Artist Spotlight — Temporary Art, Permanent Teacher, Shakun Maheshwari

From sand painting to henna, Shakun Maheshwari is a masterful visual artist. Take a look at this Artist Spotlight as she chats with COMPAS about practicing creativity in everyday life, finding inspiration in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and of course, the many art forms she practices.

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* Hi Shakun, thanks very much for taking the time to be interviewed. We're all really interested to learn about your art form. Can you tell us what it is? What's your background?

I am visual artist. I do folk art, photography, painting, relief printing, stain glass, mosaic, batik, sewing, embroidery etc.

My memories from childhood are of the simple memories of village life. Weddings were the best times, when we dressed up and applied henna on our hands.  More than an art form, the application of henna was a social event for all the women in the community. I spent hours learning how to create the intricate designs on my own hand. 

The constant exposure to folk art sparked my interest in many different art forms.  I started painting and decorating household objects, from drinking glasses to sarees. My parents always gave me free rein to decorate anything I wanted. My mother was very happy with my designs they were unique and different for her.

I spent more time in drawing and coloring my school science or geography projects then remembering the names or locations.

Some artists focus on a specific art form, for me - I just love to create. I found different ways to create with easily available material, and I still love to experiment with different art forms and mediums.

Workshops, classes, and graphic designing helped me to learn more about visual art; it gave me a sense how to use my folk background experience to create and teach. There is no age for learning I am still learning and growing with art.

 * Can you tell us more about Sand Painting, Rangoli, Mandalas and Henna?

Rangoli and henna are ancient traditional art forms developed to decorate the body and living spaces.

Henna is the powder of henna plant leaves. It is used for body decoration, good luck and for medicinal purposes. It gives reddish color to the skin.  I am in love with henna from my childhood.  I developed a sense of creating designs by watching my mother, relatives and friends.

Rangoli is an art form in which people create intricate designs on the floors of houses and temples and in entryways to bring good luck, peace, prosperity, and happiness into the home. Rangoli is executed freehand by applying colors (powdered rice, white limestone, chalk or flour) in a dry form or as a paste.

The artist’s fingers serve as the brush. In India, this floor art is temporary – often people create and redo designs as a daily routine. Certain intricate designs are created on special occasions such as weddings and religious festivals. The design materials vary from region to region in India. The art of Rangoli is called by many different names: Alpana in Bengal, Kolam in South India, Rangoli in Maharastra, Sathia in Gujarat, and Mandana in Rajasthan. Worli painting folk art is best known for its community stories painted on the walls.

Rangoli can be created with various materials depending on the purpose and available materials- sand, color chalk, flowers, colored rice, various beans, rice flour etc.

Colored sand is attractive and playful material that invites all ages to play with. I substituted the colored chalk with colored sand since it is more easily available here in Minnesota. American Indians also make art with colored sand. Buddhists make their own colored sand by grinding various colored stones to make Mandala.

Mandala is a geometric symbol representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist culture.  For me it is a tool to focus attention, for spiritual practice, for meditation.

* Is the approach you take to temporary artwork different than permanent? How so?

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Learning to enjoy the process of learning is more important than the object created being a master piece. Learning to create is a process. I like to take my students to the point where they enjoy creating and the process.

There is nothing permanent. The art you created today it will be gone tomorrow. It teaches us the lesson of detachment, to be humble, and to share with others.

* Do you remember when you first became interested in the arts? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?

When I was learning to apply henna it took hours to make designs on my own hand. I was happy when it looked totally different than what my mother used to make on my hand. I started my journey right there without knowing it. I started creating designs for embroidery, and painting household items.

Folk art was the biggest influence on me - the painted walls of houses; various jari, thread and sequence work on dresses. Community gatherings to do various projects from making snacks to designing the dresses for brides and making gifts were the happiest time spent with my family and friends.

* What do you hope participants or audience members of your programs learn or come away with?

Don’t be afraid to try and learn different ways to create.  Art does not have to be perfect, it has to be enjoyed while you are learning to create.

* What projects have you been working on recently?

Recently I taught Batik to adults, did mandala and henna workshops at multiple libraries, sand art with Mia, and created the Rangoli for the Minnesota History Center for their Beyond Bollywood exhibit.

Last month I was creating elephant wedding stage decorations for one of my friends and I did henna for the bride.

Now I am getting ready for the Long Lake Area Art Show working on new paintings, Batik and block printing scarves.

 * What is it like to be a COMPAS artist?

COMPAS gave me the opportunity to grow as a teacher, gave me confidence as an artist believing in my ethnic background to show and share folk art of India.

I am proud to be a COMPAS artist. COMPAS gives artists financial support to be paid as teachers.

* Why do you think arts education is needed in our community?

Art is the best way to learn about different cultures. By learning about different cultures through art a student thinks and finds their own way to respect and find both similarities and unique qualities of various cultures. With respect they will learn to love every human being and respect their own culture and help to change the world with love.  

* Does living in Minnesota have any influence on your work?

Minnesota is beautiful with four seasons. Every season has impact on my work and I love the fall with red, orange and yellow colors.

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Minnesota has a good art culture and has lots of opportunities to help in developing all various cultures in one art basket.  

* How do you practice creativity in your everyday life?

I am happy if I am associated with art in any way: teaching, creating, demonstrating, traveling and taking photos of beautiful nature. Every day I try to do one activity that is associated with art.

Art is my life and my life is an art. I try to live and learn to enjoy every moment of it. I am not a good writer but now I can talk. Art helped me to overcome my shyness to talk.