Passage Arts: Please tell us about yourself.
Avani Patel: Born in India, I immigrated to Pennsylvania with my family at 11 years old. I hold a BA from University of Pennsylvania and MFA from Tyler School of Arts (Temple University). My cultural background has had a profound impact on the forging of my identity as an artist. As a young girl living in India, I fell in love with the patterns of dresses, colors, the sound of music, as well as the spectacle of both theatre and cinema. They were all fluidly interconnected, effectively symbolizing the rhythm of daily life. Indian culture is the starting point of my work. The range of Indian culture expressed through film, theatre, music, and performance are all sources of artistic inspiration for me. Even though I am far away from home, I continue to explore the boundaries between eastern and western cultural influences.
My paintings have been exhibited in New York, Providence, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Chicago, Dubai, Panama, Portugal, and Mexico. I was invited in 2005 by the American Embassy in Panama to hold workshops in schools and art centers, creating collaborative art installations about everyday objects in personal life. I worked on the public project America’s Chinatown Voices at Columbus Park in New York City, organized by the Asian American Art Center in 2008 and 2009. Three hundred panels illustrating stories of Asian Americans in New York were publicly displayed in Chinatown in New York City.The Philadelphia Museum of Art proudly exhibited two of my paintings from 2002 to 2008. I have done residency with Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Chashama Visual Arts, and Triangle Workshop.
PA: You've lived an impressive life and you have an impressive resume. What are some of your favorite memories from your career as an artist? Can you tell us about them?
AP: My passion and love is being an artist, which inspires me to create my own journey. Being an artist gives me freedom to learn from my mistakes and difficulties that I have been throughout my art career. As an Asian American, I was doubted and some people did not believe in me being an artist. My dad and mom are my biggest inspiration. They told me not to give up and follow what I love doing. I have been fortunate to have their support. Now, I never look back at the negativity I received throughout my career, and instead focus on the positive aspects of my life and career.
My big accomplishment was landing a job at Brown University right after I graduated from Tyler School of Arts. I was there for one year. In 2003, I started applying for art residencies in New York. A month after I applied, I received a letter from Snug Harbor Cultural Center stating that they had accepted my application for a studio space. This is the moment that led me to move to New York and pursue my dream. That same year, I received wonderful news that I would have my first solo show in Times Square through Chashama at one of their art gallery spaces.
However, I did not realize moving to New York would not be easy, as I did not have a job for a few months and surviving from my savings was not enough. I did not want to give up on my artistic journey so soon, so I picked up various jobs in order to continue doing what I love. In 2005, I got an email for the American Embassy stating that I was one of the artists picked to go to the American Embassy in Panama, where my paintings would be displayed for three years. When I arrived to Panama City, it was magical. I could not believe it that out of all the artists, an immigrant artist from India was invited to the American Embassy to talk about my art to the community and to the youth. My art took me to so many wonderful places, where I was able to create beautiful lifelong memories.
I learned not to give up and to believe in myself. I have also learned to always create wonderful memories and chapters in life.
PA: Your work is abstract but it strongly evokes nature and the body. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
AP: The rich, colorful culture of India, music, and various forms of nature have always inspired and influenced me in carving my imagination onto a canvas. I travel to different parts of the world to connect myself to the endless source of ideas through culture and the natural environment. I capture these elements and revive them into creative images.
I draw and paint from things I see in nature and everyday surroundings through personal experiences, narratives, and memories. I use mark-making and repetition as tools to signify change in nature, the passage of time, and retention and rejection of memory.
What I like the most is the way I demonstrate, or draw over time. I study my drawings of nature over the course of a few months, which helps me understand my colors and pattern in order to create a final image. What is working and which element of nature can I transfer to a larger scale in my paintings? I'm a visual learner, so this helps me greatly when I create artwork. Doing this not only improves my personal skills but it gives more credibility to me as an artist.
PA: How does abstraction help you achieve your goals as an artist?
AP: In the creation of my art, I move freely between mediums, such as drawing and painting. I also move freely between nature, figurative, abstract motives. I love to do research and make connections between elements from different times and spaces. I often use nature and its colorful forms such as creatures to process topics and themes. The inclusion of this motif language enables me to contemplate events from an enhanced perspective and to integrate them on a larger scale.
PA: How has your work evolved over the years?
AP: As an artist, I am continually evolving my work. I explore and experiment with my art. My artistic development has continued to evolve and grow.
My work has changed in many ways. I started out making figure paintings with patterns at Penn State. After attending graduate school, I was influenced by great professors who helped me realize my work was not just about figures and patterns. That is when I challenged myself as an artist and became more aware of my surroundings, which led me to incorporate my own cultural influences and colors of abstraction.
I learned various techniques and tools. At first it felt awkward, but eventually I begin to create marks and started exploring patterns and abstractions that facilitated me to expand my creativity.
I started studying the vocabulary of composition and color theory. I begin to speak a new language in my paintings. I explored value patterns and creations of a new universe in my work. I want to explore the mystery of who I am as well as my artistic journey through experimentation.
PA: In the past, you've said that you find inspiration from traditions of Indian performance. Can you tell us about that?
AP: Art has been an integral part of my life since I was a young girl. I used to go to the theater with my sister for her rehearsals and dance shows. Looking at all the colorful costumes, flowing dresses, and festivity around, I felt that the colors were speaking to me. It made me joyful and painting then became a source of entertainment for me. During my youth, entertainment helped me tap into the power of art. It enabled me to live life joyfully and full of creativity. After all these years, I have found that nothing brings me more joy and happiness than expressing my imagination through art.
The rich, colorful culture of India (music, nature, temples, etc.) has always inspired and influenced me in carving my imagination onto a canvas.
PA: What role does rhythm and musicality play in your work?
AP: Music evokes the body to respond to a rhythm and become an embodiment of exuberance, expression, and movement. My idea of painting is a rhythmic performance with music that creates a whole new language of abstract harmony, as a means of expressing music in a visual form. The inspiration of Indian performance and various music selections inspire a language of expression, harmonious elements, and abstract figures which form patterns on my canvases. The idea is to interpret the content of the music and express it visually, creating an environment of joy and passion as well as conveying a feeling of dance and festivity while using the psyche’s imagination.
PA: So much of your work strikes us as joyful. Can you tell us what role joy plays in your life?
AP: Art has been a big part of my life since I was a young girl, though my tastes have broadened a lot since I was first learning how to paint. My love for colors, nature, and music give me instant joy. All of these experiences have reinforced my personal commitment to make room in my life for art. Over the years, I’ve found that nothing brings me more joy and better motivates my own creativity in art.
PA: Other artists working today are thinking about joy and the place of joy in the world. Sometimes the most joyful expressions come about in the least joyful times. What is the importance of joy today, in your art and in your world?
AP: Art is about connecting with your emotions and others. It’s personal and at the same time, universal.
I’m an expressive painter, working with the everyday surroundings and environment and from my memories. And yes, my work is joyful and whimsical. Feelings about my relationship with nature and expression of colors creates a joyful place in my world that is subtly expressed in my artwork.
My work expresses the emotion of joy through the medium of mark-making and various forms of nature.
An artist has the ability to ‘feel strongly’, to be ‘sensitive’ to things, and to express happiness through paint, gesture, or color. The artist ‘absorbs’ the atmosphere of a place or the memory of a feeling.
My paintings are mainly about my self-expression communicated on the canvas, but really I think it can be relatable in that it can also be seen as anyone’s expression.
PA: You art conveys a sense of movement. It engages more than just the eye. How do you engage with your own work?
AP: In my artwork, movement refers to a sense of motionas the eye moves through my work of art. Fluid colors and patterns explore movement forward, and different brush strokes and colors help convey this regardless of where I start with my paintings. I engage in my work by absorbing the atmosphere of a place or the memory of a feeling. I let the difficulty that I come across while creating my art challenge me to understand my own work in uncertainty ways. This allows me to learn as much as possible about choosing the colors and patterns in abstraction through my drawings, which I call my studies. The drawings help me choose the ideas and create a new context for my bigger size paintings to a new context. I like to challenge myself and let the mistakes happen for a reason on my artwork.
PA: How do you see your work interacting with the world, and the people, around it?
AP: One of the great joys of creating art is being able to share it with your audience. As an artist, I want to create work that moves people. When your work echoes with another person, you are building a connection with them.
Image courtesy of the artist: Avani Patel, Nature Is Calling Us (2020). Acrylic and paint marker on canvas. 3 x 3 ft. © Avani Patel 2020