Double Life How Triangle Artists Support Their Craft

WakeMed cafeteria worker is a self-taught artist

aweigl@newsobserver.comMay 31, 2014 

  • Double Life

    Once a month, we share the story of a local artist hidden in plain sight. You never know what talented person may be waiting tables at your favorite restaurant, sitting in the office down the hall, or working as a cashier at the grocery store. Meet them here.

That quiet gentleman clearing the tables and removing trash at Café 3000 at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh may be artist Prabhath Asoka Gunawardane.

Gunawardane spends his days working in the hospital cafeteria and his time off painting, drawing and photographing.

He paints in watercolors and acrylics and sketches in ink, often turning out stylized images of graceful dancers and musicians on colorful backgrounds. His paintings are remniscent of Henri Matisse’s famous cutouts but with backgrounds that call to mind rich batiks, a fabric popular in Sri Lanka where Gunawardane was born.

What pays the bills

Gunawardane, 56, lives in Knightdale with his wife, Deepthika, and their daughter, Lakmali, a college student. He and his wife immigrated to the U.S. 24 years ago, settling in northern Virginia. They moved to North Carolina seven years ago to escape the traffic and the snow and to give their daughter a better, more affordable college education.

In Sri Lanka, Gunawardane had worked for the government-run transportation system. Since coming to America, he has always worked as a hospital cafeteria aide, cleaning and washing dishes.

His boss, Chris Carr, describes him as a quiet, self-sufficient worker. “He comes in each day getting right to work, doing what is expected of him.”

Carr did not realize until a few months ago – when a chef in the cafeteria told him – that Gunawardane was also an accomplished artist.

After exhibiting his artwork at the hospital, Gunawardane has developed a loyal following among his co-workers.

Deborah Brogden, who used to work at WakeMed, bought a painting of dancing ladies and nominated Gunawardane as a Double Life subject. And Jessica Marchand, director of food and nutrition services at WakeMed, said, “I purchased one of Prahbath’s pieces the last time he displayed them on WakeMed Raleigh Campus. It is hanging in my guest room!”

What feeds the soul

Gunawardane showed a flair for art as a child and was encouraged by his mother and older brother, who also was a prolific artist on the side. His teachers at Isipathana College, a national school in Colombo, Sri Lanka, also urged him to cultivate his talent.

“My schoolteachers were very talented,” he explained. “I learned from them.”

Gunawardane was in his 30s before before he seriously began to develop his art. His sister-in-law knew he was talented and asked him to paint a picture for a friend, who wanted him to re-create a drawing she found in a catalog. His wife recalls that he was so new to the notion that they didn’t even know where to buy a canvas or good drawing paper.

These days, Gunawardane has a garage, as well as a spare bedroom, filled with his paintings and drawings. The United Arts Council has displayed his work at the hospital and at several government offices. And he has a website, srilakart.com, where he shares his work with the world.

Constantly pondering ideas and drawing inspiration from other artists, his own artistic endeavors are not limited to paper or canvas: He designed the custom teak furniture throughout the family’s Knightdale house, bringing his own touch to a traditional Sri Lankan style.

Most telling is why he likes to create art: “It gives me a calm feeling.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848; Twitter: @andreaweigl

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