Michael Fernandes and the art of experimentation

The Nova Scotian artist recently won a Governor General’s Award

Michael Fernandes likes to play. He’s an experimental artist who lives in East Dover, N.S. and has been teaching at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University (NSCAD) since 1973. He recently won a prestigious Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (GGArts). 

Becoming an artist 

Fernandes was born in Trinidad and lived there for 16 years. After 14 years of going to school, he decided to drop out. Following this decision, he turned to art, or as he describes it, “doing everything and nothing. Having a good time.” 

When Fernandes was a teenager, his father passed away. His mother immediately got him a ticket to go to Canada. According to Fernandes, his mother wanted him to live with his brother in Montreal, and she thought they could take care of each other.  

Before Fernades left, his mother told him he needed to choose an occupation. By then, Fernandes was already drawing and painting, but he never had formal art training. 

“I never knew [of] art school or even that someone could be an artist,” he says.  

So, as Fernandes was getting ready to move, he asked his brother to look into art schools. His brother suggested that he study at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Fernandes describes his education at the Montreal Museum as nothing like what he had experienced in schools before. 

Fernandes says he and his classmates were given blank canvases without instructions and were told to create whatever they desired.  

“I couldn’t believe this was an institution that coaxed you into doing anything you wanted. So, you had to have the incentive and the willingness and be determined to do a lot of work.”  

Fernandes says he fell in love with this flexible style of teaching, which he greatly implements in his own instruction at NSCAD.  

In this image: Michael Fernandes jumps inside of his home.
Michael Fernandes is an experimental, multimedia artist who resides in East Dover, N.S. He was recently awarded a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. Photo by Cliff Eyland

Constant curiosity 

Fernandes describes his connection to art as “a journey of curiosity. One that’s about being creative and open about making images and constructing things.” 

“I never believed in repeating or emulating something that already existed,” he says. When Fernandes makes art, he is “looking for something that is not there.” 

Fernandes insists he has no skills. Once, he even went as far as to make a business card that read, “I’m an artist, I have no skills.” Fernandes explains this in the poetic way he explains all things. He says people are too often interested in “what one can do, but not what one can do with it.”  

Keeping himself rather outside the norms, Fernandes says he is ultimately more interested in “creating something that doesn’t exist [and] having curiosity for going against the status quo.” 

Defining “experimental” 

Many sources define Fernandes’s work as experimental. While he agrees, Fernandes would simply define his process as “trying out different things.” 

“Playing is very important,” Fernandes says. “Having a sense of not knowing, taking something that is known and taking it to a place where it becomes interesting. Without rule or logic or any form of confidence that you may have in understanding something, seeing something that is wonderful in a sense of not knowing, and presumably trusting that as being something interesting that has life.” 

Fernandes admits his work is unpredictable and odd. But he emphasizes that his work is for himself, and he’s “not interested in what other people may think.” 

Even though he considers himself as the primary viewer of his art, Fernandes remarks that he knows he isn’t “alone in this journey of exploration.” His work is especially remarkable in the ways that he experiments with materials, often mixing mediums from 3D installations to sound.  

As Fernandes transitioned out of his art school days and started to explore who he was on his own, he became more adventurous.  

“I’m an artist who is not disciplined, designed. Not someone who has a career that comes out of one element. I use different mediums and mix different things, and that’s how the experimentation comes to be.” 

Art and freedom 

Fernandes acknowledges that not every person who sees his unconventional art loves it. But that doesn’t bother him. 

“It’s not about trying to please,” Fernandes says. He describes his art as provocative, or as “showing people something that’s worth showing, considering something that is not being considered.” 

Fernandes deems his career successful, but not because of any awards he’s been given.  

“I’m successful because I’m doing what I want to,” he says. “There is no way for an artist not to win. So, the bottom line is to have freedom.” 

On his mission to find artistic freedom, Fernandes was surprised and thought it was a prank when he found out he won a GGArts award. He doesn’t consider himself that kind of an artist. 

“A lot of the artists that are recognized on that level are commissioned. They have private dealers,” Fernandes says.  

As surprised as he was, Fernandes says it is “an honour to be included” amongst fellow renowned artists. 

Receiving this national award won’t change his way of making art. He insists he still has “no interest with the mainstream art scene.” 

Art is “not about popularity,” Fernandes says. “It’s about standing up for something.”  

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