05 April 2017

Ruwan Karunaratne's shop never closes

Ruwan Karunaratne’s journey can be traced by the educational institutions he attended, the certificates he secured, the companies that employed him or the positions he’s held.  St Mary’s College (Veyangoda), Bandaranayake Central College (Gampaha) and the Technical College (Warakapola). That’s one way.  Console Electronics, Image Advertising, Minds FCB and Phoenix O&M.  That’s another.  

He began as a child artist and progressed/degenerated into an electronic technician, a paste-up artist, and illustrator and lettering artist, an airbrush artist and visualize, an art director and now a creative group head.  That’s yet another way.  And it’s all caricature.  

Ruwan was 15 years old when he won the first prize in the Children’s Drawing Competition run by the now defunct but then quite popular ‘Weekend’ newspaper.  Sinha, now the Chief Editor of the ‘Sunday Times’ was at the time the Deputy Editor of the ‘Weekend’.  Just another routine letter for Sinha, but it was a landmark moment for young Ruwan.   The prize was a gift voucher to the value of Rs 25.00.  For Ruwan, the value, even if correcting for inflation, is much more.  

Back then all he heard about arts was that it won’t get him a job.  That’s why he studied electronics and got a job as an apprentice technician at Console Electronics.  It is hard to picture Ruwan the Creative Group Head working with wires and switches, but then again he once said “I want a world where everything can be done using just fingertips”.  

Persevering.  That’s Ruwan.  Some co-workers who knew of his talents persuaded Ruwan to apply to advertising jobs.  This he did and that’s how he discovered that it was not just about watercolors, crayons and pencils.  He saved money, bought the materials and taught himself.  Ruwan was never one to give up. What did not come easy to him he secured the hard way, and that’s how it has always been since then. 

Once when he went for an interview at Image Advertising, he had got very nervous seeing the other candidates all dressed up.  He had a simple request: “Sir, I don’t need a salary…I just want to learn about this thing called advertising….give me an opportunity.”

The statement marks Ruwan.  He used the opportunities that came his way.  
It was a simple greeting card.  The cover draws from the John Keells logo and intrigues with the simple picture of the butterfly.  Open it and you get a riot of delight.  What’s remarkable is the meticulous effort.  Even the writing has been ‘drawn’.  And this is just a ‘dummy’ for client-appraisal!  The finish product, if it had been made today, would not draw oohs and aahs because of the ease that advanced software has gifted today’s artists, but back then, this would have been roundly ‘wowed’ everyone.
“I did everything.  Illustrations.  Paste-up.  The Bromide Machines.  Image Advertising handled the lorries belonging to Reckitt and Coleman.  We drew everything that went on the stickers.  I learnt from everyone, but especially Lionel.  When I figured there was nothing more I could learn, I decided it was time to leave.  This is because I never had any formal training.” 

His time at Minds (and indeed his entire career) was marked by an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a drive to perfect new techniques and an excellent work ethic.  He worked hard, even during the lunch hour.  He even spent the night in office since it often got too late for him to catch the last bus home.  The seniors would get him to do some of their work as well.  Ruwan did not mind.  All this earned him the tagline: වැසූ මොහොතක් නැති රුවන් (Ruwan, whose shop never closes).  In fact this was officially recognized; Ruwan was adjudged ‘Workhorse of the Year’ in two consecutive years. He work was also rewarded.  He went from Paste-up Artist to Visualizer and finally to Art Director. 
When it became clear to Ruwan that the doors to formal education would be hard to open, he decided to teach himself.  He bought books.  He spent most of his earnings on books.

“I have purchased hundreds of books over the years.  I went through all of them.  I wanted to see the difference between my work and their work.  I tested myself.  That’s how I learnt.”

After working for more than 12 years at Minds, Ruwan decided he needed a change and perhaps a bigger challenge.  He joined Phoenix in 2003 as an Art Director.  He was later promoted to Senior Art Director and is currently Creative Director -Art and Design.   As always a new agency was a new learning experience, working with different brands and different creative people.  But it was more than that, says Ruwan.
Once again a simple but elegant cover design for a brochure. The client was the Metropolitan Group. Again we see how attentive Ruwan is to detail.  Remember that this was the time when computers were being marketed in Sri Lanka for the first time as essentials of an office environment. 

“I advanced my knowledge.  I was among creative people who were very senior.  I had to work on a wider range of brands and on various kinds of campaigns.  Phoenix is where I was able to fine-tune my skills.  If I was an apparently discoloured and nondescript piece of stone, at Phoenix I was cut and polished or rather I am being continuously cut and polished.  It is impossible to mention all my ‘teachers’, all those who helped shape me professionally into who I have become.  Suffice to say that I am grateful to them all.”

He is quiet.  Courteous to a fault.  But Ruwan thinks.  Deep.  He observes.  When he does speak he has useful and important things to say.  When he offers a comment, it is intelligent and witty.  And he’s always ‘new’, indeed he gets more fresh the older he becomes.  
“This model of a motorcycle (top) was done for a recent exhibition organized by Phoenix titled ‘The Other Side’.  I collected all kinds of metal parts without thinking of the model itself.  Then I looked for the appropriate piece for the appropriate part.  It was quite time-consuming.  My son’s approach (top) was very different.  He didn’t take a lot of time.  He looked for and found the pieces he wanted and put them together.  His model is marked by simplicity. Beauty is of course in the eyes of the beholder, but I must confess that if I was given the materials he used I would never have been able to come up with such a lovely model.” 
“I do not have a style.  No rules.   I’ve never had rules, not even as a child.  And I always wanted to do something different.  Even if I was working on the same brand for a second time, I approached the brief like someone who had never encountered the particular brand.  There’s something that I have determined to always be: a child.  I am a child.  I’ve always been a child and will be a child until I die.  Children are imaginative and their imagination has no limits.”

When he was at Minds, there had been an exercise where everyone in the office had to write short notes about everyone else.  While there was the random admonishment for keeping to himself, most said what anyone at Phoenix would probably say if a similar exercise was done today.

“I appreciate your calm and gentle nature. I wish you would never change.  I like the careful and painstaking ways you treat your work.  Don’t ever change.A quiet, efficient presence.I like everything about you. Don’t change a thing!  [I like] Your quiet and humble manner, the way you mind your own business and get on with your work.”

So Ruwan Karunaratne is all about being a child.  He was all about art as a child and as an adult too it’s art that he does. As is all adult about exploring the frontiers of his vocation but he’s all child in his curiosity, the will to learn and the delight in knowledge acquisition.  He’s adult enough to understand difference and prejudice but he’s child enough to brush such things aside and focus on the wholesome commonalities.  Maturity they say compels you to speak less and listen more; Ruwan is a mature adult but the superior worth of observation is almost like a childhood remnant that he dragged along from pre-school, through high school and professional work.

Ruwan Karunaratne is adult enough to know that learning is a lifelong thing, but he embraces education of all kinds with the confidence of a child who knows not his or her limits.  Play is all the work a child knows and in this sense all children are workaholics.  Ruwan’s shop never closes.