Growing up, Shruti Ghatak would sit under an orange tree in the backyard of her family home in Bankura, India, drawing for what seemed like hours. Her mother created a pocket-sized sketchbook for her that Ghatak carried around. Sometimes when someone asked her a question, rather than answering verbally, she opted to draw a picture instead as a response.
Today, her work centers on personal narratives. In “The Flight,” the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to a child wearing a blue dress. Her arms are outstretched as birds fly around her and an older man. The work has an overall feeling of freedom and is part of a series titled “Myths to Mundane.” They’re based on Indian mythology, but reimagined through a contemporary lens. She’s combined a childhood memory with her daughter’s. In the painting, Ghatak is also experimenting with exaggerated perspective.
“Art has been the most constant thing throughout my life,” said Ghatak. “My mom sent me to an art school before sending me to a regular school.”
While Ghatak didn’t study art again until much later, it was always a part of her life. She speaks fondly of Desh, a Bengali magazine focused on literature and culture. As a teenager, her older siblings’ friends were also a source of information.
“A few of my brother’s friends who were going to art colleges when they used to come visit home, I used to go talk to them and they would show me books,” said Ghatak. “I was just trying to absorb myself as much as I could.”
When she moved to a nearby city for college, Ghatak began visiting art galleries and taking art classes in the evenings. At the same time Ghatak also pursued a parallel interest — science. Driven by both a love for it and the desire for a stable career, she received an undergraduate degree in chemistry. She taught the subject along with mathematics to middle and high school students for six years. Later, she earned a master’s degree in chemistry from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. Her research focused on color technology, specifically synthesizing dyes and pigments.
In 2009, Ghatak and her husband moved to the United States. He studied for a MBA at Dartmouth College while Ghatak began auditing art classes. Her instructors recognized her talent and encouraged her to take the next step. “The professors there had been telling me, ‘you know, you’re touching the water but you should be inside it. Yes, you know how to swim. Just dive into it.’ And I started looking for schools.”
As part of her art immersion, she studied painting at New York Studio School. In 2013 she completed a master of fine arts then relocated to Seattle. The award-winning artist has participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions in Seattle, New York City and Kolkata, India. Her latest body of work, “The Displacements,” was on display for a few months at Shoreline City Hall. The series initially began as a continuation of “Myths to Mundane,” but Ghatak decided to go in a different direction. Works in “The Displacements” reflects her experience as an immigrant living under a racist and xenophobic administration led by 45. It’s a startling difference from Obama’s tenure. Now Ghatak is asking if she belongs here, how long she and her family will be able to stay and why they are living here. She’s particularly in tune with the instability of our political system.
“I’m not involved directly into politics but the news is pouring into my ears. It is, like, affecting my everyday life,” said Ghatak. “Disturbed in every possible way.”
“Tweets” depicts hands grasping smartphones with the thumbs scrolling through Twitter. She perfectly captures the frenetic energy that comes up when trying to keep up with the 24 hour news cycle and endless “hot takes.” Ghatak isn’t a user of Twitter, but the news of what’s happening there is inescapable.
The “Displacement” polyptych is a group of observational charcoal drawings showing her move from one city to another. “Night Surfing” combines the ceiling of her art school in New York and her bedroom here. With each defined stroke, Ghatak has created relatable scenes that could be taking place anywhere.
A moving box turned sculpture is also a part of the series. On it she asks in part “What defines a place? Where is our home? Is this where the memories live on as we drift along in life?” These questions aren’t unique to the immigrant experience. Even moving from one region to another in the states could provoke this type of introspection.
Ghatak doesn’t think art is limited to visual works hanging in museums and galleries. For her, it’s a practice that’s intertwined with all areas of her life — from her vegetable garden to blog posts that chronicle projects she works on with her daughter.
Ghatak also teaches middle and high school students art through the atelier method. They work alongside her in her studio, which gives them an opportunity for individualized instruction and to improve their skills by watching a professional artist.
Ghatak said the overall message in her work is humanity. She’s drawn to narratives and even sees the story in the still life work of the late Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. By sharing her personal stories, they become everyone’s, “When one life connects to another, I feel like I’m doing the right thing.”
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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Read the full Jan. 30 - Feb. 5 issue.
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