INTERVIEW: Naydene Gonnella – Behind the Pop Phiz

Naydene Gonnella
Naydene Gonnella at the Gunpowder House, Admiral’s Inn. Photo by Jennifer Ritchie.

The midday sun seared down over the Gunpowder House as I drove up the dusty gravelled lane, past the sparse scrubland where a mare and her foal were grazing, to meet the iconic Naydene Gonnella.

“I’m so excited to meet you”, I said, possibly unnecessarily, but most evidently. Naydene is light, bright and gorgeous, like her paintings that explode out from your walls with a vivacity that asks you to stop and look closer at the layers of collage and colour that are her signature style. Her sunny vibrancy lights up the slightly gloomy stone walls of the old Gunpowder House, where below us diners relax and dine at Boom restaurant, and I hoped that I would be able to see beyond the canvases to discover what drives Naydene to produce the quintessential faces that are looking at me from her current Pop Phiz exhibition and has encouraged her inspiring career as an artist.

Naydene Gonnella with her painting of Heath Ledger as The Joker, with the poignant caption ‘Why so Serious?’. Photo by Jennifer Ritchie.

Today, I am wildly privileged. In a few months, a collection by Naydene will be exhibited in Paris and now her Pop Phiz exhibition is hanging in The Admirals Inn and Gunpowder House in Antigua. Her recent show in St Maarten saw four of the main paintings being sold before opening. Right now, it is just us and her expressionistic portraits watching, daring me to dig deeper.

How did she end up following art as a career? “I love to draw. I used to put on art shows for my family, hanging pictures on a clothes line. My grandfather would buy one”. She smiles at the memory.  She admits she is impatient, sketching an outline and then going crazy with colour.

Surely art is a talent that you are born with? I am certain that Naydene has a rare natural ability but she credits her work largely to discipline and focus.

"Flying Pelicans" by Naydene Gonnella. 45" x 45".
“Flying Pelicans” by Naydene Gonnella. 45″ x 45″.

It is this discipline that I am instantly attracted to. “It’s a learned pattern. You can’t be talented and lucky – the harder I work, the luckier I get” she says. “It’s hard work, going into the uncomfortable zone – or to really pursue a theme despite criticisms, to stick with what your gut tells you”. She admits to feeling awkward in social environments, but what I see in her is incredible power. Her mind is strong and when I suggest that art is in the eye of the beholder, she says that you can always “appreciate the skill, whether or not you like it”.

Why Pop Phiz? A good friend told her that the word ‘phiz’ means face or expression in British English. She chose ‘pop’ as a way of breaking away from the face. In each piece of work in this collection, that took 3 years to complete, there are words and images tucked away hinting at that person’s past, and her own: when she had her two children, she stopped painting for a few years as she didn’t want them surrounded by the chemicals, and she made paper. She showed me the little folded paper lambs collaged into some of the pieces, some more hidden than others.

Surely when you put so much of yourself into each piece, you have an attachment to them? “I have kept a few” she says, “One of the girls when they were younger, a set of doors in a window frame, one of three cats”.  But, she says, as she is working on several pieces at once, by the time she has completed one, she is at once attached to the next one, and so it goes on.

"Stay True" by Naydene Gonnella.
“Stay True” by Naydene Gonnella. 36″ x 36″. Part of the collection to be exhibited in Paris.

Looking forward to Paris this year: there will be a cocktail reception on September 12, 2017 and the exhibition will run through to October 20, 2017 at GROUPE OFI, 22 rue Vernier, Paris. I dare any of you to miss this opportunity to see Naydene’s new collection!

Naydene Gonnella to exhibit in Paris
Naydene Gonnella to exhibit in Paris from September 12th to October 20th, 2017

If you would like to visit Naydene’s personal site for more information, click here.

If you are interested in purchasing a work of her art, click here. Her art is also available in Antigua at ‘Rhythm of Blue’ gallery in English Harbour and ‘Fig Tree Studio’ in the rainforest. Alternatively, in St Maarten at ‘Dreams International Art’ gallery.

You can also follow Naydene on social media:

Facebook – click here

Twitter – click here

Instagram – click here 

"Flamingos" by Naydene Gonnella. 40" x 48".
“Flamingos” by Naydene Gonnella. 40″ x 48″.
So here goes, this is Naydene, in her own words!

– You are currently exhibiting at The Admirals Inn and Gunpowder Suites in Nelson’s Dockyard. What can we expect to see in this exhibition and what has inspired it?

My current exhibition at the Admirals Inn and Gunpowder Suites is a reprise of my last show at the Copper and Lumber Hotel – Pop-Phiz, a collection of expressionistic portraits.  That show was for one night only and a really great success, however, quite a few people missed it who really wanted to come, so I approached Paul Deeth from the Admirals Inn and he kindly let me hang in both his places for the month of April 2017, actually until May 7th.  This exhibit has a few new pieces added as well, so theres something new to see even if you came to my December show. 

 The main body of work for this show are my expressionistic portraits.  Some are celebrities, some are people I know and some are just made up faces which I piece together from things that inspire me. 

 I have another exhibition on currently on the island of St. Maarten.  I was there for a few days on my way to St. Barts to deliver some portraits and decided to see if there was a gallery there that may be interested in showing my work.  Dreams International Art Gallery loved the idea and loved the paintings so we agreed to have a show and introduce me to this island.  The opening was Friday, April 7th and was tremendously successful. In fact, they need more paintings already! 

– You also have an upcoming exhibition in Paris in September. How do you feel about heading back to Europe and what body of work will you be showing there?

I am extremely thrilled to announce that I have been invited to exhibit my paintings in Paris this September.  I will be putting together a whole new collection for this show so once I get back to Antigua, I will be in the studio painting, painting, painting

This show will be focused on my expressionistic portraits.  The positive response from Pop-Phiz has been overwhelming and very exciting for me to have something so close and personal touch so many other people. 

"Graffiti Artist" by Naydene Gonnella. 54" x 72"
“Graffiti Artist” by Naydene Gonnella. 54″ x 72″

– You are originally from Canada and have studied in Italy and lived in Aruba before coming to Antigua. Has your time in different countries influenced your art?

I do feel that everywhere I have lived from Canada, to Italy and from Aruba to Antigua, each place definitely has had an impact on my work.  In Canada, I was drawn to the bold crisp cold colours of the north; in Italy the rustic, textural surfaces of the doors and buildings; in Aruba, the hot, dry, desert-like climate with the unbelievable turquoise seas and red clay sand, which of course carries through to Antigua, where the Caribbean sea which I see daily when I drive to my studio has had the most influence on my work.  Not only for the colour, but the creatures that live in and around the beautiful waters.

– Personally I was drawn to your art a number of years ago when I first visited Antigua, it was the colour combinations that I fell in love with as well as the themes. Is colour part of your inspiration or do you start out with the theme?

I love colour.  I have used vibrant colour palettes for as long as I can remember.   If I am working from photos I tend to use black and white, so I am not influenced by any other colour than what is in my own mind.  I have studied colour theory and the challenge I give myself continually is to break rules with colour. 

– Can you explain the techniques that you use to bring your paintings to life?

I work with a combination of beeswax and oil paint, known as encaustic, where I use the heat of the sun to melt the wax.  I then layer, collage,  glaze and paint the elements together.  Usually I start with an acrylic base, I may add copper, sand or paper where I want texture.  Working with the wax is a technique Ive developed over the years, my own unique recipe. 

My pieces evolve in a process of painting and collaging several layers on a canvas and then pulling back parts to reveal glimpses of earlier forms. 

 – You have lived in Aruba for a number of years before coming to Antigua, what inspired that change of location for you?

Even though I love Canada, it is cold for too much of the year.  I first fell in love with the Caribbean many years ago when we would go on family trips to Mexico.  I knew one day I would live near that turquoise sea.  Luckily my husband worked in the hotel business so that brought us to Antigua.   I am now a citizen here.

– As a professional artist yourself, do you see art as an important part of life and encourage it in your own children?

My children both love the arts, however my oldest girl, Kianna is more drawn to music and writing – she currently is studying in California. My youngest, Danya, is more interested in painting and I do see some talent there.  LOL I would love it if she wanted to continue with it, but shes young and not sure yet what she wants to do.  My kids see me paint a lot, I often ask their opinion on pieces as well. 

"Danya" by Naydene Gonnella 18" x 18"
“Danya” by Naydene Gonnella 18″ x 18″. This is Naydene’s youngest daughter and will be on show in her upcoming Paris exhibition.

– What does a typical working day entail?

A typical day for me starts early, I get Danya off to the school bus, then head to the gym for my training.  I started going to the gym about 3 plus years ago and it has really stuck with me.  I use a trainer so I cant excuse myself out of going so that works for me.  So after training I head right to my studio.  I have a large studio located at Midway Storage Park, and of course, I have a smaller one in my home.  I usually paint for 5 to 6 hours, some of that time may be spent on PR work if Im having any kind of exhibition going on, and of course updating social media and my web site.  Then its home to collect my daughter and make dinner. Quite often Ill keep working on some pieces at my home studio as well.  Im a day person so I head to bed quite early.  Then start again the next day. 

– Everyone needs a day off every now and then. Do you paint every day? Where would we find you on a quiet Sunday morning?

Basically, I take no days off, this is life for me.  I may start later in the day, or work through ideas in my head, but its who I am not what I do.

– For anyone starting out with ideals of a profession as an artist, what advice would you give them?

For the past few years Ive been putting my Pop-Phiz exhibition together so I really had to paint and prepare a lot of the time.  I have always had a good working ethic, I think it comes with knowing what you want and what it takes to get there.  I went back to OCAD University in my mid twenties and I was a lot older than many of my co students.  I gave up the party life of University and chose to paint through the breaks, through lunch, at night, I would enter every competition I could find, I applied for any scholarships, I pursued juried art shows all the time.  I found out early that the harder I worked, the luckier I got.  Of course it isnt luck at all, its all attitude.  I knew that there were hundreds of talented people also trying to get the same thing and unless I push myself beyond the comfort zone I will never get ahead.  Three years later I graduated with Honours and won quite a few scholarships, and had started selling my pieces at some group shows.  Now believe me, it wasnt a walk in the park by any means, I was quite a loner, I had to overcome fear of rejection and just go in and try.  Ive had plenty of rejection as well.  I didnt get in to a group show, didnt get in to a student gallery, however it just fed my need to push myself harder.  I knew I had to come up with something that would wow the viewer and also something different.   

So having the right attitude is key for success of any kind.  That has stuck with me and currently with the Paris show on the horizon I know have 4 months to put a whole new collection together which is really exciting to me.  I have ideas in my head that I cant wait to start on. 

"Freedom" by Naydene Gonnella. 24" x 30"
“Freedom” by Naydene Gonnella. 24″ x 30″

– What has been your greatest professional achievement to date and what is next for you on this path?

As I mentioned my most recent show Pop-Phiz was really something to put on.  I spent quite a lot of time preparing that one and I think the success of the show is a credit to what I put into it.  I worked on the pieces for 3 years and I delve quite deep into my journey to pull out some of what went on canvass.  It was a lot of fun however, even at the opening my mind is already on my next painting, or groups of paintings.   I am most comfortable in the studio. 

I am really looking forward to pushing even deeper now to put on a show in Paris that will be another highlight.  I have learned over the years its about the journey, not the destination.  We grow, change, let go and repeat, each time hopefully with more contentment.  So, for this artist, the journey is my greatest achievement.

– Finally, Antigua has a wealth of restaurants! Some are only open seasonally and some all year round. Where was your last great meal out in Antigua?

Ive had some great meals on this island, I think my favorite is the tenderloin from Al Porto.  Fantastic.

Naydene Gonnella by Jennifer Ritchie
Naydene Gonnella by Jennifer Ritchie


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