By Carolina Matos, Editor (*)
Helena Maria Galvão Amaral – “Lena Gal” – has been painting professionally for over twenty five years. The apparent ease of her composition reveals mastery, dedication and nurturing. Her art is eclectic, dynamic and technically skillful.
She likes to explore the borderline between dreams and reality and paints largely from memory and imagination. More interested in the inaccuracies of memory than precision, she has the ability to capture the feminine form with a sense of integrity and harmony.
Born in 1957 on São Miguel, Azores, her art starts with nature and ends with nature using intense earth colors reminiscent of the volcanic Azorean scorched landscape. Her intuitive talent creates women contours, shaped like islands, symbolic of the insular isolation of her birth place.
She also has the instinctive ability to incorporate the human dimension into the universalism of Mother Nature. The almost religious and mystic quality of her creations expresses passion and sensuality; calmness and contemplation.
Lena Gal is a listed artist featured in several magazines, newspapers, and art publications in Portugal and abroad. In 2009, she published an autobiographical book titled Mulheres Terra – Mãe, 20 Anos de Pintura.
Her work is represented in public and private collections and has been exhibited individually and collectively in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Finland, Mexico, Argentina, United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Most recently, the city of Ribeira Grande, on São Miguel, has dedicated a permanent exhibition of her work at Casa Lena Gal [Lena Gal’s Home], a public space dedicated to her life and work.
At a very young age Lena Gal started drawing mostly female faces with charcoal and color. At 21 she moved to Lisbon, mainland Portugal. Her work has been influenced and inspired by the art of Graça Morais and José Guerra. Although she considers herself self-taught, she has attended the Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (National Society of Fine Arts) and Ar.Co Art School.
In this interview for the Portuguese-American Journal, Lena Gal speaks of her Azorean roots, her art and her career as a painter.
Why art? What got you interested in art?
My interest in art comes from my childhood when I felt excited about using color pencils and making clay figurines. I grew up in a small village with very limited resources and a very little exposure to art work. I was limited to just pencils and paper. Yet, growing up, I continued to draw and experimenting. Only when I moved to Lisbon, I had the opportunity to enjoy art work which was very important for my artistic development.
Tell us more about yourself: Where did you grow up? What’s the strongest memory of childhood?
I was born in Fenais da Ajuda, a little village in the municipality of Ribeira Grande, on São Miguel, Azores. My strongest memory is when I accompanied my father to do farm work and I enjoyed playing with dirt. My father taught me about nature and how the land was important for our survival. I played with whatever I could find interesting. I made dolls of clay and drew on the ground with a stick. I also watched the women doing their domestic work and was fascinated by the stories they told.
How long have you been painting and what made you start?
I’ve always been fascinated by painting. After I moved to mainland Portugal, I was inspired by visiting painting exhibitions. I felt the huge urge to start painting which I did when I was 30. Since then, I decided to dedicate myself to painting as a profession.
You have said that you are self-taught. Do you ever regret not getting formal training?
I consider myself self-taught because I never completed my art education in the fine arts schools I attended where I also learned engraving and silkscreen. I do not regret it because, although I didn’t graduate, I learned so much either by attending these schools or from other painters and from workshops. Most importantly, I have learned so much working by myself, practicing in my own atelier.
How would you categorize your painting style?
It could be categorized as neofigurative art. My painting style is also called New Figuration, an artistic movement in painting developed in 1960.
I’m very organized with my work and especially picky about the exhibits I participate in. In my studio, I feel very free. I give myself completely to what I do. I enjoy painting alone, in a silent environment. No music. This helps my dialogue with the canvas where I transform images and forms in which I express my restlessness through the process of distorting memories from the unconsciousness. I have no work schedule because the mind needs no schedule to imagine and create.
You seem to enjoy painting the feminine figure. What is it that inspires you to paint what you paint?
My focus in the female form comes from my wanting to integrate women in the social context. It also has to do with the emergence of the Feminine, both in men and women, within the universality of mankind. Women become archetypes of the Great Mother Nature in my paintings, representing the emotional feminine element, the right and left hemispheres of human harmony.
What are your favorite colors?
Earth colors, ocher, brown, blue, red and yellow.
Where do you gather most of the inspiration for your work?
I get my inspiration from pictures, photos, dreams and memories, and women I meet including all these women who were part of my life such as a mother, a sister, a daughter, a granddaughter or a friend.
To what extent has your Azorean upbringing influenced your painting?
Growing up in the Azores has had a strong influence in me and in the art I create. I was strongly affected by the isolation and the solitude one feels living on a remote island. The sea storms, the sudden changes in weather, the rain, the mist, the fog and the telluric element. I remember vividly how terrifying an occasional earthshaking was. I retained all those local earth colors and that eye-piercing light. I also remember looking out to sea and wondering what was beyond the horizon. I felt nostalgic for the world I couldn’t see. So, I had to imagine it and long for it, dreaming with the day I would leave. Not knowing when and where to go, my eyes would search the horizon in angst. I still feel that restlessness.
Do you have a favorite artist? What draws you to that person’s work?
I have many favorite artists, but I particularly identify with painter Graça Morais. We have something in common, the same connection to the telluric element, the same energy; going deeply into the nature of our beings and aligning ourselves with Mother Nature. Like her, my identification with art is connected to my innermost being, my feeling of melancholy, anxiety and emotional intuition.
Name an artist you would like to be compared to.
There are two artists I admire for their devotion to the arts and their exciting lives. One day I would like to be compared with them for their determination and courage to be full time artists. They are Paul Gauguin and Artemisia Gentileschi who became professional painters because of their passion for painting. For them, art came first before their personal lives. I can relate very deeply to that…
How has your practice changed over time?
My painting has gone through changes. I did traditional craftsmanship work, using leather as a medium. I did some naïf painting for a while. I enjoyed painting scenery. But, as my painting evolved, I have developed a special interested in representing the feminine form.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m working in two major exhibitions taking place in Lisbon. One is taking place in November and another is planned for 2014. The theme for the first exhibit is “A new look,” where I present 12 canvas jointly with the work of photographer Mário Sousa. The other exhibition will take place in Ponta Delgada, Azores, dedicated to the feminine in José Saramago’s writing. I will present 25 canvas inspired in the work by Brazilian literacy critic, Pedro Fernandes de Oliveira Neto, who has written a book titled O Feminino em Saramago [The Feminine in Saramago]. The cover displays one of my paintings illustrating the construction of the feminine in the prose of Saramago.
What work do you enjoying doing the most?
I enjoy experimenting with new techniques and new materials. I am a figurative painter that likes to experiment with abstract language.
What themes do you pursue?
I choose to work with social and ecological themes which may also include issues of domestic violence, the telluric dimension of life, nature and the universe or lighter subject matters such as music and dance.
What jobs have you done other than being an artist?
Everything I do has to do with art. Beyond my own painting, I teach classes and also provide free painting workshops for groups. I have also participated in several educational activities of artistic expression, and organized exhibitions under the theme of Peace and Art.
Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
I don’t have a lonely life. I participate in social gatherings about the arts and other cultural events and also socialize with friends. Yet, when it comes to painting and creating, I prefer to be by myself.
What do you like and dislike about the art world?
I consider the art world as part of our social and ecological consciousness. In my painting, I try to portrait the connection of women with Nature symbolizing their return to the Feminine.
What are you doing when you are not creating?
When I’m not painting, I enjoy reading, being with friends, meditating, going for walks by the seashore or the countryside. I also enjoy doing volunteer work.
Do you have any other unique talents or hobbies?
I don’t have many hobbies. Besides painting and reading, I enjoy cooking for my friends.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
Throughout my 25 years as a painter, besides the exhibits, my work has been associated with promoting cultural events. I consider of utmost importance the recognition of the Casa Lena Gal by the Ribeira Grande Town Hall (Azores), an art space with 32 of my canvas paintings, and also the publication of the book Mulheres Terra – Mãe, 20 anos de Pintura under the sponsorship of Cascais Town Hall and Art Gallery Project Art for All. My work has been mentioned in various magazines, newspapers and art books, in Portugal and abroad. One of those is a study by Raquel Pinto titled “Semiotic in the painting of Lena Gal: Meeting the myth of the Universal Mother Earth” ( Master’s Degree in Heritage / Museology / Art History – University Azores).
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Lena Gal’s work is represented in Banco Comercial Português; The Whaling Museum, New Bedford (MA/USA); Art Network Ed. (CA/USA) University of South Carolina, Spartansburg, USA; Clínica Medmulher – Medicina da Mulher Lda, Lisbon,Portugal; Casa Lena Gal in Ribeira Grande, São Miguel, Azores; Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Funchal, Madeira; Centro Cultural Casapiano, Lisbon,Portugal; She is listed in the Enciclopédia of Living Artist ArtNetwork (CA/ USA); Who’s Who in the World Marquis Who’s Who (NJ/ USA); Book /Catalog Arte Axuda Galicia, Edita Marea Branca; Painting “Guardiãs do Graal” in “Livro de Cavalaria”; Manuel de Sousa “Pintura Contemporânea Portuguesa 100 pintores” Publisher Oro Faber/ Chancela; Book cover ilustration “ Retratos para a construção do Feminino na prosa de José Saramago”, Pedro Fernandes de Oliveira Neto – Brazil; CD front / back cover for “The Crow New Band Muse” CD of Nuno Flores.
(*)Carolina Matos, is the founder and editor of the Portuguese American Journal online. She was the Editor–in-Chief for The Portuguese American Journal, in print, from 1985 to 1995. From 1995 to 2010, she was a consultant for Lisbon based Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD). She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts and a Master’s Degree in English and Education from Brown University and holds a Doctorate in Education from Lesley University. She has been an adjunct professor at Lesley University where she has taught undergraduate and graduate courses. In 2004, Carolina Matos was honored with the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique presented by Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal.