The Indian-born Bay Area-based artist talks about her internal struggle to accept the label ‘artist’, how she can’t do without her morning cup of tea and how her Sikh identity informs her art
Every once in a while, The Red Bag attempts to get into the mind of artists to understand what drives the impulse to create, how they reconcile the ‘art’ of creating with the ‘commerce’ of selling, and their influences and inspirations. In the first of this series, we share a (virtual) tea with Rupy Cheema Tut, an Indian-born Bay Area-based artist who gave up her career as a Public Health professional to produce some stunning pieces of art. To purchase a piece of Rupy’s art for your own walls, check out her website, and to find out more about her, read on!
On her background and inspirations
I was born in Chandigarh, India and lived a very wonderful childhood. I grew up on stories of partition, as well as stories of courage, sacrifice and love as exemplified by the Sikh Gurus. My family openly discussed ideas of empowerment, having a strong female voice, and the works of many literary and poetic geniuses.
When I was eleven years old, I moved to the United States with my family and got a good education. I ended up with a bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Masters degree in Public Health from very prestigious universities in California. I worked with non-profits and also got the opportunity to teach global health at the Graduate level while travelling to Asia. After falling in love and finding my partner for life, I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Instead of looking for a job in the public health field, I started to brainstorm the possibility of a career as an artist. Even though I had no formal education in Art, I took on art full time and started producing work inspired by my Punjabi Sikh background and American upbringing.
Driven by my bi-cultural identity, I was attracted to two distinct painting styles – the Indian miniature tradition and the Bay Area Figurative Movement. One style is very loose and abstract while the other is very detailed and controlled.
Since my world is a mix of two geographically and culturally different worlds, my personal style as an artist is also a mix of these two very different styles. Through my work, I try to capture the essence of the past and induce nostalgia as felt by many immigrants or anyone who has been displaced from his or her place of belonging. As an artist, I enjoy highlighting the importance of history and heritage as they were in all the stories I heard while growing up. Like all artists, I believe it is my job to provide a fresh or distinct perspective on the world around me. I do this by creating work that portrays the social environment around me and is relevant to my audience.
On becoming a full time artist
If someone had told me I would be a professional artist one day, I would have just taken it as a nice compliment and left it at that.
I was teaching public health and was pursuing art as a hobbyist. In 2011, someone from Sikhlens noticed my work on my Facebook page and invited me to participate in the Sikhlens Sikh Art & Film festival in Orange County, CA. I had a showing of my work at the festival but kept introducing myself as ‘Rupy, the artist who has a Masters in Public health’.
I couldn’t accept the title of an artist by itself even after winning art competitions all my life, having some large commissions under my belt, and now showing my work to the public and receiving so much love for it.
Initially, I pursued art and public health simultaneously for a year and then decided to take the leap and become a full time artist. Since that time, I have honed my process, worked on my ideas, and developed a strong artistic identity.
At that time there was a lot of self-doubt and I asked myself several questions especially about leaving a full time job that paid the bills. But once I discovered the thrill of getting really good as an artist, the excitement of working endlessly on a project, and ultimately the entire process of having a vision and fulfilling it all for myself- being a professional artist began to sound like a dream job. I realized what it was like to do what you love and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
While I have stopped pursuing public health as my profession, I continue to use the skills I learned through biology and public health to do many of the things I do as an artist today. My method is very specific and neat, as it would be if I was running a lab experiment. I derive a lot of my inspiration from stories of different types of people that I was exposed to as a public health professional. In all, I have found a way to incorporate my skills and interest in science and art into my work. I think this also sets me apart from the stereotypical ‘eccentric and messy’ image people have of artists.
On her pop culture and ‘Sikh’ influences.
I like paying attention to the small details in life. Whether I am watching a movie, listening to a podcast, watching an interview, or reading a book, I pay extra attention to the experience of the characters involved.
Basically, I am a sucker for stories and characters.
I have a very active imagination, very lucid dreams, and a love for stories that re-kindle an image of the past in my mind. So, growing up, whether I was listening to folk Punjabi music, singing folk Punjabi boliyan, reading literature, or even listening to life stories of the Sikh Gurus, I have always been awestruck by the words, the characters, the language and the storyteller. I think most immigrants have a special connection to their past and to what they left behind. The constant practice of looking back is common between the partition stories I heard as a child, and the many immigrants I met as an adult. Everyone possessed a unique story with unique objects and places that they longed for yet never really went back to reconnect with. I guess this entire feeling of missing something constantly, of wanting to look back yet move forward, really helped me stay connected with my heritage even after growing up in the US for most of my life.
Through my work, I began to express these ideas and began presenting objects and people, as they would be in my memories and not what they were in reality.
On art as a commercial endeavor
I think I would love to be able to bring my art to people through many different means. Whether it’s wearable art, something of daily use, or something hung to adore a wall, I want to explore all those areas. I have designed scarves using my artwork and have had a chance to design book covers, t-shirts, logos, and even tattoos. Having different applications for my work really excites me and drives me to think of new and innovative ways to connect audiences to my work.
At my shows, I notice that some people are intimidated to buy art for their walls but they feel so much more comfortable buying it as applied on a different object like a t-shirt or a card case.
I would love to eliminate that intimidation and hesitance. I think whether someone buys an original or a print or even a scarf, I want him or her to love it and connect to it in his or her unique way. This is one of the main reasons I like to share the process behind each piece so that I can provide some of my thoughts to my audience, and help them find a piece of them somewhere in the artwork.
On her fondness for specific leitmotifs in her work.
Rather than a specific object or motif, I think I re-iterate the importance of objects in my paintings. I focus on the objects that might tell a story and throughout a painting; I try to weave that story together. For example, I was planning a painting from a photograph of an elderly soldier from the British Raj Era. While the soldier’s face, body language, clothes, all told their own story, I decided to focus on his traditional shoes, a Punjabi “jutti”, which was a stark contrast to the British uniform he was wearing. His shoes, to me, were the object that told a story of where that man was from, where he had been, and where he was going.
On her creative process, and the everyday routines that bring order to her day
My creative process is part innate and part generated from a lot of trial and error over a long period of practice. Usually the process begins with a large-scale thought, which I dissect into various little ideas. Once I come across an idea that compels me to paint, I start with a general image in my mind. I don’t always know what I am going to draw or paint but as soon as I start, things just flow from the subconscious.
When I have started a piece, I become very secretive about it (unless of course someone has commissioned it, then I have to share it). I find myself becoming very protective of the piece and usually block off my studio to everyone. At the beginning of a piece, I don’t seek any opinions and get very angry if someone even sees it even by accident. But, as the piece progresses and I finish the drawing, I share it with whoever is around. Once I start adding color, then once again I shut the whole world out until the painting is completely finished. It upsets my flow if I let opinions get in at the wrong time of the process.
I need my 8 hours of sleep and morning tea to begin my work day properly.
While I drink my tea, I usually read the news to connect with the world around me. As soon as I am finished, I get to work and make sure to first tidy up my studio and organize it for the rest of the day. I usually take a 15 or 20 minutes break for lunch and about 15 minutes for my late afternoon 4 p.m. tea. I take my work into the night and usually work best when things go silent late at night. There are variations in the schedule of course but my morning and afternoon rituals rarely go offbeat.
On the challenges faced when marketing her art
As an artist, its not the most natural transition to put on the marketing hat to sell your work. I think art is as personal to someone who buys it as it is to the artist who makes it. So, when I market my work, I prefer to let my work speak for itself. Having said that, a challenge in marketing art is putting the right price on my work.
I am never too excited to put a price on my work. Is it too high? Too low ? I wish I never had to answer these questions.
Another challenge is to find the right audience. The right audience might be around me or on the other side of the world. So, getting exposure to the right audience is a major marketing challenge. My work is evolving continuously so keeping the audience interested in my work is another challenge. Making sure I am producing work continuously and putting it in a public place for people to see keeps me on my toes continuously.
Luckily, so far, my work has marketed itself through word of mouth. But, I am hoping I can continue to find more innovative ways of having the audience interact with my work.
On her favorite artists and designers on both sides of the pond.
I think artists and designers that have a similar focus on capturing time or rather the timelessness of objects, people, and life attract me the most. As isolated as one can be as an artist, I try my hardest to check out the work of other artists and if I like someone’s work, I try to study their process and intent from my own perspective. Van Gogh, Monet, Amrita Shergil, and Arpana Caur are the few that really capture my imagination through their work. I am so mystically drawn to their work that it urges me to find out more about them as individuals and about the experiences that resulted in the amazing pieces of work they have produced. In addition to artists, I find the work and work ethic of Sabyasachi Mukherjee as a designer and entrepreneur very impressive. I resonate with the type of work he puts out and its timeless quality as well as his drive to make his clothes accessible to the masses. I think as an artist, making your work accessible to everyone is very important if you want to do your job well as someone who paints a picture of the society and world around you.
On the social nature of art
Like I said, being an artist can be quite an isolating job. To resolve this issue, I try my best to have a very active online social community through Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.Sharing my daily sketches or behind the scenes work on a big project with individuals from around the world is very satisfying. Getting comments and likes is always rewarding and at times when I am having a bad day in the studio, its those interactions that I can rely on to get me back up and to the drawing board again.
On the one person from history, she’d love to share dinner with
… if I really could, I think I would love to go back in time and sit down with Amrita Shergil for a quick meal. I don’t believe I could do a long dinner with her because I would feel completely star-struck by her. And more than having dinner, even if I could spend a few hours watching her while she works, it would be amazing. I would love to learn how she chose her subjects, what about them made her want to paint them, why did she pick the specific hues for her paintings, did she start off with a vision or did the vision reveal itself at the end? I think ultimately, I would love to have a checklist of all the qualities Amrita Shergil possessed as an artist and eventually try to adopt some of those qualities in myself.
Editors Notes: All images in this story are from the personal collection of Rupy Cheema Tut. If you have any questions or would like to use them in any way at all please contact her at email@example.com