In her intricate pieces, Bhavna Mehta draws connections between the stories of her ancestors in India and her modern American life. The underlying message throughout her work is that everything is connected. See Bhavna at work in her home studio, as she shares insights into her life as an immigrant and engineer-turned-self-taught artist, and then read her Q&A with Barbarella Fokos to discover what this artist has been up to lately, and how her work has evolved since the time of filming.
(Segment credits: Executive Producer Barbarella Fokos, Director David Fokos, Segment Producer Giovanni DiGiacomo, Cinematographers Nevan Forsythe & Aaron Howard, Editor PJ Bagley)
BF: To begin on a silly note, in the segment you mentioned your past life as a Nokia engineer, and how your family teased you about getting an iPhone. Well, it’s three years later. What phone are you using now?
BM: (Laughs), It’s not an iPhone, it’s an Android phone. I’m using an Android simply because I found we could get a deal, the monthly charges are not super exorbitant, and that was our criteria. When I go to India, my family still teases me about it because they all have iPhones in India. They think there’s no other phone in the world!
BF: Okay, I won’t judge you for it. 😉 Let’s get back to the topic at hand: In what ways has your work changed in the past few years?
BM: I think mainly what’s changed is that I’m working larger. My first installation was last year at the Oceanside Museum of Art, and that was really fun — I’m thinking more about working in spaces and combining the materials to make the work. The idea of installation had been percolating in my head for a while, but I just wasn’t jumping on it. Then I got the Creative Catalyst grant, which forced me to think about installation in a way that would use my ideas of storytelling and working with paper to create an installation. I was forced into it, but I was happy to be forced into it. I knew I’d have to challenge myself to do it, and this was a good way to do it. I got some money, got some help, and was able to pay the people who helped me, and got a space: all of those things combined to push me there. The space at the museum — which gallery I’d be working in — was decided up front, so I kind of had an idea about the space, and I knew that I had a limited time to make it happen. Coming from an engineering background, I work well under pressure, if it’s only for a few months, with some breathing time after. I work better that way instead of having an extended timeline where there is no deadline.
BF: Please tell us more about this Creative Catalyst grant project at the Oceanside Museum of Art. I understand this was a collaboration project with the community?
BM: Creative Catalyst is a grant by the San Diego Foundation. They award $20,000 throughout the arts, so visual artists, dancers, or a theater person can apply for the grant and propose a project with a nonprofit institution. My partner was the Oceanside Museum of Art. I went through an interview process with the museum and the San Diego Foundation, and I proposed that I would work with the community in Oceanside doing workshops. I would collect patterns from people — what they remember from a different country, the pattern of their lives, and create a project that used paper, pattern, and story. In Oceanside, we’re so close to the water, so there were a lot of water themes, a lot of water colors, blues and greens. Talk about the drought was very prevalent in all the workshops. I thought that was a good theme to try to conceptualize in terms of an installation. My installation was called Gush: Paper, Pattern, Story, which could be the gushing of water or the gushing of ideas. We created a space inside the gallery with gray pipes made out of paper, and flowing out of the pipes were flowers, water patterns, everything was a pattern. So things were flowing out of these pipes, telling the story of the community of Oceanside. About 70 people came to the workshops, and I did about 25 workshops.
See video about Gush, the installation at Oceanside Museum of Art:
BF: Wow, that sounds incredible. What were the most surprising or rewarding reactions to the installation?
BM: One of the people who came to the show said she wanted to put her bed in the gallery. She said, “This is like a dream and I want to wake up and still be in the dream.” The show was up for four months, so lots of people saw it, lots of teachers brought their groups to the gallery. Sometimes I would go up and talk to them; it was just a great experience to be in that space in terms of listening to people, but also encouraging people to look at paper in a different way — paper is a very kind of cheap and humble medium. Lots of artists are using it, but a lot of people don’t think about it as a fine art medium. It’s fun for me to see that people understand that you can do sculpture with paper, and that was kind of neat.
BF: What are some of the other highlights in your career since we filmed you?
BM: I think introducing embroidery on paper is a big highlight. I started to do that, and in my next show I’m going to have more embroidery and paper cutting on the same sheet of paper. Combining the thread and paper is moving me in a new direction. It’s not a huge thing, but a small step in a direction where I’m starting to think about combining paper with other materials. I’m still doing stories, still developing my style, but starting to think, Okay, what happens if I combine wire with paper? I’m not a purist by any means. I don’t have to use only paper, I can start thinking about different ideas and seeing what works with a particular project.
BF: How does the thread play into your stories?
BM: I think embroidery helps to add color: it’s like painting with thread. And cutting feels like drawing. You draw a line and you’re done. Embroidery feels like a painterly approach, at least the way I’m doing it, there are lots of ways to do embroidery. I like the color ideas that come out because of the embroidery. And I just like the feeling of working with thread.
BF: You’ve done some collaborations with other artists. What is it like to work with other artists? What have you learned through that process?
BM: Every collaboration is different. I worked with a poet, Diane Gage, called What the South Wind Says. I created a series of books using her poems. That was a great collaboration because I had a lot of freedom in how to visualize words, but she was always available if I wanted to talk to her about something, like, say, what color paper to use, or what size to make something. She had really good ways to collaborate with me in terms of helping me decide things that I wasn’t really sure about. And then she would come, and we’d talk about it, and we would agree on something. I thought that was a good process.
BM: Another one I did was with artist Marianela de la Hoz. She and I were on the San Diego Art Prize together in 2014; she was a senior artist and I was an emerging artist. In the beginning, I had no idea what was going to happen because our styles are so different. She gave me a drawing on a large piece of paper and said, “Do whatever you want with it, cut it up, whatever.” I was freaking out a little bit, because it was a beautiful drawing and I didn’t want to mess it up. Usually, if I start something and it doesn’t feel right, I start over. I struggled with that, and then decided not to cut it but do embroidery on it. That started me on embroidery, because I really l liked combining the thread with paper.
BF: I understand you’re teaching now. What are you teaching, and where can people find your classes?
BM: One class I’m teaching is at UCSD Extension in the winter, a six-week class where each week we do a different project. It’s a very basic paper cutting class, the techniques of cutting, learning about artists that are doing this work, work on collaborating projects, there’s a variety of things I do in classes. I try to make it so that if somebody just comes in and says, “Okay, I’ve never done this but I’d like to learn,” then the project is simple enough for them to learn something. And if somebody has already been doing something on their own, they are challenged at the level they are comfortable. I try to make the project so that it’s interesting for a wide variety of skill levels. The other class I’m teaching is in North Carolina, the Penland School of Crafts. It’s a week-long class, also paper cutting. I took a paper cutting class at Penland many years ago, and I’m excited to go back as a teacher. It’s a wonderful place to forget everything and just have a great week for a couple of weeks, and I’m really looking forward to that as well.
BF: What are you working on now?
BM: Most recently, I worked on a show for Bread and Cie in Hillcrest. I’m working on a series of panel and embroidery and paper cutting. I had a few small pieces in several shows this fall, you can find the list on my web site. Some had new work, others old work.
BF: What is your dream project?
BM: My dream project would be maybe to do something in India. It would be fun to do it in my hometown, Ahmednagar. It’s the only way my dad would get to see one of my shows — he’s 80 now and doesn’t like to go out of town. A bunch of people in my family enjoy paper cutting — if you wanted to make a greeting card, you would use paper cutting instead of drawing — so it’d be fun to involve them somehow, it’s a dream, so I don’t have to worry about the logistics. 😉