Stroke of Genius: Sri Lankan student grows into prolific artist

Editor’s note: This article was revised for accuracy at 5:58 p.m. Feb. 24.

In a sun-bright studio, surrounded by paintings saturated in vibrant colors, a lone artist stoops to pour acrylic paint into opaque blobs on a white canvas. Hours later, when the acrylic has dried, he dips his brush into oil paint and whooshes it across a canvas – the first abstract forms of an interpretive figure.

The process is a messy one, DJ Perera explained as his wide eyes, held inches away from the canvas, followed the brush as it traced a green line across the artwork.

“Even the studio floor itself is a work of art,” he said.

Perera’s colorful paint speckled the floor, ran off canvasses where he’d poured too much, coalesced and amalgamated into a collage of its own – a work of art indeed. But the method, messy or otherwise, was the point of it all, he said.

“It’s not the subject matter; it’s the process,” Perera said. “It’s getting as much out of the paint as you can.”

Perera, a senior studio art major, left his friends and family in his homeland of Qatar four years ago when he was admitted to the university and has plunged not only into the culture of Texas, but also into his dream of being an artist.

Although born and raised in Qatar, a country in the Middle East, Perera is a citizen of Sri Lanka because he is a Christian and is considered an expatriate in the Middle East.

Perera’s parents moved to Qatar from Sri Lanka before he was born for better work opportunities.

“I’m not permitted citizenship in Qatar because, primarily, I’m not a Muslim and furthermore, my parents, being expatriates, cannot by law acquire the same civil rights as an Arab citizen,” he said.

In many countries of the Middle East- Qatar included – the law of the state requires citizens be of the Islamic faith to gain citizenship, Perera said.

“In the Middle Eastern culture, you don’t have to sit for an exam to gain citizenship,” he said. “It’s not that institutionalized. You have to be of the faith to be accepted.”

Perera seldom returned to Qatar since arriving at the university and has continually busied himself with a regimented painting schedule.

“There’s no off day,” he said. “I didn’t go home for Christmas. I didn’t go home for New Year’s. I told my parents I needed to stay over the summer to paint. I’m always painting.”

Perera’s meticulous mentality shows. His studio on the second floor of the J.M. Moudy Building, one of two that are reserved for the most promising and prolific undergraduate painters, brims with dozens of bright, abstract paintings, some of which Perera sells for as much as $500.

“As the years have gone by, I have gotten better as an artist, and as a student that’s good,” he said. “If you’re able to attract that type of money from students, that’s a step forward.”

Mariana Davies, an alumna who has three of Perera’s pieces, said she has enjoyed his work since his freshman year.

“I love the way that he was able to use all the different colors and blend them so intricately,” she said.

Jim Woodson, one of Perera’s painting professors, said he has watched Perera progress into a talented painter over the years.

“It always seemed like DJ had a kind of direction,” Woodson said. “And that direction got more and more refined.”

Perera has gradually come to accept the process of making a painting – pouring the paint, working with the brushes, allowing the shapes and blobs to form on the canvas – rather than paying as much attention to painting actual figures, he said.

“The ‘what’ of the painting has given way to the ‘how’ of the painting,” Woodson said.

Perera said one of his greatest achievements came when the university’s literary magazine, eleven40seven, chose his work to feature on the cover of its fall 2009 edition.

Ashley Tambunga, president of the Bryson Literary Society, the group that publishes eleven40seven, said all of the editors involved in selecting the artwork found his piece interesting.

“When we got to DJ’s piece it was pretty much across the board – this was the most unusual piece we had seen,” she said. “Everybody felt that it had this appeal to identity and edginess that we hadn’t seen in previous issues.”

Perera said achievements such as these are important steps in building his portfolio and displaying his ability as a painter.

“Whatever I accomplish now will better prepare me – knowing how to adapt, and change and how to deal with patrons,” he said.

He plans to continue his education in graduate school and has applied to the Art Institute of Chicago, Rhode Island School of Design and the Pratt Institute.

“In the meantime,” he said, “It’s just me painting and creating. It’s a talent. No textbook can teach you how to invent talent.”