Squares for Petrus

We met with the Swedish artist Petrus Bergstrand at Le Studio 5 in Stockholm and talked about painting, New York and the unexpected.


Why do you paint?

I painted my first oil painting when I was about ten years old; my grandmother was an artist and she taught me the basics, and since then I evolved to be painting in my boy's room, really motivated. I didn't stop since then, I guess. Maybe I had some interruptions: I had to make a living, get a job, do something creative to make a living...          

There was always a creative vibe present in the family.

Oh, yeah. My father was an actor. My mother is an artist too, but she developed her artistic side later on in her life. She was an actress in the beginning, then she transformed into director and after that started to write stuff for tv and theater. She's been freelancing for almost all her life: Dramaten, Riksteatern, SVT… My sister is a theater director too. I'm home blind, you can say, totally. I'm grown into the whole scenario, the art interest was always vivid in my family.

Creating, planning for your upcoming exhibitions or thinking of new ideas – what are you putting more time into nowadays?

I'm in some kind of Limboland right now. I'm not really creating for the time being, but thinking, feeling and brewing; that's constantly happening, which is both a gift and a curse, because sometimes is a lot of fun, but sometimes you want to have a break too. But the active painting… I'm not in this right now because it's been so much around me. It's been crazy, actually. I just did this commercial for a well-known upscale car brand in Portugal.

What were you doing there?

I don't know, unbelievable things happened. Somebody just contacted me and said, “we are shooting this commercial and we want you to play yourself”. They just flew me down there and took me to this film shoot. I thought it was going to be average, but it was like a Hollywood-style production. So it was crazy, really. This gave me light post-traumatic stress. “What happened?”, you know what I mean? That was an unexpected event. This month I have this show in Stockholm, here at Le Studio 5, on the 27th, and after that I will be at the Affordable Art Fair with Singulart, a French gallery that will have me as an artist. I will have more paintings in Hamburg, which is the month after. So there's not really that much painting on now, which is kind of terrible, I think. That's where I feel more at home.

You follow a special workflow: before painting, you start by visualizing the sounds and motion this painting will somehow provoke you, and from there you start creating the actual painting. Is this vision that you get from the artwork anyhow affected by your surroundings?

Maybe the colors and the tone of the shapes are affected by how I feel, but otherwise the process… I read something some other artist said about inventing something new through mistakes or failures. It's like playing: you see something that turns you on, that feels visually right, some volume at the beginning of the creative process, and then you work from there. It's growing and suddenly it's just there, really. Sometimes it fails; then you just start over or work from that, but that's the essence of the process.

“I'm stuck to the painting, I don't know why. It's the square, the limitations. I like that”

Do you fabricate your own paint and materials?

No, never did. I used to work in oil, but I stopped the oil painting a few years ago because it took too much time; the process cools down when it has to dry for so many days to be able to continue, you lose the tempo. Before that, oil paint was my thing: it's classical, it brings a different, organic feel… But then I changed my mind and I started to paint with acrylics. I mix up a lot of stuff. Sometimes I have regular wall paint, also floor paint - it gives crazy shine. I'm kind of wild when it comes to the paint quality. Wall paint is the best; eggshell white, it's like water paint, and it gives this eggshell matt feeling. When I'm finishing, I put some protection. I use glossy varnish for some parts and matt varnish on others. If you see it when the light comes from the side, you will notice. I'm going to shift to oil painting this year though, I've missed it. The slower progress.

Is there any other technique that you really enjoy besides painting, that you ever wanted to use in your practice?

No. I think I'm stuck to the painting, I don't know why. It's the square, the limitations. I like that.

I heard that you used to play music and sing as well.

Yes, I did a few tunes on the laptop. Actually like six albums. Gave it up to focus on my painting, though. Nowadays I just play guitar: I'm trying to play the blues as well as possible. Sometimes I just make a song and put it on the Soundcloud or so.

You educated yourself into arts from a young age and eventually applied to the Art Students League of New York when you were 23. Why there? What were the most significant differences you found between art schools in Stockholm and New York?

I was living a lost life in Sweden. I was deejaying on bars, partying… I had no purpose. A friend of mine went there and told me to apply, so I just thought, “why not?”, and then everything was fine, no problemos. I used to paint in my small apartment in the south of Stockholm, but when I came there it surprised me, actually; it made me more focused, I took the whole painting more seriously. I found the start of my artistic language. In Stockholm I went to Basis Konstskola, and I also did some courses at Folkuniversitetet, but I don't think they taught me anything; maybe how to stretch a canvas. I felt that I already had an idea of what I wanted to do from the beginning, since I already experimented so much before, but then I was doing the still life painting and all that stuff. I think the Art Students League of New York was totally free. You just painted and somebody who was an actual artist, in this case Andrew Lukach, a New York painter, came and shared his thoughts. He was just circulating, sometimes stopping and saying, “Wow, that’s beautiful! I don't know about this part, though”. It was more inspiring.

While living in New York you sold your first painting. Did this first sale have any impact on your decision of becoming a fulltime painter?

It did. There is a before and after. I already had this idea of producing at least one or two paintings a month, because I was always working on something, but it was a before and after, definitely. I was surprised, of course, but at the same time I expected it: I had more of a cocky attitude, and maybe unrealistic ideas.

How did it feel to be here, once you decided to move back to Stockholm, and how did you reintroduce yourself into the local art scene?

The only reason I stayed in New York was that I met this woman and we got married. Then when we broke up I had nothing there to do, I wasn't there because I was so in love with the city, like, “wow, this is New York!”. Of course in the beginning it was a kick, many times, but I moved back to Sweden just because, you know, I'm Swedish. This is my home. So after staying in New York for four years, when I came back I thought, “now I'm ready, I'm going to have some shows and it will be fine”. But it didn't work out, so I put away the painting for a little bit. This was when film started to turn digital. I took one semester at a film school in Stockholm and I noticed that I had some talent for editing; you have to have some kind of musical rhythm, of narrative knowledge. So I stopped painting and started to go into film, just to support myself, because otherwise it would have been a big problem. I was making music videos, commercials… Back then it paid really well, it was crazy. I did this for a few years until I couldn't take it anymore because it was draining me.

“You lose your faith in what you do, and then you find it, and when you find it is even stronger and you challenge yourself”

It's very common among artists to have a side job that pays the bills, probably not arts-related at all, so it feels really inspiring to meet people decided to make a living out of their artistic practice and that actually make it. How did you manage to establish yourself in the business?

After being back for a while I decided to quit the film editing and just started painting. I didn't think about if it would work or not, it was a kamikaze thing. It was a quite turbulent time; I had a substance abuse going on, which of course was escalating. I was drinking and smoking marihuana. But I didn't do that all the time: I was painting and then rewarding myself, like a start-up strategy. It was really bad, but on the other hand I didn't think of my future, plans or any consequences very much because of the substance abuse, so that was a positive thing. I think if I would have been totally aware and sober, I would have thought “this is not going to work”.

Which do you think could be a good city for your career, if you moved again?

I think Sweden is great, in many ways. This is where I'm born and raised. I believe maybe a quarter of the year would be good to be away; January, February, March. If I would go somewhere to paint, I would need maybe a little bit of sun; it makes it easy, inspiring.

It's funny that you say you would enjoy some sun. ’Confusion’ was the first thing that came to my mind when I saw your paintings for the first time.

It is confusion. Life is confusion. There's no clarity here. A little bit of obscure confusion, why not? I have darkness, of course; there is more of a nostalgic tragedy, I guess.

Your work has been exhibited in all kinds of venues: from galleries and showrooms to cultural centers and prestigious art fairs like Miami Art Week or Art Dubai, and even at a castle. Which type of venues fits better your personality?

First of all, when it comes to let's say Miami Art Fair, it might sound huge but the range of paintings sold there is up to $10 million, and I'm on the lowest of the lowest. But being there is great because you lose your faith in what you do, and then you find it, and when you find it is even stronger and you challenge yourself. My paintings sell for $4000, that's nothing for an art collector. They don't even consider it collectible, just because it's too cheap. You have to go up to $10000; then you are a blue-chip, a maybe-collectible. I have a friend there, an agent and old buddy from the New York days, who hooked me up with Moti Vinograd. I was showing my art in his gallery during the Miami Art Week and the Aqua Art Miami last year. It was an adventure for my own sake, but I did some business too. I stayed at my agent's place; he is a quite wealthy broker now and has a spot for me where I can work and stay for a few months. I was under his wing a little bit and we were just hanging out. It was great.

Thanks to the Internet, and especially to social media, it's easier than ever to promote your work and reach a wider audience. Are you taking advantage of this kind of platforms, or do you keep it old school?

I have to be very grateful for the Internet. It brought me sales and it brought me contacts, in many ways. My homepage brought me a lot of private collectors coming to my studio and taking three paintings. It would have been very hard to reach out without it. It also brought me in contact with Singulart, the online French gallery that will represent me in the Affordable Art Fair. You buy one of those ads for twenty bucks and you can just spot the location, grow the range… it's great.

We at Enliven believe that artists and their work should have a bigger presence. What is your vision for a great platform for artists?

I have a great idea: a camera, and you shooting while we talk. That would be interesting for people to see. I think people want to see other people meeting, because we are so far away from that now, when people talk through computers, but meeting is not that common anymore.

Do your kids paint?

Yes, but more like kids do. They come and see my shows, but my son has seen my ’behind-the-scenes’. I had some rough days and paid my dues when it comes to being on a low budget, living in a small space… It's really good to know how it feels to fall hard. He is a smart dude and figured out this is not for him.


Upcoming events

September 27th - October 6th, I höstens närvaro (solo exhibition) at Le Studio 5, Stockholm
October 10-13th, Singulart Gallery (France) at Affordable Art Fair, Stockholm
November 14-17th, Singulart Gallery (France) at Affordable Art Fair, Hamburg







Photographer, Writer
Photography, Literature
¡Hola! I am part of the editorial team of Enliven. I run the riso magazine HAMSTER, about photography and writing, and I do freelance writing for different projects. So basically, if it has pictures or words, I'm in!
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