Flavia Bernandes is a self-described ‘painter of unconventional portraits’. Born in Brazil and now living in Ireland, she paints portraits of women who have learned to embrace radical self love, or who are in the process and might need a little reminder of how beautiful they are, as they are. Flavia’s mission is to use her art to showcase the beauty, strength, and courage each of her subjects radiates through their love of themselves and their bodies. Her paintings are stunning and her message extraordinary, and it was an honour and a privilege to interview her.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you become an artist?
I was born and raised in Brazil, as the oldest of three children. Before becoming an artist I was a teacher, and I loved it, but I felt that something was missing from my life. I had always enjoyed art as a hobby, and my boyfriend (now husband) encouraged me to pursue art again.
I ended up going to art school, which is where I first got into painting. I had a professor who was horrible, but he pushed me to get better. Painting became my medium.
As well as helping me to fine-tune my artistic style, art school helped me to become a better teacher. I would probably have continued teaching, had my husband not wanted to move to Ireland. The decision to move from teaching to freelance painting was an immigration/visa decision more than anything else.
That said, I love what I do.
With Body Acceptance being such a central theme in your art, what has Body Acceptance meant for you over the years?
Body Acceptance has been a life-long journey for me, and one that I continue to travel to this day.
Before I started my journey, I always had this terrible ‘not good enough’ feeling with regard to my body; a feeling that comes, at least partially, from growing up in Brazil. Brazil is a very looks-conscious country, and most Brazilian women are always on diets and aiming to be stick-thin. There is also a strange obsession with hair there, where women are supposed to have flowing, long hair; something that I have never been able to achieve!
My mother has always placed a lot of value on Brazilian beauty standards, and my relationship with her has been difficult. She used me as a mirror for herself, wherein she would push her expectations (stick-thin body, luscious long hair, etc) onto me.
I spent so many of my younger years trying to be ‘better’, for my mother and for others who felt similarly to her. I was always trying to please others, and it was difficult to let that mindset go.
When I first got into painting, I painted mothers and daughters together. It was a way for me to explore my relationship with my mother. Painting mothers and daughters in healthy, mutually understanding relationships helped me to heal, and to understand that the expectations my mother had always placed upon me were her problem, not mine.
I now paint women most of the time, and painting them is still a form of healing for me. It is an ongoing process, and I keep improving with every portrait.
Speaking of your painting, why and when did you start specialising in these ‘unconventional portraits’?
The first time I got any insight that this was what I wanted to do was when I was about 11 or 12, in school. We had an art class, and one of my classmates drew a picture of me. When I saw the picture I was amazed, because I looked far more beautiful than I had ever believed myself to be. It was a real ‘oh my God’ moment, and it touched me. It was the first time where I thought to myself, I want to be able to give that moment – that realisation that your beauty is there, and that other people see it – to others.
When I started doing freelance art, I was mainly trying to paint what other people wanted from me. I would spend ages creating this art that I felt was really sub-standard. I eventually got sick of it and thought ‘Forget this. I’ll paint what I want.’
When I was painting mothers and daughters, I noticed that my subjects were always at their most beautiful when they weren’t posing for a painting. When they were their natural selves, playing and interacting with each other, their inner beauty shone brighter. That, I realised, was what I wanted to capture in my art.
How do you capture this inner beauty? What is your creative process?
The main thing with my subjects is that I have to be able to relate to them as people. If I do not relate to them, the painting becomes rubbish. So, before I try to paint them, I need to talk to them or read about them, so I can understand their stories.
That was what started the #paintmeflavia project. I was painting women in these natural, unposed positions and posting them on Instagram. I then started getting emails from other women, telling me their vulnerable, beautiful stories. I loved their stories so much, and I wanted to bring their stories to life through my art. And so #paintmeflavia was born.
How does #paintmeflavia work?
It’s pretty simple. Basically, people email me and tell me their story, and every month I choose one person to paint. I post images of the picture in progress on Instagram, and make an accompanying short video to tell their stories. When the picture is done, I post a proper photo of it with every relevant, body positive hashtag I know, so that it reaches as many like-minded viewers as possible.
Have you ever received criticism for your work?
I receive very little criticism, actually. Occasionally there will be some person saying something like ‘Why did you paint this person like this? I would have done it differently.’ I just ignore it.
Most of the comments I receive are overwhelmingly positive. It seems that I am not the only person touched by my subjects and their stories, and that makes me happier than I can possibly say.
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What does the future hold for you?
I’m not sure at the moment. I love what I’m doing, I love #paintmeflavia, and I am more than happy to keep doing what I am doing for a good long time yet.
I would like to make another series based on bodies someday. I would like to talk about different bodies, write about different bodies, and tell everybody who is unhappy about their body to ‘calm down’.
Really, I just want to flood the internet with body positivity. I want people to see different bodies, colours, shapes, and love them for the natural beauty that’s there.
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Do you have any advice for other aspiring body positivity artists?
I would say ‘the more the merrier’, not just to artists, but to all creators. Whatever you are doing to promote body positivity and body acceptance, keep doing it. Make more art. Write more about it. All of it is fabulous.
If we want to see real change happen, we need more representation. People need to be able to see people like them, to see that they’re OK just the way they are.
[Feature Image: A photo of Flavia Bernandes holding a painting of a person with their legs upwards and the torso on the ground. Behind Flavia are paintings of different people. One painting of a person to Flavia’s left is wearing a white bikini top and yellow bottoms. Another painting of a person smiling with long light hair and a blue shirt. There are more paintings behind Flavia of people in different poses. Source: Flavia Bernandes]