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

“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

The knight with the pearl earring: Deloraine Brohier memoir

When the writer, Burgher cultural authority and researcher Deloraine Brohier passed away, we penned a tribute to her. The memoir was published on the Sunday Times as the official feature to celebrate Brohier’s life and work. This piece was written as a personal memoir to a friend, and captures the significance of Brohier, her work and life. It touches on her work’s significance to culture, writing and women in general as an example of a woman who did not live her life conventionally, but was loved and celebrated nevertheless.

The piece was published on The Sunday Times in 2017, following a week after Brohier’s passing.

‘Red for her funeral dress? No.’

‘It’s too bright!’

‘Isn’t it inappropriate?’

‘But, she was very clear in her instructions. She wanted to go in the red dress.’

‘We must respect her wishes, but it’s definitely not ordinary.’

Well, neither was Deloraine Brohier. Nothing about her life stood out as ordinary. All too often ‘women’ and ‘empowerment’ are mentioned in the same sentence, but too few women really lived the philosophy before it became a hashtag, a movement and another over-coffee conversation. Deloraine Brohier was one of them. A historian, writer, and encyclopaedic authority on Burgher life and customs, she lived her life as a gutsy response to what was considered ‘female’ in an orthodox society.

Educated, and more importantly, rich with a prevailing sense of intellectual curiosity and wonder, her lifetime was one long pilgrimage consecrated to the arts, history and culture. She possessed a refreshing confidence in her own intelligence and abilities as a single being. She travelled all over the world for work, for pleasure, all on her own, with family and similarly curious friends, gathering an incredible string of experiences that shaped her person. All this through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, in Sri Lanka’s conformist society where a single woman living alone, travelling and working at her free will, was rare.

She was her father’s daughter. The searching spirit of that great historian and explorer R.L. Brohier lived in his youngest child- Beryl Deloraine Brohier born April 13, 1927. She watched her parents and how they moved about life as her father served in the Survey Department pre and post-Independence. The way he and her mother continued their search for answers to satisfy their own sense of wonderment in nature and human culture, unfettered by the ordinary weights of life, such as children, their schools, moving homes etc. She graduated from the University of Ceylon- Colombo in 1950, was involved in education and broadcasting before working with the United Nations.

Deloraine was the closest to her father’s heart after his wife’s somewhat early demise. In the years that she cared for him and assisted him in his last works, she became the sole custodian of a vast ocean of historical research and knowledge that Dr. R. L. Brohier left behind. This was the beginning of her lifelong mission to preserve some of his works through reprinting, editing and publication. At the same time, she found his legacy guiding her to discover the expansiveness of this world and the human experience, through her own research too.

Deloraine Brohier dressed impeccably. Her treasured wardrobe pieces were scarves, clothing and jewellery sets entwined with exotic stories from the faraway places. She loved wearing a certain pearl set not for its monetary value but because it was fished in the Australian seas by an indigenous people who possessed a fascinating art of pearl harvesting. For Deloraine, her possessions were always special, a part of her voice, her persona and her worldview. She collected such things as her personal tribute to human craftsmanship which she regarded so highly.

Deloraine thought the arts to be the most profound expression of emotion. The painting ‘The girl with a pearl earring’ by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer was one she often spoke of with reverence as an example of the power of art to transport us to intellectual reverie. Hers was no blind fascination with the arts for the sake of arts, but a true all-embracing appreciation stemming from the understanding of its role in our evolution. This allowed her to fall freely into experiencing the arts and their materialisation throughout history without inhibition, going from orchestral music and traditional dance to the irrigation heritage of Sri Lanka, the secrets of Burgher culinary history and the trinkets made by the forgotten Boer prisoners in Diyatalawa who etched their nostalgia for home onto their crafts during their lifelong entrapment. Her many books and the editorial republications of her father’s work wove in and out of such incredibly diverse historically rich stories that reflected her breadth of interest and knowledge.

Deloraine was committed to being in a state of ‘wonder’. In our discussions about creativity, inspiration, curiosity and education, she shared little gems of her knowledge embellished with her twinkling wisdom. “If you don’t teach children to love that emotion of conscious, questioning wonder, through whatever medium- history, music, art, literature…they will never learn to chase a muse, to search for answers. And they will always be disinterested in everything including themselves,” she lamented the ineffectiveness of traditional education systems and the mindless drowning into digital screens.

Deloraine often spoke about how she and her siblings were not allowed to sleep during their many travels with their parents- her father gave them a continuing commentary on the history of sites and towns and her mother on the flora and fauna en route. From this early inception into the sense of wonder, ‘living’ as her interpretation, was to ‘follow this sense of wonder we have in us, because it simply makes you happy or because it can even give you the answer to life.’

She was hungry for inspiration, and meticulous in recording it. After seeing how one of her traveller-friends dedicated an entire day after the journey to record-keeping, she adopted the habit and stuck to it faithfully over the years writing down the notes of her expeditions in detail: a trait she advised on cultivating in order to make the most out of our experiences. Her hurriedly scribbled notes on rock formations, landscapes, stars, types of trees and animals crowded her books and photographic recollections that she shared with us. ‘Don’t wait too long to clear your desk, and put your mind to rest with what you have seen. It stays somewhere in your memory and comes back when you need it. Our mind is the most amazing thing.’

She was a rebel, a quiet female revolutionary in a sense: Deloraine knew that the only sure way to bring about a change for the way women lived in our society was by simply going out there and living the life of a free woman. ‘People must see how you live and what it does to you, to change how they would live,’ she insisted, staying true to her intuitions until their time to become widely accepted would come.  ‘I shall maintain’ is also the motto on the badge marking one the greatest honours she received in her lifetime- Knight of the Order of Oranje-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Her bright red funeral dress that caused miniature uproars, was a memoir of this treasured occasion when she was awarded the knighthood.

She was 89 when she passed away last Monday, but she hadn’t even considered slowing down. Her last work on the Ceylonese women doctors, which she discussed with me at length with shining enthusiasm, sits ready for its final edit. Her work remains, speaking to masses, changing minds, uncovering knowledge both old and new.

She will be remembered for her incredible contribution to researching and recording the arts, history and cultures that are part of our existence. Deloraine Brohier was sent off from our world in her vivacious red dress, attesting to her spirit, her wonder, her guts and her glory; the knight with the pearl earring rode on to her next expedition.

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

Finding: Linda Speldewinde biographic chapter

This biographic chapter was developed for Linda Speldewinde-one of Sri Lanka’s best known female entrepreneurs. When Linda was invited to contribute a biographic chapter to the entrepreneur’s handbook ‘How to Start Up a Company and Not Ruin Your Life’ by ©2018 Robert Sager & Neville Gaunt, she approached us to write this piece. The writer’s role here was to maintain the essence of her ideas and articulate them in an engaging manner that maintains the spirit of the client by using the writer’s storytelling skills. It was also the writer’s role to maintain a storyline that begins with a conflict or challenge, culminating to a pivot point followed by a resolution and finally, a conclusion; this was a critical parameter set by the book publishers. The following are excerpts from the full text.

It was 2015, and I was at where everybody thought to be the height of my career. I had launched several successful businesses—a progressive design school that was becoming a global voice for creative innovation from South Asia, a brand that connected artisans and contemporary design talent, and a fashion e-commerce portal that became an international selling platform for craft, design and emerging brands alike. My latest brainchild, and biggest undertaking yet—the Colombo Innovation Tower—was being discussed with key stakeholders. It was an exciting time. I was working with an inspiring team that went from rural craft communities, business CEOs, entrepreneurs and designers to academics. At macro level—I was on my way to working with the government and the business world to influence creative industries’ policy making in Sri Lanka. I was constantly surrounded with creativity, inspiring people, radical young minds, innovation and a never ending source of positivity that came from all this. In society’s eyes, I have set everything up, aced them, and was basking in the glory it all. I myself begun to wonder if I’ve reached my peak, and whether this was it. I was happy, healthy, comfortable and looking forward to tomorrow.

And just then, as unpredictably as only the current of life could do, my journey was sent spinning in an uncontrollable direction. My support, my guide, my life mentor, my matriarch, my Granny, died. She was 80, I was 42, and it shook me up to my very core. It made me question the meaning of everything. I wondered why we did anything at all, if at the end, it only came to death. I thought my businesses made a better life for people—but, what did it matter if they all just died? I thought the brands I built empowered the human potential—but I wondered what that meant, if it was only for a few short mortal years of time spent on earth. I kept asking ‘is this it, really?’ and I had no answers. Just when everyone thought I had made it to the top, I was lost.

It was really important to pull out thoughts and quotes that reflected Linda’s personal brand of personal power, female strength and determination; so, a big part of our challenge was in isolating such parts from our many conversations with her, and bringing them out stronger within this book’s context.

Ask and you shall receive

What I found there was an amazing teacher who helped me identify what I was looking for. He helped me reach a deep reflective mode, which led me to take a good look at myself. I saw me for who I was—the flaws, the fears, the strengths, the superpowers, the weaknesses, the good, the bad, the ugly…the whole thing. I was able to take a deep look into my life, and how it led me to where I was today. I was able to reflect on what made me that way; and who shaped me. For the first time in life, I understood how having no strong male role models, I was raised by two strong women.  With my mother, it was Granny who took on the role of a powerful matriarch in my life. My teacher set me on a path of discovery that got me to explore how this influenced me, and the void I’ve felt since Granny’s passing. It was just a hunch that I had, which he encouraged—like a faint little light in the dark. I started following it. Again, being an entrepreneur, it felt familiar to do this. It was easy for me to put my life on hold and follow a hunch, for the marginal possibility that it could lead me somewhere incredible.

The lesson
All this realignment was over one year’s work. Now that it is in place, I feel I’m really answering my calling. Our work is now geared fully towards creating positive and meaningful impact through design driven innovation, and structured in a way that our processes, products and knowledge places a major focus on strengthening women. Right now, I’m travelling the world, taking this work beyond Sri Lanka and South Asia, and forming new networks with like-minded women, men and organisations to broaden our chain of strength and encouragement.

One of the biggest lessons I learnt from this experience is that you should never grow complacent nor discouraged by society’s measures of success—you should have your own measure, and until your gut tells you that you’ve got there, you haven’t got anywhere. Keep searching, keep moving.

The next lesson is that an entrepreneur should take challenges as opportunities for growth. I could have just gone for some therapy, buried the voice that was telling me something is missing, and kept going on. But, the fact that I chose to take on that challenge and let it torment me, drag me to depths and push me to dig deeper is what really got me to find what I was looking for. Go for that challenge, go for it wholeheartedly and let it break you, because it will also make you.

And finally, if you’re an entrepreneur starting something new, remember that turbulence is part of the game; and confusion is part of the game. Whether you like it or not, these are rites of passage for every entrepreneur. Don’t be afraid of the scale of your struggle, your confusion, or the turbulence. Now I’ve done this enough times to know in absolute certainty that the more you struggle, the more you’re faced with confusion and turbulence, when you come out on the other side, what you have will be phenomenal. Go for that, go for the gold—and nothing less.