Heeding the Masters' Voices

Maria Gertrudes paints only in public. And for good reason.

She wants people to see her signing the names of Renoir, Monet and Picasso.

After all, says the Brazilian painter, visiting Washington this week, it's their work she's doing -- from the grave. Really.

Okay, Gertrudes, a self-described spiritualist, would not say it's from the grave. Rather, she believes that she's in communication with the spirits of these great artists. She is, she says, painting for those who cannot paint any longer.

"The most important thing about all of this is to take the message to people that death doesn't exist. The genius painters continue painting, showing the people that they're still alive and want to paint," she says.

Maria Gertrudes Coelho (she doesn't use her last name professionally), is 52, a retired bank teller who lives in the small town of Ituiutaba, north of Sao Paulo. At the moment, though, she is negotiating a beanbag chair in the Bethesda basement of her childhood friend Elza Suely Anderson, and explaining how she has come to what she knows many people might find hard to believe.

There are, of course, certainly many who believe in communication with those who have crossed over. "They are always talking to us but we need to be listening."

But how is it that Gertrudes gets to be the one with whom so many artists speak?

"It took me a while to understand," says Gertrudes.

But she was, she says simply, the one listening -- and the one chosen.

"I totally believe in what she does, she's like my sister," says Anderson, a massage therapist who grew up with the same beliefs but currently is not a practicing spiritualist.

Anderson helped organize Gertrudes' U.S. visit -- her first -- scheduled her public sessions in the Washington area and is serving as her translator. Gertrudes speaks only Portuguese.

Well, not just Portuguese.

Gertrudes started communicating directly with spirits in 1990, she says. Initially, it was authors she was channeling -- among them, another Brazilian spiritualist and a British romance author -- then, in 1995, she began to paint.

On Sunday afternoon at the Parish Gallery in Georgetown, about 30 people -- friends of friends and curious onlookers -- quietly watched Gertrudes, with rolled-up sleeves, bare feet and closed eyes, go into what looked like a hypnotic trance. Classical music blared in the background. Moments before, Anderson had led the group in prayer and asked for their good vibes.

Then Gertrudes was stroking the canvas with her hands -- and painting.

At one point she emptied a paint tube into a couple thick piles of dark mauve directly onto a large canvas. She then squeezed white paint like toothpaste across the canvas, using her hands to smooth out the colors and her fingers to dab at the mauve. She does not use brushes; the artists, she says, prefer to use her hands and feet as their instruments.

Within minutes of her first squirt of the tube, six sailboats appeared.

It is, she says, the work of J.M.W. Turner, an English landscape artist from the turn of the 19th century. Before Monet, before Picasso, before Renoir, there was Turner. He was the first artist to speak to her, Gertrudes says. There are 14 in all.

The sailboat painting was Gertrudes' ninth in about 40 minutes on Sunday. She signed it "Joseph, To Love."

"He knows things I don't know," she has said of Turner. "He does things I don't understand."

After the session, Gertrudes asked for a show of hands of the people who "believe in the spiritual world."

About half responded, if rather tentatively.

Norman Parish, owner of the gallery who'd rented his space to Gertrudes for the event, had his doubts about it all, though he wasn't willing to dismiss it completely.

"We have no way of knowing," he said. "It's a mystery to everyone."

Mystery or not, Gertrudes was able to auction nine of her paintings Sunday afternoon for prices ranging from $50 to $185. The money, she says, helps finance a 14-classroom art school for children in her home town. The school -- a suggestion of the spirits -- is already under construction.

Gertrudes had pictures of the school hanging up in the gallery.

Gertrudes may be a communicating vessel for this dead painters' society, but she's not trying to pass off her finger paintings as their originals. A sticker on the back of each canvas states her name, the date, and the time it took to paint.

D.C. resident Afiya Graham, who meditates regularly and has studied spirituality, was one of the true believers at the gallery. So much a believer that it didn't matter when Gertrudes said that Joseph signs "To Love" when the painting is meant for one person in particular and that there was a good chance that particular person wasn't in the room.

"Those are my colors," Graham told a friend when she saw the mauve and white melding into sailboats.

"Somehow I feel this is especially for me," she said, writing out a check for $185.