A mind flowing free in thread and colour: Joan Leth Pedersen biographic article

Joan is a fascinating multi artist with a Sri Lankan burgher heritage. She lives in Denmark now, but returns to Sri Lanka every year to her family estate in North-West of the island. When she commissioned us to write a piece about her life and work, we went and met her there at that beautiful old estate. We spoke about her exquisite embroidery work, and her love for painting. Joan’s life was a fascinating viewpoint into life lived in Colombo over fifty years ago. Her story made it to the Sunday Times in Sri Lanka, which you can still find online here.

A mind flowing free in thread and colour


Hidden amidst the foliage of the outskirts of Wennappuwa, there is a coconut estate that is a breathtaking composition of human and nature. Coming in, you will be pleasantly warmed in the sunlight pouring through the cane palms standing guard along its impressive driveway. It nestles a charming planters’ bungalow with arched windows opening into sun spangled verandahs and further in, a beautifully dimmed living space and cool sleeping chambers. Between the fun play of the vintage furniture, rare heirloom treasures and a twist of Scandi inspired postmodernism, there is an obvious air of creativity floating through the bungalow.
When you meet its hostess—you instantly know her as the source of that creativity. Joan Leth Pedersen is in the autumn of her years, and radiantly beautiful with a sense of style that could only speak for an intensely creative being. She’s the kind of hostess who excites you with her meticulous devotion to fine hospitality—you just know it’s going to be a good day.

Joan was born in Sri Lanka to Burgher parents who moved to the UK to educate their children. They also travelled between their island home and Malaysia for work in the
plantations business. She met her husband, Jens Leth Pedersen in Malaysia fifty eight years ago, at a New Year’s Eve dance, ten minutes to midnight—he has remained smitten since. An accomplished hand embroidery artist with truly remarkable artistry, Joan practices in Denmark where she lives with Jens. But, for eight sunlit weeks a year, the family estate in Sri Lanka remains her home in paradise.

This year, Joan has brought down a large portion of her exquisite archive of handmade embroidery based wearable art. This is for a rare media exposure of her works. “It’s mpossible for me to put a price on my work”, Joan declares, “because they are my babies,” she laughs. “But, seriously, it’s because my art has never equated to money. It’s not about that for me, it’s never been,” she explains. Joan believes that artistry does not always have
to have a commercial element to it—in a sense, an artist does not have to cater to the incessant needs of a society. Art can simply exist—much like beauty or nature, without
having to fulfill the human desire to own, to consume. Her work has an ethereal charm about it and draws inspiration from flora and fauna, abstract shapes and colour-play. Stylistically, she finds kinship with Chinese, Danish and Venetian embroidery techniques. But, the most impressive is her own style—an embroidery technique that Joan invented fusing patchwork
and threadwork to bring about an unusual effect. Here, cut out fabric pieces are ironed on to ‘glue paper’ and pieced together with embroidered thread work to finally reveal one mosaic-like image held together with perfect thread work. “I don’t know how long it takes to do one
piece—it takes hours and hours and hours. But, I love it, and I can immerse in it completely.”

Something striking about Joan’s work is its unapologetic femininity. Her work bears unrestrained female charm with soft colour palettes, dainty motifs and intricate filigrees. But, it’s anything but ordinary. The embroidery itself is unusual in its exotic mix of styles and technique while Joan’s decisive direction in their placement on the garment and how they work with the female body also add to the unicity. “I always think of where this embroidery will go on a body, and I tend to embellish the unusual corners or the unnoticed curves…it does not always have to be on your upper chest tucked away to a side.”

Her process is fluid and natural, much like her work. “When I get an idea, I just have to do it,” she says echoing all impassioned artists. Her inspirations flood in through nature. In Denmark, the contained cool of Scandinavian landscapes influence her abstract oil painting and designed knitwear. While in Sri Lanka, the island’s paradisiacal abundance seems to translate to Joan’s vivid watercolours, often florals, and finally—to her intricate embroidery.

“Embroidery was always in our family,” she recalls the beginnings into her most accomplished form of artistry. Joan remembers being captivated by her mother’s hand
drawn book documenting the baby clothes that she embroidered. As a child, Joan leafed through its painstakingly detailed drawings. She also remembers how she first fell in love with that incredible feeling of being enveloped in an exquisitely made outfit, through the finely embroidered dresses handmade by her mother. Later, she went to complete an embroidery and knitting course at the Denmark College of Handicrafts where she scored full marks, before plunging into the arts in full vigour. She went on to exhibit in unusual locations
around Europe, such as the abandoned church in Aalborg commune and the court house turned museum Tinghuset in Nibe. Beyond embroidery and knitting, Joan also began to see her art within the context of fashion. It came naturally to her, because style was simply in
her.

“I always think that clothing should be a complete expression. Personally, I like to make underwear to match my work in order to avoid store-bought pieces that peek outside an otherwise perfect outfit!” she exclaims echoing a practice that still forces her to custom make intimatewear for every wearable item that displays her embroidery or knitting. In her heyday in Colombo, Joan was featured in the fashion and lifestyle pages of the local dailies for her bold sense of style and fashion. Her wedding gown with a spectacular floor-gracing train with
hundreds of hand made flowers pressed out in silk in three layers, made fashion headlines and was borrowed by news pages. Style was definitely her thing.

With Joan seated on the verandah of her family bungalow, it is almost visibly evident in the background, how her mind has flown free through the space, touching it with her devotion to beauty; the fiery heliconias set off against the earthly terracotta of the vase, the perfect geometry in the arrangement of hand-painted porcelain…they all vouch for her. As her life approaches a tranquil sunset, Joan has developed a yearning to share her arts as
a teacher and a mentor. “I have taught several times in my life, and it has always been rewarding. I still keep in touch with some of my students.” She hopes to share her expertise and extraordinary techniques with young fashion designers, textile artists, embroiderers and
entities in textile related arts, crafts and design—those who would appreciate it and hopefully, reinvent it in their own way. But, there’s more to it than that too. Joan sees that mastering your creativity as a way to live a wonderful life. “Creativity has helped me to live life on an even keel…being immersed in creativity means that troubles can’t trouble you. So, I’d like to share that.” And with that, Joan offers the greatest gift a creator could leave behind in this world.
To contact Joan for private lessons and workshops for groups or institutes during January-
February 2019 in Sri Lanka, reach her on gogotojojo@gmail.com

Stronger where broken: Anoma Wijewardene interview story

We have been working with the prominent contemporary Sri Lankan artist Anoma Wijewardene for years. Anoma’s commissions for stories are always a challenge because they need to capture the complexity of her art and the emotions behind it. From a professional point of view, it was important for Anoma to bring in her future work, collaborations and partnerships to stories, and it was part of the writer’s challenge to incorporate these without compromising the flow and emotion of the story on Art. This particular piece was on Anoma’s latest international show during the legendary Venice Biennale. The monumental significance of the Biennale and a Sri Lankan artist’s presence there made the story an important one, and was featured on The Sunday Times in June 2019.

Life can break us; But, courage allows the healing that makes us stronger where we were once broken. When Anoma Wijewardene was invited to exhibit at the European Cultural Centre’s Personal Structures: Identities, a collateral exhibition of the Venice Biennale, it was her series Kintsugi, which explores the search for harmony and renewal in a world of unconscionable intolerance and division, which she chose to submit. True to Anoma’s artistic voice that has always commented on what goes unnoticed despite it burning in our very midst, these works were a reflection on fragmented and wounded societies, and reflecting upon our common humanity in the face of conflict, misguided religious fervour and human insecurity—a conversation that is more relevant to Sri Lanka than ever before. The installation Kintsugi invites us to accept the stewardship we share of our fragile planet. Within days of returning from Venice, Anoma Wijewardene joined for an interview about what it meant to have ‘Kintsugi’ shown to a global audience at a time when the emotions behind it returned in full force after Easter 2019, and how she sees art as a crucial part of our cultural and social dialogue.

It was 2014 when Anoma started painting the series that will be viewed by thousands over the next five months of the duration of the legendary Biennale in Venice. At the time, she was dealing with her emotions on the racial tensions mushrooming around Sri Lanka. Longing for a real reconciliation and ‘togetherness’, Anoma was drawn to the Japanese art of restoration ‘Kintsugi’—which translates to golden seams. Here, shattered fragments are fused with gold enamel, revealing and embracing, rather than disguising the mistakes. It is a concept which calls for seeing beauty in the flawed and imperfect and celebrates reconstruction and re-unification. She found a powerful message in this statement on the necessity of reconciliation for survival, and the strength in embracing our history and our differences. She found that perceiving breakage and repair as part of life that needs no disguise and must be central to the attitudes that make for reconciliation and renewal.

Half a decade after the series was originally created and the work was being reconstructed to be a part of ‘Identities’ Anoma was struck by how the relevance of ‘Kintsugi’ also resurfaced. “Easter was just ten days before I flew out. The work had been shipped already but I couldn’t help but notice how apposite it was” she says. But, this is precisely the power of art; artistic work that stems from the human core will always move parallel to our own evolution, and even collective destinies. The ringing relevance that ‘Kintsugi’ bore to critical social issues resonated with the curators, and the overall theme—‘May You Live In Interesting Times’; a title encompassing the highly polarised and turbulent times the world is currently experiencing.

Speaking about being invited to show at a collateral show of the Venice Biennale—or the Olympics of art as Forbes deems it—Anoma was both humbled and grateful. The last time that Sri Lanka had the honour was seventy years ago, with the inclusion of the 43 group at the Arsenale. “The project’s complexity and the scale itself had me taken back a little, but at the same time, I knew it was a collateral exhibition of THE Venice Biennale! A six month viewing period, close to an estimated 500,000 visitors, and most importantly, an opportunity for Sri Lanka to share a voice on diversity, unity and healing—something I felt the world really needed right now. I am so grateful to the curators of the European Cultural Centre for including my work in their exhibition.”

Anoma said that showing in Venice, at the Palazzo Bembo by the Rialto Bridge on the Canale Grande, was daunting; but she felt that the entire Biennale was a collective statement from the world’s artists, looking to stimulate an understanding on how we relate to each other and the planet across the social and cultural divide. “Borders are powerful symbols, whether political, religious, cultural or psychological. The Personal Structures curators were focusing on how division forces us to look closely at our own identity and distinguish between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’; the ‘us’ and ‘them’. But, how do we find beauty in our differences and cherish our cultural commonality? Kintsugi is a work that invites us to embrace our diversity and understand how it makes our experience richer.”

Kintsugi installation has a quiet intensity; it grows on you, and takes hold of you with a ‘broken togetherness’. This quiet intensity is elevated with the inclusion of powerful poetry and haunting music to create a book and a video installation. “Multimedia, mixed media and sensory immersion with a video installation, and a book…..it was a mix of all these that completed Kintsugi.”

The poetry followed the art when Anoma’s childhood friend writer and poet Romesh Gunesekera visited her in 2015 while she was painting the series. He was moved. “I just mused out loud about him writing a paragraph or two for it; and some months after, out came this incredible poetry that was crafted using shards and fragments, just like my art. They examined the fundamentals of the paintings in a parallel process of separation and renewal. I felt that ideas like isolation, conflict, displacement, as well as reconciliation, healing and harmony, were expressed even more profoundly when the images and the words came together.” When Anoma went still further to incorporate music and video into the art, she was opening the experience out to yet another dimension. What grips you in the video with Anoma’s art and Romesh’s poetry, is the music. So precisely composed, so hauntingly evocative, the music was specifically created for the art by Sharon Smith who synthesised the words recited by Romesh with tones from several cultures and music genres. The Canadian music editor and composer based in Los Angeles has worked with Hollywood directors, playwrights and choreographers. “All these collaborations evolved organically, through friendships. I was so fortunate to have the wonderful response from Romesh to Sharon, and so many others whose input was so crucial”, Anoma says. Despite her true love being pure painting, Anoma has clearly never been afraid to explore other realms. Even in Venice, Anoma’s installation carries a another element, with the scent of cinnamon—a fragrance so closely linked to the spice island of Sri Lanka—incorporated into the work;  “ Spices must have traversed the Silk Route from ancient Ceylon to the emporia of the City State of Venice for centuries; and so it seems I have naturally now moved into the realm of olfactory art,” she says.

Kintsugi will remain in Venice for another five months. During this time, five hundred thousand minds are expected to encounter and engage with the art at the European Cultural Centre’s two palazzos. And to them all, Anoma’s art will present a brave new perspective on what hopes there are for reconciliation and harmony—a viewpoint that comes from Sri Lanka, an island struggling to heal, yet trying nevertheless.

Taking this powerful story out to a global audience was made possible by a collective of patrons who understood the significance of art in crafting Sri Lanka’s international image; “The John Keells Foundation and Cinnamon Life, Ceylon Tea, the National Lotteries Board, AOD, Etihad Airways and a few amazing individuals were part of taking this work to Venice. They were so incredibly generous and progressive in their thinking to understand the importance of a Sri Lankan presence there. I am deeply indebted to them for believing in my work and understanding its message. Thank you!”

Anoma’s work over the last two decades has extensively covered topics like climate change and the call for a collective harmony and peaceful coexistence. Her last major international group show was in 2016 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, where Anoma was the only South Asian artist in the exhibition ‘One Belt One Road’. Her monograph was just launched in London in March 2019 and will soon be released in Sri Lanka.

The story is also available on The Sunday Times online edition here.