Talking with Artist Vani Sayeed

An exhibit of her new work is opening this Saturday at the Newton Free Library.

Newton-based Vani Chandra Sayeed is an interior designer and artist whose aesthetic is deeply affected by her childhood in India. After earning her BFA at the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, she came to the U.S. and to get her MFA from the University of Iowa. She started an interior design practice in San Francisco and eventually landed in Newton, running projects on both coasts while exploring jewelry and fine art. We had a chance to catch up with her before the show…

Can you tell me a bit about the work you’ll be exhibiting?

Most of it is fairly traditional etching on copper, but my content is very contemporary. I’ve also been working with rice glue, rice paper, and acrylic—the same paper French artists used in the 19th century—to create painted collages. Though the technique is old-style, visually it’s very striking. I’ve had a lot of fun playing with that.

How has growing up in India influenced your artwork?

My culture matters very, very much. In this new series of prints, there are a lot of references to rickshaws. I drove an old Fiat growing up in India, a huge boxy car, you could bang it and nothing would happen, and that also became my subject matter. I also reference paisley patterns from block prints and textiles. Finally, I use embroidery thread to sew over the prints and give them texture. It gives me that feeling of doing something craft-like, and conveys a sense of home.

What was it like to move to New England?

I have to be honest: I was very, very nervous moving to the northeast. I’d never lived here and I didn’t know anyone. I also had a new baby, so it was kind of lonesome. Then you hear stories like, “Oh people are very cold, dinner is cold there.” Everyone has preconceived notions. So when I moved here I was apprehensive, but I have to say it was just wonderful. I realized that people are the same inside—they all want the same things. It was comforting.

It seems you like to cover several artistic bases – painting, sculpture, design, jewelry. Where did you get your artistic start and what pushed you to explore so many mediums?

I lost my father when I was 3 years old, and was raised by my mother. It was hard for her—India is such a patriarchal society. To be a widow at any time is not good, but back then, it was socially difficult. But she was and is incredibly artistic. There was something gorgeous about her sense of aesthetic. She was fantastic at sewing. When the machine broke she would hand-sew curtains, and I would wake up and see her paint.
Although we didn’t go on vacations, we would come home to a nice house, to a comforting house. For her to create these beautiful spaces, I think that had a huge impact on me. I thought, if I can make that impact on people, how wonderful would that be?

How does your creative process differ with each medium?

Everything starts with a pencil. Everything starts with a line. Everything starts with drawing your thoughts out some way or another. The new technology, having an iphone, is fantastic. Now you can just take pictures and study them. The internet is another tool—you can download images and distort them. But everywhere there’s a thought, there’s a pencil and paper, and that’s where it all starts.

Is there a color or artist you draw inspiration from?

I am obviously drawn to the bright colors of my roots, but I’ve also been enjoying the calm serenity of New England: the water, the woods. So my newer paintings are all very quiet, but there’s a lot of movement. My older work was bolder with big pieces of color, and was influenced by several artists I can speak of: Rothko, the Impressionists, Raja Ravi Varma and M.F. Husain, the celebrated Indian artists, so there’s a full mix. And of course my mother.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the opening?

Art to me is very selfish—it’s my expression, it’s the dialogue within myself. But when you have a show, or when it’s hanging in your house, then it becomes someone else’s. You as a viewer begin to engage with the piece. So every now and then I’ll post a picture, and it’s wonderful to get feedback, or just a comment from random people saying “Hey this reminds me of that,” then it’s no longer mine. When I hang a show, the dialog with the viewer is the fun part.

“Possibilities in Conversation…” will open on June 2 at the Newton Free Library. The reception will take place on Wednesday, June 6, 7 – 8:30 pm.