We often try to be something we are not.

Interview with Camilo Milton by Dr Marc Wagenbach

How did you arrive at painting?

After a back operation I was forced to spend a lot of time lying down. At the time, a friend suggested that I paint something, to combat the boredom. I was 33 years old and had never painted. So I asked myself what on earth I would paint, were I to begin. I soon realized that I wanted to paint people. Then I thought about how I could paint them. At school I was very good at maths – especially in geometry. I learned there that an adult person can be divided into eight circles, i.e. eight heads. A child into six circles. I found that very funny. And then I simply joined the circles with lines.

What happened then?

At first I didn’t think my stuff was any good and I hid it. I wasn’t a proper painter, after all. It was only three years later that I allowed myself to call myself one. I had a very good friend who worked in the Folkwang Museum in Essen. We met up often and had dinner together. As I thought I would never be able to dance again anyway, I showed him one of my pictures. And he really encouraged me to keep going, because he liked what I was doing. After this experience I painted two or three pictures almost every week. All of a sudden, people started buying my pictures. For the first time I sensed that I had become a painter. Just as I had previously felt like a dancer. It just felt right.

Were there certain motifs that you repeatedly used in your early days?

Were there certain motifs that you repeatedly used in your early days? For a while I painted just one single person. Or children from my surroundings. Then I started to do family portraits. What I really liked was the brown skin of the Brazilians, and its very special beauty. Especially in contrast with the skin color of Europeans. It really fascinated me.

When did your subject matter expand?

At first I just painted one person against a background. But there was no floor or any other items. Then I painted a portrait of Dorothea, a good friend. There was a very special rug in her room. I don’t know why, but I integrated the rug and the table into my picture. That was the first time that I included a detail in one of my pictures. And right after that I painted the picture with the bed. In this picture it was fully clear to me that I didn’t want to paint the bed in itself, but rather the light. It is one of the few pictures that I have painted using daylight. I was just so fascinated by the density of the patchwork cover. And step by step, new elements joined it.

What is specific about your working method?

Right at the beginning of my work it was the enlargement of body parts. And over time, this deformation of limbs continued. I asked myself, why can’t a foot simply be blue? Or two or three fingers are missing. Or the finger twists to the side, bent at an angle. And all of that, without the person in the picture losing any of his or her beauty.

Why do you paint children?

I paint children because for me they are associated with the potential to make something of life. But to do so, we must listen to them. Most people I know pay no attention to the thoughts of children. But if you work closely with them, you can hear what they notice and feel. They care for the world.

The children?

Yes. Adults often do not speak of things that frighten them. But children talk about everything with each other and discuss things. Recently I was in a school and one child was speaking to another and said: “You know, there will soon be a war in Germany.” They were seven or eight year-olds. And the other child replied: “Yes, then everything will be destroyed, including the school.” Then I asked them where they had got this information. And they said: “We feel it. We are afraid.”

They tell you that so openly?

Yes, when I ask them. Speaking with children gives you a different perspective of the world. I feel very privileged to be able to work with children. I had already experienced working with children in Brazil.

How would you describe your own childhood?

I was a very free child, and was often alone at home from the age of six, as my mother had to work. At the age of eight I already started to cook. I came home after school and spent the rest of the day in our huge garden. I felt protected there. In Rio de Janeiro my neighbors also looked after me. They were always there. Whenever there was a stranger around, they watched out for me. I never felt alone, and could do whatever I wanted. I never felt restricted. Which wasn’t the case at school, which I hated. I only became interested in school when I decided to become a veterinarian. I didn’t particularly like people at that time, but I loved animals. At home we had seven cats, dogs, a monkey, a duck and even an owl. I always spent my entire pocket money on buying animals. And my mother always went along with it. That was pretty crazy. Maybe she did it because she had me at the late age of 40. My brother was almost grown up by the time I was born.

That sounds like an unusual childhood.

I think I was very lucky. It was good not to have someone fussing over me all the time. Although I think that my mother, who was very conservative, found it awful that she couldn’t look after me as much as she would have liked. But I thought it was great to be able to do what I wanted. Sometimes I even turned the house upside down when she was out. Once, with a friend, I painted everything white and moved the furniture. The living room was suddenly in the bedroom. And the bedroom in the living room. It didn’t bother my mother. She loved me just as I was.

When did you start working with children?

At the age of 14 I started a part-time job as a caregiver in a hospital. I was delicate and as naïve as a flower and I had no idea what to expect. It was terrible. The stink. A mixture of shit, pee and rotting meat. It sucked. And I, little flower that I was, was in hell. I just thought I had to get out of there. Luckily, just at that moment a young caregiver approached me and took me to the children’s ward. There were kids there with burns. The caregiver was a really nice guy and showed me how to clean the wounds. I realized that if I didn’t do it, then no one would. That day I learned how to face even terrible things with humor. Since the children were always afraid before their wounds were to be cleaned, I tried to do it playfully. This difficult task, and dealing with the pain of the children, fostered my love for humanity. Suddenly, I was in love with people. I was 14 years old and watched these sick, brave children playing. And I knew that some of them would die. When I lost the first child, I no longer wanted to work there. I then moved to a ward for adult women.

Did it get any easier for you?

That job wasn’t free from suffering either. When you are with someone who does not want to die and then dies – especially if it’s a young person – that experience changes you elementarily. It always affected me deeply when the ill had to go, and they revealed themselves to me in their complete humanity. I really loved that job. I knew that it was my mission. My talent. I’m good with people.

It is interesting what you said about the children. That they know what’s happening around them. Even though we think that they don’t understand it. This intrinsic understanding that they have of the world.

Children simply accept things more easily than adults. There were also parents who wanted their child to know that he would soon die. A child is well able to understand that he will soon no longer be there, if it is explained to him. Of course he suffers – after all, he will lose mama and papa, but at some stage he accepts his fate. Children live every day as if it is their last. It’s different with adults. Here there are often feelings of guilt. Or relationships that have not been put straight.

And what about when you paint adults?

That’s more difficult for me. It has to be someone I know. I need to know that I can say the truth about the person concerned. For that is what I aim for in painting. I also find it difficult to detect the true person in an adult. Most adults I know are not very interesting to me as subjects for my pictures. I find them boring. Adults lie, or play a role. We have lost our innocence. Why can’t we be ourselves, honest? You don’t have that problem with children. They are fat, thin, happy or sad. It’s very simple.

Why do you now paint animals?

If you look at my pictures chronologically, you will notice very clearly that yet another element is always added to the last. First there was the chair and the rug in the portrait. Then the picture with the bed, where the child can hardly be seen. Then, two years ago, I began including nature. And last year came the animals. I believe that every individual has an animal that accompanies him or her. When painting, I ask myself which animal I would allocate to this person, in order to express a certain feeling.

When did you realize for yourself that you had become an artist?

For a very long time I fought against fears connected with the racism with which I was confronted as a colored person in Brazil. Even in Germany, I didn’t dare go into a restaurant. In 2007, when I separated from my then-partner, something strange happened. The disappointment with him strangely took away my fear. There was this one moment, in a park at night, which showed me just how much I had changed. A couple of punks pestered me: “Hey, nigger. Aren’t you afraid of being alone here?” I simply said: “No, because you don’t know who I am and what I have in my bag. You should be afraid of me.” And then they accepted me. Just like that. It liberated me from all of the misunderstandings in my head. From that moment on I knew that I am the one who decides about my life, and nobody else. I was a painter.

What is your task as an artist and what function does art have in your life?

As an artist I am a mediator between worlds. And it allows me to confront my inner demons. It is my way of expressing myself, of making my interior life speak. Art connects me with everything.