“From the Easel”


Have you ever stood gazing at a famous canvas rich in detail and wondered “what does it mean?” If you were able to ask the artist, they most likely would turn the question around. “What does it mean to YOU?” They would explain that they use their artistry to express their feelings.  Clues to the artist’s emotion and message are often hidden in plain sight.

The study of those clues is called iconography. It is the identification, description and interpretation of images, details and other elements that are distinct from artistic style or medium. Iconography provides a shortcut for the artist to be able to communicate with the viewer. Over time an icon can become an easy way to describe a large idea in a very abbreviated way.

Lotus flowers are frequently used in Asian art. Because the Lotus opens every morning and closes every evening, it is viewed as a symbol of birth and rebirth. The olive branch or dove has been used since ancient times to symbolize peace. Young children are often included in works of art as symbols of innocence, purity, and new life.

Hinduism has adopted several iconic symbols that are imbued with spiritual meaning based on either the scriptures or cultural traditions. The Muslim world most frequently   uses Arabic script as a symbol of Islam. Among Christian religions, the lamb symbols Christ and demons are often displayed as menacing animals.  A halo, which is a circle of light surrounding a person, is widely used in religious paintings to denote a holy person or saint.

Being able to artistically integrate two vastly different cultures—Indian and American—is a rare talent.  Writing in the illustrated book “ela: Breaking Boundaries” Art Expert Jeffrey Wechsler explains: “Shah has created a hybrid universe of the imagination, where comic book superheroes may mix with the gods of Hinduism, where transport may be offered by either an elephant or a yellow school bus.”

Shah’s work is thought provoking: rich in the visual imagery of two cultures with layers of meanings.  She underscores her motivation explaining “My hope is that viewers will contemplate the issues I’m raising and create a parallel story for themselves.”

For more information about Ela Shah

Shah recently launched a sophisticated redesign of her website, www.elashah.com  that highlights her paintings, sculptures, wood cuts and mobiles and videos. With art direction by Sankar Sury, the site also includes current news, reviews, and clippings.

“Ela: Breaking Boundaries” is the award-winning documentary about Shah’s life and work. It has been selected for showing at The Harlem International Film Festival, May 5 – 15.  Director: Swapna Kurup, Producer: Rohan Sukhdeo, Running Time: 53 min. https://harlemfilmfestival.org

Ela’s mixed media sculpture about COVID, “Farewell,” has been accepted and will be shown at the New Jersey Arts Annual exhibition to take place at the Trenton State Museum. The exhibition will be on view from Saturday, June 18th, 2022, to Sunday, April 30, 2023. Join us for the exhibition preview reception, which will take place on Thursday, June 16, from 6:30 to 8:30PM. All are welcome to attend.

At the Click of a Mouse
Gold Leaf and Mixed Media on Burnt Wood
48” x 25” x 1”. Photo: provided by Ela Shah

“In this woodcut a structure of faith emerges from the laptop computer (which can be seen on the elephant’s back with an image of a Jain God on the screen and a little white mouse at the lower right of the keyboard.) With technology, pilgrimages are done on a laptop computer with a mouse. Ironically, the mouse is a vehicle of the good luck god Ganesh. This work addresses how technology has changed our reality. For many immigrants seeing images from home on screen can be very comforting.

Sometimes I would have the urge to burn my work as a way of resurrecting fragments of my past. I burned this piece to symbolize purification and transformation. This image reminds me of Shiva, the Hindu God who is both creator and destroyer.

After coming to America in 1973, I watched Sesame Street with my children when they were very young. They learned English and watching television with them helped me, too. I saw Big Bird and superheroes on TV, and they made a big impression on me. Every now and then they pop up in my work with Indian gods and goddesses since they both symbolize hope and justice for everyone.

On my mother’s 75th birthday she came from India to visit us. My four-year-old son gave her tiny figurines of superheroes. She kept them with her other gods of India in her little shrine thinking they must be gods for American children.

It fascinates me how millions of people around the world have deep faith in the unknown and celebrate their faith by building big monuments in public places and little shrines in their homes or on the streets.

This work is one of my series of woodcuts that are monuments to a multicultural, postmodern world. They demonstrate how skyscrapers (on top of the sculpture) and corporate offices have replaced temples and churches. They exhibit the tension between the spiritual and material worlds.  The learning towers reflect the chaos, anxiety, and disorientation in a world where money has become religion. The child at the upper left is trying to hang on to his culture, but alas it is a fragile banana tree.

Paradoxically, these structures are also my structures of faith: faith in oneself, humankind, and divine power.”  Ela Shah

The proceeding is an excerpt from the illustrated book “ela: Breaking Boundaries” published in 2021 and available from the author. See www.elashah.com for more information.




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