by Laura Harvey
I was settling into painting an environmental mural in the warehouse on the botanical gardens of Floripa when the percussive introduction of a very specific song began to ring out of my phone’s tiny speaker. “Magalenha” by Sergio Mendes. I don’t have many songs downloaded in my phone, but this one made the cut.
I love painting because it completely focuses one of your senses while letting the others run free. My mind performs cartwheels while balancing technical and spatial skills with creativity and color, and somehow as I zoom in and out from the tiny details to the whole image, the process helps me do the same in my unrelated reflections. I have had a rocky relationship with my art this year. Removed from my easy access to materials and studio space, I have been unreasonably frustrated with my dimly lit room. Away from other art students, my motivation to produce has ebbed and flowed. The small scale museum at my apprenticeship has been a tantalizing but largely unavailable temptation. So when, after a month of pushing through city council bureaucracy, I had my proposition for an environmental consciousness mural approved, I had mixed feelings. This mural is 3×2.4m. I am, well, very, very far off either of those heights. And I had to be realistic with myself; I had not painted anything on a significant scale since my A Level art exam, which is almost a year ago now. Do the basics, don’t aim for anything too complicated, I told myself. This isn’t some piece of work that will sit under all the other paintings in your room, some people are going to have to see this every single day, I reminded myself. But at the same time, the prospect of having a brush in my hand, buckets of paint around my feet, and a blank space to cover still sparked my imagination.
I proposed a couple of wild ideas to my boss – a portal from a polluted city to a jungle, an entire landscape made out of bottle tops – I should probably thank her for either not understanding these concepts or not understanding my Portuguese. Eventually we decided to tackle the most important issue for the seafront location of the mural: plastic waste. A trip to the island’s turtle rehabilitation center, many meetings with various departments of the city council, and one or two logistical nightmares later, I finally stood in front of my two metal panels, primed, background dry, and outlines drawn on. After about an hour, I realized none of the other workers were using the warehouse that day, so I leaned over my materials to press play on the limited music collection downloaded on my phone.
“Magalenha” by Sergio Mendes. You would assume this was part of the music which I have grown to love while in Brazil. The less embarrassing thing for me to do would be to let you believe that. The truth is that in 2016 Danny Mac and Oti Mabuse did a samba to this song on Strictly Come Dancing. I always knew I wanted to take a gap year, but I think it would be naive of me to diminish the weight that this dance had in my trajectory towards Brazil. I fell in love with Latin dance when I began to watch Strictly, and this samba was what set my goal in stone: I was going to learn to samba and I was going to go where I needed to be to do that.
The percussive introduction cut the still air of the warehouse as the phone speaker crackled. I stepped back from my painting. The bigger picture was beginning to come together. I could see the reflections and shadows of the plastic bottle, revealing its form, and the water splashes framed an empty space where a turtle would hopefully be tomorrow. The bigger picture was beginning to come together in my head too. I thought back to the version of myself that watched that samba in awe. Then, I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but I can now. Then, I couldn’t follow the lightning quick samba steps, but I can now. I had a lot of dreams and stereotypes of a continent across an ocean, and now I am standing on that soil, surrounded by the reality of this country. The number of days which I have left in which I can say that is numbered now. 17 to be precise. That’s difficult to come to terms with, grappling with whether I’ve achieved my goals or not, figuring out how to spend my last free days, unsuccessfully trying to create a sense of premature closure. But when I’m painting, as I stand nose to panel for the details, and run to the other side of the room to be able to see the whole image, my mind zooms in and out too. In, to every detail of my daily life here, out, to my personal growth. In, to specific conversations that have defined this experience, and out, to my changed attitudes towards the country I romanticized. And slowly, as the brush hits the surface again, stroke by stroke, things begin to make a little more sense.
I’m grinning now as I look down at my fingers, tapping the keys as this ramble comes to an end. They’re covered in blue paint, smell a little of açaí, and remind me of how I can feel at home anywhere in the world with a little paint, and maybe a little bit of dancing.