Sharini Samarakoon- an artist who is making a difference

We are delighted to launch our ‘Woman of the Week’ series by featuring Sharini Samarakoon, an Australian-based Sri Lankan artist and art therapist. Find out more about her inspiring journey in the Q & A below:

Q) Tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to pursue a career as an artist?

A) Well in brief, my life centres on two interconnected passions; the creation of art and helping people to feel empowered, witnessed and heard.

I work full-time as a registered art therapist with Aboriginal kids for Gunawirra, a for purpose organisation in Sydney that focuses on understanding and healing transgenerational trauma. Art therapy can be defined as a form of psychotherapy utilising creative modalities such as visual art-making, within a therapeutic relationship to improve and inform physical, mental and emotional well-being.

I have been working for the past two years with preschool and primary Aboriginal kids who come from difficult backgrounds. It has been an honour and a privilege to sit with these kids who use art as a way to build trust and share their stories with me non-verbally.

I am also a self-taught artist, I started when I was five years old. I like dabbling in a variety of mediums and using material in an unusual way.  Most kids dream of being doctors or nurses when they are young. I wanted to be an artist, more specifically a cartoonist at the tender age of five. The sheer thrill of being able to create something out of nothing fascinated me, and I am happy to say that the inner child in me still feels the same way. In terms of why I have decided to make it a career, well it’s something that I feel I can contribute to and hopefully make a positive impact to the world. I like creating art that makes people think and feel inspired. That is my goal and if I am able to do that, then I have achieved what I set out to do.

Q) What are some of the challenges that you have faced along the way, and how have you overcome them? 

A) I think that, like in any dream you want to pursue, there are many challenges one works through.

A lack of self-confidence, especially as an artist, has been a major struggle. It’s taken me many years to even tell people that I am artist with a sense of pride. Art for me is an expression of myself, and allowing people to look at it and take from it what they want. It’s a very vulnerable exercise and people’s criticisms used to really affect me earlier on. However, as time has gone by, I do take what people say on board, but I create for me first. Integrity for me as an artist is very important.

Patience is another core challenge- it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Practice, practice, practice. You can have inborn talent and that is great but it is no substitute for consistent effort. It is especially challenging when you feel uninspired and stuck. This is where doing my Masters in Art Therapy really helped. It forced me to look at myself and really be more self-aware with respect to why art was so important to me, which is different for everyone. For me, art is a way in which I express my internal world, whether it be about social justice, emotional awareness, love and loss or appreciating childhood innocence and curiosity.

Another aspect that used to frustrate me when I first made the decision to pursue being an artist was my overriding desire for instant recognition and success. It was a rookie mistake and something that I have learned through lots of rejection! I have learned that it takes at least ten years for you to perfect your craft and then possibly another ten for people to actually take your style of art seriously. So, while being proactive in promoting your work is important, you need a healthy dollop of patience too!

Q) Tell us a little about your latest milestones and achievement? You recently had your own exhibition- which was a great success, what were the highlights of that? 

A) I have exhibited in two charity exhibitions in which I was the Art Director. The aim was to raise money for a social purpose organisation my brother set up, called Empower Projects. I have also sold over 30 paintings in the past few years which have gone for various causes that I am passionate about.

My first solo exhibition was a highlight and it was quite a surreal experience. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I got quite teary at the end of the night, as I was touched by the tremendous amount of support I received. I think the biggest highlight for me was being told by other artists that I was held in high esteem and that they loved my work. The icing on the cake was selling three paintings on the opening night. It’s quite a special feeling.

In terms of future goals, I would really like to do a story book for children about mental health. I’d like to try and tackle the issue of domestic violence with nuance and sensitivity. This is still in the pipeline.

Q) Please could you give us an overview of your distinct style and some interesting materials/themes that you have explored in your work recently? 

A) I think my lack of formal training forced me to teach myself and in doing so, it allowed me to create my own style. As I mentioned previously, I wanted to become a cartoonist from the age of 5 to about 13 years. So as a result of this, my paintings do have more of an illustrative vibe to them.

Nature is also an important element and theme across my work. Having lived in Malawi during my early childhood, I have very fond memories of running through the wilderness for countless hours and being connected to nature. Hence, this appreciation has come through in my art. Whether it be using flowers and leaves to make living art, melting crayons, or using different mediums to get a 3D effect. It is all very fascinating and I love experimenting. My next big project will use resin and fresh flowers to create portraits of women that inspire me.

By nature, I am very curious, and very interested in the human condition. More now than ever, as it feeds into my work as an art therapist. I believe, as most artists do, that we all have important stories to share. As such, I love talking to people about their loves, fears or what makes them tick, and then transforming them into my interpretation of the image that comes in my head when I think about the conversation.

Q) What advice do you have for other youth who are interested in pursuing a career as an artist? 

A) I think the biggest piece of advice I could give is to ask yourself the question of how much you really want to be an artist. It’s not an easy road, and it takes a lot of persistence and resilience to keep at it.

Also, be clear within yourself what it is you want to represent as an artist. If you are going to get into it as a profit making exercise, or if art is something that you live and breathe, or a combination of both. All of them come with their pitfalls and you need to be able to take them in your stride.

There is no such thing as failure in my books – that’s what I have learnt so far. Remember that if something didn’t work out the way you wanted it, it’s not the end of the world, you just need to possibly take another approach to it.

Be proud of your own work and the process it took to create it. It’s important to love what you create, not in a narcissistic way but in a way that validates and solidifies your identity as an artist. I feel that is very important.