“I do not wish to create artists from the class,” veteran artist Shantha K Herath said speaking about his newly commenced art class for children. “The goal of this art class is to create a generation of art lovers and better human beings who are not only focused on competing with each other in order to become successful in life. Children should have their choice to become scientists or mathematicians following their wishes. Learning art will help them grasp whatever subject they wish to study,” he said adding that producing artists through the class is only a secondary goal.
Shantha K Herath is not an unknown name in the newspaper industry. From his cartoon sketches to layout designs, he is widely appreciated in the field for his creativity. However, he said that most techniques and skills he is using in art are self-learnt and that as a student his requests to study art in school were rejected. In school, he was asked not to choose art as a subject for ordinary level examinations because he was the only student to request art as a subject. The school was unwilling to allocate a teacher for a single student. Shantha’s desire to learn art, back then, was powerful that he spoke to the principal and received special permission from school to find an art teacher and he followed him whenever he taught art in other classes.
‘People like to see new things. Any art should change with the time. As newspaper is also considered an art, it also has to evolve with time’
His request to study art for Advanced Level was also rejected following the same issue. Shantha, not ready to give up his plan, faced the Advanced Level Examination by himself. This he did by studying notes he managed to get from a student of another school. Although he couldn’t create the opportunity to enter a local university, his qualifications opened the door for him to become a professional artist in the newspaper industry. Since 1981, up to today he has served as a professional artist in newspapers.
His hometown is Madawela in Harispattuwa and he attended Nugawela Central College and Moratuwa Prince of Wales, for a brief period. He fondly remembered his master Tissa Gunawardena who he met at Prince of Wales College. This teacher had made a great impact on his life as an artist.
Reminiscing the path he travelled he pointed out that there can be more people like him, whose request to study arts is rejected. “I challenged rejections thrown at me and studied art informally. But how many students who faced the same challenge may have simply given up? If they were given the opportunity they would have grown up to be skillful artists who have the potential to bring a lot of foreign currency into the country. Instead we send innocent women to Middle East countries,” he said. Shantha criticized the education system that even after decades overlooks its limitations.
Shantha was one of the first members of the Sunday Divaina family. He worked at Divaina for more than 25 years when he first joined Upali Newspapers Ltd. Later he worked for a few other newspapers including Mawbima and Lakbima as a layout design consultant. During the one and half years he worked for Lakbima they won three awards for the excellence in layout design.
Speaking about the contemporary newspaper industry he iterated that the newspaper industry is a dying art today mainly because it is stagnated in evolution. “One of these stagnated aspects is the layout design of a newspaper. A common notion is that the layout of the newspaper should maintain its consistency throughout,” he opined. He pointed out that newspaper readers are getting bored with this monotonous layouts and it could be a reason why the readership is declining. “People like to see new things. Any art should change with the time. As newspaper is also considered an art, it also has to evolve with time,” he explained.
However, unfortunately, Shantha said that the local newspaper industry fears change and therefore has become ‘a dying patient’ which no one is willing to treat. He mentioned one of his personal experiences where he was invited to join Divaina again recently where he became frustrated in seeing the unwillingness to change in order to become better.
He explained that this is the point where he realized that trying to change the mindset of ‘grownups’ is not effective. “This is when I decided to try helping the youngsters in order to help them to think innovatively and be creative,” he iterated.
He expressed his grief about the government’s aesthetic education institutes having failed to fulfill their responsibilities. “When Haywood Art Institute was established following JAD Perera there were a lot of skillful artists graduating from the institute. They served at their best and created a name for themselves as well as the institute. Today Haywood has become the Visual and Performing Arts University and do we see any such artists graduating from the place?” he queried.
“This is an unfortunate event since this is the main body which is responsible for aesthetics in the country. It could be incompetence of its officers or their unwillingness, however the system is failing to do what they are supposed to do,” he said.
He further said that aesthetic awareness of our country is very limited that there is a huge gap between the artists and the general public who are supposed to be aesthetes. He believes that it is unfair to point fingers at the public for not being able to appreciate art. “Look at the state of the National Art Gallery. It’s in no position to hold an exhibition,” he lamented. He said that there are many issues which distract people from art. “The responsibility of the government officials, consultant or politicians, who work with related institutes, is to find solutions for these. There are so many authorities and officials, yet, due attention is not paid,” he stressed.
Speaking further about enriching children with aesthetic inspiration, he said that educating parents, who belong to a generation that lost in touch with art, is highly important in order to educate the child. “Parents have realized that there is something major lacking in parenting their children. Yet, they don’t see a solution,” he said that parents who realize what they lack are trying to help their children to explore what they missed.
He considers it is his responsibility to train children to be creative by engaging them in art classes. He believes that the child should be saved from the current trend of being competitive to outshine others. “They should be taught how to be the best as an individual can be rather than follow another’s successful path or to outshine his or her classmate,” he said. The veteran artist pointed out that each child is different and has different styles when it comes to learning, including art.
“There is no need to make a clone of another artist. A child should be encouraged to find his own style. Parents and teachers must guide them to find what suits them best,” he said. “Encouraging the child to be competitive can harm him or her. Instead, if the child can be encouraged to face it strong that might be helpful. Aesthetic education is a good way to prepare the child mentally to face future,” he added. Yet however, Shantha stressed that if aesthetic education too become a stressor for children it will not be effective in making a competent child.