From the Easel: 3rd Column on artist Ela Shah

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Ela Shah

In this edition of “From the Easel”, we conclude a three-part interview with award-winning artist Ela Shah. After emigrating with her family in the early ‘70s, Shah received a master’s degree in Fine Arts from Montclair State University in the mid-’90s. Her return to school after a period where, as she says, “the colors left me” marked a major turning point and she emerged with renewed energy and a dramatically expanded artistic vocabulary.

Sandy Levine: As an older, international student, how did your teachers respond to your Indian motifs and artistic choices?

Ela Shah: “I was different from other students.  I was older, the only student of color and I had totally different values…Each of my teachers had a particular “ism” that they worked in and taught like impressionism, cubism, or abstract expressionism, and they tried to direct me to their point of view. I didn’t fit into any mold, and it was difficult.”

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SL: What kept you going?

ES: “I was determined to be authentic and do it my way!  There were things I was struggling with and doing art was cathartic. It was a good escape, a place for me to imagine and dream.  Learning, having time to myself and devoting myself to art was the freedom I needed to deal with my problems and tell my stories.”

SL: Was there any single professor that had the greatest influence on you?

ES: “Yes. His name was Walter Swales. Painting was no longer working for me, and I wanted new ways to express myself. He was a sculptor and he helped me expand my artistic world beyond the boundaries of paint.”

SL: What was it about that experience that rekindled your enthusiasm and nurtured your artistry? 

ES: “Working with my hands and using different materials helped me express what I was feeling. Every time I did something he asked, ‘why do you want to do that?’  He challenged me and encouraged me to do what really mattered to me…. I began creating pieces that were dark and sad…but they helped me cope with my feelings of being dislocated in a new culture. My art helped me to better understand the world and my place in it.”

‘Pagla’ 1978. 4″ X 4″. Photo: provided by Ela Shah

SL: Can you describe how these new media helped your art evolve?

ES:” I think it had to do with my hands. I used them in new ways, immersing them in warm wax, molding clay, working with bronze, and using new tools that were so different from what I had done before…Working in new media helped bring out feelings that I had hidden in my heart, and I created many works that were thought provoking and meaningful for me.”

SL: Do different media elicit different feelings?

ES: “When I worked in clay, I was thinking that this material is like our bodies and our bodies can perish. When I worked with bronze (see illustration 1) I thought of it as something within our soul that can never be destroyed, a philosophy I learned from Gita.”

SL: I also notice that you began creating pieces that combined different materials and that have evidence of being burnt. What was your motivation?

ES: “Sometimes I would have the urge to burn my work as a way of resurrecting fragments of my past.  Burnt images are symbolic of purification and transformation and remind me of Shiva, the Hindu God who is both creator and destroyer.”

SL: I find your piece “Unborn Sculptures” particularly poignant.  Please tell us about it. 

ES: “I did a series of tiny footprints in clay. Then I burnt them and put gauze around them to heal the wounds… Doing them made me realize how much I missed my daughter who had died as an infant in India.  Working in clay helped me express my sorrow.” (see illustration 2.)

Unborn Sculptures, 1978
Burnt Clay, Cotton Gauze and Bronze
24” x 30” Approximately (Dimensions Vary), Artist Collection
This work was done in memory of my first child who was one year old and passed away. Photo: provided by Ela Shah

SL: Much of your work clearly reflects your cultural identity.  Does the art world see you as an Indian artist? How do you see yourself?

ES: “Much of the world labels me as an Indian artist, but I see myself as a contemporary female artist. I was speaking once to children, and they asked me ‘why are there no boys in your work? Why are there only women?’  I told them ‘I don’t know what a man feels! My work is about my feelings, and I can only know what a woman feels!’ “

SL:   Are you seeing growing representation of Indian artists in museums and galleries, and a corresponding increase in the value of Indian art in the marketplace? 

ES: “It’s growing…but not fast enough! A lot of museums are showing Indian work, but there is no single museum dedicated to Indian Art. There are a few Indian art galleries…but I don’t think a lot of people in America appreciate contemporary Indian art. I think there should be a dedicated museum, more galleries, and more patrons, too!”

SL: I’m struck by how you’ve never stopped learning; something that’s clearly evidenced by your ability to incorporate so many different media in your work. 

ES:” I love to learn!  I like to challenge myself to learn new techniques and find new mediums to express in my art what’s in my heart. That has always been my way.”

SL: Is there anything that you haven’t done that you want to?

ES: “I’ve read about NFTs and want to learn more about them* and if I have time, I want to do more outdoor work where more people can see.  My dream is to make an open temple where there are no gates…”

*NFTs are unique cryptographic tokens that exist on a blockchain and cannot be replicated. NFTs can be used to represent real-world items like artwork and real-estate. “Tokenizing” these real-world tangible assets allows them to be bought, sold, and traded more efficiently while reducing the probability of fraud.

Ela’s book “Ela: Breaking Boundaries” chronicles her personal and artistic journey and includes nearly 100 full-color photos of her unique, award-winning artistry. To learn more about the artist, the award-winning documentary of the same name, read reviews and news articles, visit her website:  www.elashah.com  

Sandy Levine is a freelance writer in the Tri-state area.

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