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A Comforting Painting in a Time of Discomfort

Sweta Shah's "The Embrace" is the May Open Exhibit Best-in-Show winner.

By Haven Ashley


Painter Sweta Shah’s The Embrace, the May Open Exhibition Best-in-Show winner, is a timeless expression of the comfort found in a mother’s arms. Yet, in these troubled times, the sight of such tenderness brings with it a wave of melancholy. When viewing Shah’s painting we experience hope’s grief, realizing that our present state of distance cannot exist without its inverse—birth and death, feast and famine, kings and countrymen. By seeking embrace we move from solitude to multitude. We become plural. According to the artist, “Without touch we can’t really survive.”


For Shah, the realizations that unfolded while she created The Embrace were a type of salvation. “I used to cause myself a lot of agony,” she said about her artistic process. “I was so driven by the urge to create something that wasn’t just ‘good enough.’ I often felt this desperation to ‘save’ every painting.” Shah’s experience creating this piece felt markedly different to her. She commented that this extended period of being at home, without the pressure of deadlines or critiques, has brought with it a chance to reconsider her motivations. “I realized that I don’t need to suffer for my art anymore, to prove myself. The process of telling a story through my work is enough in itself. I feel a new lightness now.” 


“Without touch we can’t really survive.”


In Shah’s painting, bold contour lines carve two figures out of inky darkness. The kneeling woman’s shape has a grounding presence, a communion with the earth. Mother as mountain. The artist meditated on which singular color should represent the joyful spirit of a child, a color that would “project positivity and sunshine.” It had to be yellow—the first stop on the color wheel, the color of the sun, of levity, of trumpet song, of saffron and mango. The color of a crown, a halo. The human eye cannot perceive a brighter frequency than this honeyed hue.  


The eternal image of mother and child may be interpreted by some as an allegory to Mary and the Christ Child, but the artist believes the image is universal. “The bond between parents, children, caregivers, friends…everyone can relate to it.” Shah also commented on the fluidity of the child/parent relationship. In her painting, the initiator of the embrace is ambiguous, and representative of the cyclical nature of parenthood. “As we grow older, the roles are reversed…children begin to take care of their parents.”


See “The Embrace” and other works from the May Open Exhibit on Flickr.

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