Interview by Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor (*)
With family roots in Algarve, mainland Portugal, Michel De Brito was born in 1980 in New Jersey and educated at Parsons School of Design and the New York Academy of Art.
The magic of his work lies in his ability to make connections to the old country and to family, as well as connections to the present day. His subjects are family members, grandparents and cousins pictured in intimate gatherings in the kitchen or backyard–many of which involve food, the heart and soul of any gathering.
A brochure from a 2011 Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in New York claims: “The vibrancy in Michael De Brito’s brushwork enlivens each small detail until our senses can almost feel the warmth of the room or smell the stew simmering on the stove.”
His most recent exhibits include shows at Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries (NY), Affero Gallery in Newark, and The Ex-Photo Show at Praxedis Guerrero (NY).
His paintings have been featured at The University of Maine Museum of Art, Arbermarle Gallery in London, ARCOmadrid (Spain), Galeria Graça Brandão in Lisbon (Portugal), and The National Portrait Gallery in London (UK).
De Brito is the recipient of many awards, including grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and a National Portrait Gallery BP award. His work is in permanent collections at Tribunal Constitucional, Lisbon (Portugal) and the Nevada Museum of Art (John and Mary Lou Paxton Collection).
Currently, he teaches in New Jersey at One River School of Art and Design, and The Arts Guild in Rahway. In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Michael de Brito speaks of how his Portuguese heritage, his family, and the people on his life are connected to his art.
Your series “Larger than Life” features a painting called “Woman with Chouriços II.” How does your Portuguese heritage manifest in your art practice?
The people in my life make up the majority of my subjects in my work. I find my personal connection to these subjects to be the most truthful way to connect with viewers.
Can you give me an example of one or two subjects and who they are, how you painted them?
In “Kitchen Table,” the painting is based around a family friend who is from Portugal. Here she sits wearing all black after the death of her husband. I wanted to capture the quietness of the moment of her thinking to herself at the table.
In “Lunch,” the painting depicts my father and grandmother eating together. Here we have one figure focused on her meal while the other is peering into the distance. The piece it small 5x 7 in which gets the viewer up close and personal with this painting.
Can you discuss your Portuguese heritage? Your family is from the Algarve, right?
Both of my parents were born in the Algarve and have always instilled the importance of our Portuguese heritage. In my work I am in pursuit of what it means to be Portuguese. Using it as an inspiration is in some ways is my link to my culture.
What does your family think of being immortalized in your art?
Over time, they have grown to just be natural when I am around them painting or doing drawings. Now it is more a natural occurrence that when I am there the paints or sketchbook come out.
As a visual artist, do you think the light is different in the US than in Portugal? How does where you are affect your painting color pallet?
I find the blue skies especially in the south of Portugal to be truly mesmerizing. In both “Women on Faro Beach” and “Men on Faro Beach” my goal was to capture the intensity of the blue in those skies.
Your 2009 paintings feature families in the kitchen, at parties, in the backyard. Are your models family members?
I am connected to all of my models in some form whether through family or friendship. That connection is very important in my work.
You do not trace images on a screen, what are some of the art techniques you do employ?
I begin with multiple preparatory drawings to work out the composition. Once I feel I have a balanced piece, I begin drawing my sketch onto the canvas. When the drawing is complete, I begin with blocking in planes. I usually start with the figure first in most pieces.
Like the Dutch painter Vermeer, you have said you paint every-day life, and also (at times) diminutive pieces. How did you decide to paint this size?
When planning for a show, my goal is to have the viewers interact with each piece differently. The larger paintings are experienced from a distance where the smaller paintings need to be experienced close up and more intimately.
Did your parents pass along any Portuguese stories or ethics or culture?
In many ways my parents are very Americanized but are still very deeply connected to Portugal. For my parents both Family and culture have always been very important.
What’s a favorite Portuguese moment growing up? A Festa? Or parade?
Lunch with my family has always been some of my most memorable moments growing up.
What items would be found at a favorite lunch?
Stainless steel pot, checkered cloth, cork trivet, bottles of home-made wine.
Can you name a couple of foods?
Cozido à Portuguesa, homemade chouriço, homemade wine
Where the lunch might take place?
In my family’s basement kitchen.
What painters do you enjoy looking at?
Edouard Manet, Diego Velazquez, John Singer Sargent, Edgar Degas.
I am most interested in your series paintings dealing with everyday life. How did this series (folks at dinner, preparing food, baking bread) begin?
I was in search of a subject that represented who I was as an artist and as a person. I kept coming back to this moment of my grandparents at the table just before my grandfather passed away. I felt it was my way of trying to hold on to that moment and relive it in a way through painting.
Have you exhibited in Portuguese communities? In Portugal?
Yes, I had a show in 2011 at Galeria Graça Brandão in Lisbon, in 2008 at the Museu da Presidência da República, in Viana do Castelo, and in 2009 at the Museu da Electricidade in Lisbon. My family in Portugal was able to go to see my work in person. It was a very defining moment for me because my family in Portugal had never seen my work in person.
What project are you working on?
Right now I’m beginning a group of paintings of women that combine traditional pictorial configurations and their expressive values with contemporary reality. I’m exploring contemporary subjects using variety of techniques originating from Dutch, Spanish and English art.
Any upcoming shows?
I will part of an upcoming show at Galeria Graça Brandão in Lisbon Portugal which opened May 21st 2016
(*) Millicent Borges Accardi is a contributor to the Portuguese American Journal. She is a Portuguese-American poet, the author of three books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge (chapbook), Practical Love Poems and Only More So (forthcoming). She has received fellowships from CantoMundo, the National Endowment for the Arts, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD) and California Arts Council. Recently, she taught poetry at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk; University of Texas, Austin; The Gathering at Keystone College; Nimrod Conference in Tulsa, and the Mass.Poetry Festival. Millicent lives in Topanga, CA. Follow her on Twitter @TopangaHippie