Meet Laila Airlie Dempster, the talented portrait artist with a love for all things Indonesian.
I was born into a Diplomatic family with a long artistic tradition. My first studies in art were made in Barcelona, Spain, with the great Spanish Master Alfredo Sisquella from the original Barcelona group of artists of which Picasso was the most famous member. He used to delight in sketching me and would play games around the art of painting to amuse me, so unawares, I absorbed the basic Old Master’s techniques from my earliest days. At the age of 11, studying at the British Council in Singapore, my life drawings were almost as developed as they are today, and at 17, I attended the St. Martin’s School of Art in London. At 18, I started receiving commissions for portraits and at 23 I attended the Byam Shaw School of art in London.
How did you come to settle here in Indonesia?
I came to Indonesia in 1971, to a big International congress of a world-wide spiritual movement called Subud, which is very new in the world, and its founder is a Javanese from Semarang. It’s not a religion or a science or like anything that we have ever known or heard of; It’s something you receive and feel very clearly in yourself and so has no racial or religious denomination. It is unique to each individual, so all races, religions etc can be together and worship together as one…one humanity before one God.
You’re renowned for your work as a portrait artist, could you tell us a little about your work?
I have worked primarily as a portrait artist all over the world, though now, established since 1971 in Jakarta, my work, aside from portraits also expresses my love for Indonesia, its people, traditions and landscapes. When in England I had an exhibition at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and now my work, as a result of extensive travels, is to be found in collections, some important, all over the world and now my present project is for a major exhibition of new work done in Central Java.
How would you describe your style, and approach to design?
It’s rather difficult to describe my style, sort of Impressionist, would you say? What inspires me, and my approach to design…you see, I am born an artist, so whatever I do comes about quite unexpectedly and my mind is often empty, as I sing away and my hand paints away, and then after a while I stand back and see what’s been going on – often not what I had been ‘planning’ at all! I once was diligently painting a young girl in a park, concentrating on getting her ‘just right’, and when I stood back and took a break, I saw that I had painted the Mona Lisa! I was very annoyed at myself, and then two little old ladies came by and said, “Oh, you are painting the Mona Lisa.”
What inspires your work?
What inspires my work is just beauty. The beauty of the human soul, the beauty of this world..a baby’s cheek, a bowl of fruit, the sky…light, inner light, outer light…
If you could describe yourself in five words, what would they be?
5 words to describe me (this is what I think, but maybe others don’t see me this way!) I LOVE – LIFE, PEOPLE, I CARE, I SUFFER, ENJOY.
Apart from the world of art, is there anything else you are passionate about?
I deeply care about the suffering condition of children without proper education to develop themselves for their future happiness and safety in life; it’s in Indonesia, but basically world-wide.
Lastly, do you have any sage words of advice for aspiring artists?
For aspiring artists, I would just say that it is of great importance to the future safety of their existence to have a second string to their bow so that when times are lean and they must feed themseves and their families, they can do so. It’s not romantic, but starving in a garret is no fun!