Step inside Dr. Mindy Lahiri’s office on The Mindy Project, and you’ll see two paintings by Cambridge-based artist Julia Powell—one, of sailboats, behind Lahiri’s desk, and one, of a yellow barn, by the door.
The Mindy Project show-runner and lead actress Mindy Kaling has known Powell for years. They first met as middle-schoolers at Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge and then grew close in high school, bonding in AP English, theater (“We were in the musical Rags together, which is a horrible musical, but we had a great theater director,” says Powell), and a writing camp at Bryn Mawr College.
They kept in touch throughout college—Kaling went to Dartmouth, Powell went to Yale—and even after that, as Kaling went on to star in and write for The Office and then create her own show, while Powell graduated from Stanford Law School and became an attorney.
Powell, who moved back to Cambridge five years ago to be closer to her parents, continues to practice law, specializing in wills, trusts, and estates. But recently, she began to split time evenly between keeping up with her existing career and forming a new one—as a painter.
Julia’s paintings are so colorful, gorgeous, and reflect a distinct grew-up-in-New England aesthetic. Just like Mindy Lahiri and me, so perfect for my show.
“It’s easy to get pigeonholed as being ‘the person who does X.’ I thought of myself in high school and in college as the scholar-athlete. I was serious about academics, I was serious about sports, and it just didn’t seem like there was room for other interests,” she says. “But if you actually look back at what I was doing, my notebooks from class are covered with little doodles and drawings.”
While it was Powell’s brother who encouraged her to seriously hone her painting skills, it was Kaling who turned her on to the possibility of using them as a gateway to a new career. Last May, after speaking at Harvard Law School’s Class Day, Kaling visited Powell’s house, where she saw her friend’s artworks for the first time.
“I don’t remember her being interested in painting in school. Just being a soccer star and being the other girl who wouldn’t shut up in my English class,” Kaling said in an email to Boston.
It was then that Kaling offered to pay Powell to feature her artwork on The Mindy Project. The yellow barn debuted on season three when the show was still on FOX, and Kaling added the second painting of the sailboats for season four, which premiered on Hulu—she intends to keep it for herself when the show is over.
“I think that Mindy’s original interest in the yellow barn gave me the confidence to invest in myself and try to get better,” Powell says.
The exchange worked both ways—Powell’s use of bold, hyperactive colors fits well into the aesthetic of the show, on which Mindy Lahiri has been lauded for her fashion sense, masterminded by costume designer and Kaling’s friend Salvador Perez.
“Julia’s paintings are so colorful, gorgeous, and reflect a distinct grew-up-in-New England aesthetic. Just like Mindy Lahiri and me, so perfect for my show,” Kaling says.
Anytime Mindy Instagrams something, I’ll get ten orders that day. She did one tweet…and my website crashed.
Powell, who describes herself and her family as “Yankee New Englanders,” attributes the prevalence of nature in her works to frequent trips to Maine, where her family owns a house by Acadia National Park. She’s also heavily influenced by the color-driven works of her favorite painters, including Van Gogh and Wolf Kahn.
“I’ll look at paintings and they’ll inspire me, and I’ll come up with some sort of amalgamation of a painting, plus an image in my head, plus a photograph,” she says. “And then I’ll do still lifes of food and stuff just to hone my drawing skills—those are just strawberries from my refrigerator or an apple from Star Market.”
As an up-and-coming painter, Powell, who didn’t take visual arts courses in high school or college, insists on continuing to learn. Shortly after she sold her first painting to Kaling, she hired a teacher from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for private lessons, during which she mastered the basics—how to prep a canvas, how to choose and clean supplies.
The artist also uses commissions as learning opportunities. Over the summer, a couple from Beacon Hill with an affinity for cows made an order for a custom painting. Before taking on the commission, Powell, who up until that point mostly created landscapes and seascapes, practiced sketching cows for hours. It was her first foray into animals—depictions of humans are forthcoming.
“My oldest brother is obsessed with Benjamin Franklin, and he is gung-ho about me doing a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in some kind of rainbow aesthetic,” she says.
Powell is also learning to navigate the business side of things, recently securing gallery representation from Abigail Ogilvy at her outpost in SoWa, and starting to make prints, which offer more affordable options for her clientele, many of whom discover the artist through Kaling’s social media channels.
“Anytime Mindy Instagrams something, I’ll get ten orders that day,” Powell says. “She did one tweet and because she has so many followers on social media, my website crashed.”
For Powell, Kaling’s support extends beyond a high-profile actress helping an emerging artist or even a friend helping a friend—it reaches into the realm of women helping women.
“I think Mindy, as a female comedian, is very aware of the huge growth disparity and percentage of male writers versus female writers, male show-runners versus female show-runners, and it’s exactly the same in the painting world,” she says. “The more valuable your art, the more famous you are, the less likely it is that you’ll be a woman. I think that’s appealing to Mindy about highlighting me—that I’m a woman and I’m trying to be a painter, and that is a historically, extremely male-oriented field.”
In turn, Powell looks out for Kaling, too.
“Every three months or so, I’ll fly out to LA, and we’ll have a girls’ weekend, and I’ll try to protect her from crazy people lurking on the street,” she says.
When pressed for details, Powell shares that her hangouts with Kaling follow the same pattern, featuring a Whole Foods run, TV, gossiping, massages, “another eating situation,” a nice bowl of ice cream, and an 11:45 bedtime.
“It’s not exciting at all except it’s exciting because I just haven’t seen her,” she says. “It’s just two female friends hanging out.”
Check out more of Powell’s artworks at juliaspowell.com.
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