For the artist and free diver Lucia de Brito Franco water has long been a source of fascination. It began during her youth in Portugal and grew when her family would spend time in the Azores, a series of small islands in the Atlantic about 900 miles west of Lisbon.
There she would dive, develop her own breathing techniques, and become so convinced of her affinity for ocean depths that she asked herself questions like whether her feet were better suited for swimming than other family members. Now 43, she estimates that she began diving sometime around age 6 or 7.
De Brito Franco still spends roughly half her time in Portugal, and frequently in the Azores diving and painting. Her husband Greg Fortin, the owner of Glacier Adventure Guides in Columbia Falls, introduced her to Montana, where since 2018 she’s found herself for the rest of the year, including beneath the surface of Flathead Lake, a body of water where she senses a power that can drive her brushstrokes across the broad cotton canvas she paints upon.
“I am very fascinated with water, light and sound, especially water and light, how it’s essential to provide life on this planet as we know it,” she says. “How water, light and sound are connected into becoming life, to becoming animated parts of material.”
According to de Brito Franco her work has collectors in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, and has been featured in exhibits in Portugal, Switzerland and Montana, including at Montana Modern Fine Art in Kalispell. The gallery represents her, and owner Marshall Noice said that knowing she’s a world-class free diver it makes it easy when looking at her paintings to imagine seeing a sometimes abstract array of colors that come through in the reflections of sky, cloud and trees as seen from underwater.
“I think the most obvious thing both from a color standpoint and from the actual physical surface of the paintings themselves, it’s just absolutely luscious,” Noice said.
Using acrylics, de Brito Franco builds layered, atmospheric paintings that in some cases present like aquatic views. Part of her artistic interest lies in evoking a complex interplay of experience and sensation, and that includes landscapes above and below the surface. In one painting, which is suffused with golds and yellows, de Brito Franco says she was trying to capture her time spent diving, hiking and sailing in and around Wild Horse Island. In some of her paintings different hues of blue are shot through with streaks of red, yellow, or white that seem to convey an almost bursting sense of movement.
Movement is present, too, as de Brito Franco describes her passions and her work in sometimes sweeping gestures with her hands and arms. In explaining her preference for free diving she describes how the alternative of using an oxygen tank and other associated gear constricts movement and weighs a diver down. Without those kinds of apparatus she can more freely swim and move, sometimes in proximity to the large, winged mobula rays that can be found in the Azores.
“Everything is to make you go slow, you’re not like a fish. Free diving, you’re like a fish.” she said.
A lack of movement is also part of why she has limited interest in some of the more competitive aspects of free diving, like competitions to see how long a diver can hold their breath underwater.
“After two minutes they start tapping on your shoulder every 15 seconds, and then you have to put your finger up saying you’re fine and not dead, because you’re completely static and completely relaxed so you can save more oxygen,” she said.
Alongside diving, art was also an early component of de Brito Franco’s life. Her mother painted and passed down oil paints to her. As a teenager she was able to study under a Portuguese oil painter who emphasized classical techniques. She was advised to go to fine art school, but by age 17 she rebelled against the idea out of concern that the school might condition her in a certain way and inhibit her as an artist. Eventually she went to architecture school and became an architect, but in the interim she discovered the work of the British painter William Turner. Turner was born in late 18th century London. In describing her affinity for Turner’s work, de Brito Franco mentions his ability to capture the atmosphere and energy of a place. She also pointed to his effort to experience the elements he would try to capture in his work.
“He was going out there. He would go to a sailboat and be sailing for a few days to try and get the water on his face, the wind blowing, so that when he would do the painting he would have that really authentic feeling,” she said. “And I can relate to that, because that’s what I want. I’m in a body, I’m a person. I think it’s interesting to enjoy the living experience and then from that it goes to the painting without the rational mind interfering so it’s more raw and authentic.”
She tries to turn off that side of her rational mind when she paints. Approaching a new canvas, she starts with a large brush and puts down a first layer to provide some texture, color and energy to the nascent work. More layers will come with a brush before she switches to a knife. The paintings typically take more than a month before they are complete, and so in the time the paintings are resting de Brito Franco said she spends time staring at them to try and understand the paintings more as she continually adds layers. The layers, she says, come from her classical background. “The classical painter, you never see the white from the frame. That, you can never see,” she said. “I come from that school. So first, you have a lot of layers because you want to hide that. And then second, it’s like the painting is gaining depth with all these different layers.”
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