Davila-Villa is impressed with his work. "It's good work, a work that has a lot of potential," but she emphasized that an artist cannot be "validated" at such a young age. "He needs to work more, his work needs to mature, and residencies are great to provide that space for emerging artists like him."

As for those people who criticized Patchineelam and his friends back in college, they can now see some of the results of their work in Pamplonao. "Everyone is getting some exposure both in and outside Brazil," he said.

"Those limitations and difficulties turned out to be good for me. I complain about the school but I know that the experience I had there was very special. And if it were maybe a different place it wouldn't have necessarily happened."

"Where am I going to be ten years from now?" says Patchineelam, repeating the question posed to him.

"I've been trying to go to grad school in Europe, so I'm pursuing that. But you can't plan too much … In a very extreme situation I'll be starving, and that won't happen because I have college education and I have a family. So I'll be okay. I'll go wherever life takes me. You have to go, experiment, learn some things. Once you do that, you become more confident."