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Q&A with Award Winner Shanthi Chandrasekar

Juror Mark Cameron Boyd chose the mixed-media painting Tamil by Shanthi Chandrasekar as winner of the Urquhart Award for best in show in this month’s all-media exhibit. Boyd said the piece “has a commanding atmospheric presence, persona. The way in which the texture merges and fades in and out of the symbols is intriguing and mysterious. The luminous color, hue, and varied textures are just wonderful.”

We asked Shanthi to tell us about the process behind the painting.

Tamil has a mysterious energy and a rich, gritty texture that doesn’t come through in a photograph. Can you tell us about the process behind the piece — how you built up the painting and created the texture and color?
Shanthi: This painting just started as a series of layers of medium and paint with no idea of the end product. I placed it on my deck outdoors so I could create the multiple layers using various media. I started out with different acrylic mediums like stucco, fiber etc. then added pigments and dripped acrylic paint. Sometimes I would paint wet on wet and at other times wait for the layer to dry before adding another layer. The use of powdered pigments created interesting patterns that were very organic, especially when I rubbed them on the uneven surface. Sometimes I would slant the canvas so the paint could drip on the surface when it is wet or dry. It led to some very interesting texture. I just scratched in the letters when the surface was wet and liked the effect. So I started with old Tamil letters and then added more layers of paint to fade them away till I reached the more recent version that is displayed today.

What materials and tools did you use? Are those pieces of leaves and pine needles?
I used acrylic based gel mediums and paints. I also used dry powdered pigments for the first time. As for the tools, I used brushes, cardboard, Popsicle sticks, twigs and other tools to create the texture. As I had mentioned earlier, I was working outdoors and that helped create some of the texture. One afternoon as soon as I had applied a fresh coat of medium and paint, a sudden thunderstorm blew twigs and leaves onto the surface. As the surface was still wet, they got adhered to it and became part of the painting.

Detail from Tamil

Can you tell us about the Akshara series and the place of the letters in the painting?
I grew up in a very small cosmopolitan town in India. My classmates, who were from different parts of India, spoke and wrote different languages, and I always wanted to learn these languages. Seeing my fascination of different languages, my daughter suggested that I should paint them and the Akshara (Syllable) series began. I received a grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, MD, to create 20 large Akshara paintings and Tamil was the last one I made in the that series. Now I have covered 26 different languages and it is an ongoing series.

I started with Indian languages as I was familiar with them. Though there are many different spoken languages, most of the scripts were derived from an ancient script called Brahmi. Today most of the scripts have more differences than similarities from the original script. These scripts are divided into the vowels and the consonants and I have tried to get better understanding of them. They form a dichotomy together and symbolize the spiritual and materialistic aspects of a language.

Tamil by Shanthi Chandrasekar

Is there anything else about the process behind the painting you’d like to share?
My mother-tongue, Tamil, is an ancient classical language. Though the spoken language is very old, the script used to write it is comparatively recent. And the script has evolved over hundreds of years and now with the globalization and the increased use of English, it is slowly declining. I made this painting to show that if we don’t make an effort to pass on our culture to the future generations, many of our rich cultural traditions will be lost. In order to show that, I scratched out the Tamil letters on wet paint and let them fade into the background like a writing on a ancient wall like the old Tamil letters.

How is Artomatic going?
Artomatic is going great! I have titled my space (03-0225) as Meditative Experiences. There five large paintings and a few medium and small sized work. Most of them are acrylic on canvas and there are a few pen and ink drawings too. They are all mostly repetitive line drawings except for one piece titled Shakthi which has grid of 720 faces of women. I have been getting some wonderful comments from a number of people including a Best Abstract Art title by local artist blogger Lenny Campello and a review by Arlington Art Examiner writer James George.

Our past interviews with award winners can be found here.

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