Illustrating The Bigger Picture With Deepti Sunder
Interview by LaChelle Chrysanne // Photos by Ramesh Padmanabhan
Visual artist Deepti Sunder has led a life of defying convention and immersing herself in exploration. As a self-proclaimed escapist, her work ranges from whimsical to vibrant and to some, it can even be a little enigmatic. Coming from India where academics reign supreme but the opportunities to pursue art are few and far between, she managed to find her way to illustration through taking time to explore her interests and talents in various fields. In a short period of time, she went from receiving a BA in Architecture to being awarded a Crystal Kite Award for illustrating a children’s book to eventually receiving an MFA in Illustration at FIT where she was one of the first Indian students in the history of the institute’s Illustration program. We chatted with her about her journey, what inspires her and how she navigates living between two vastly different cultures.
UC: When did you first get into visual art and which media did you get into first?
DS: I've been making things pretty much all my life. I've always been creatively inclined and it’s what gives me most happiness. Right from the age of around five years, I was dabbling with basically any material I could get my hands on. This ranged from making cards to DIY crafts to sculpting things out of clay.
Before I studied illustration, I went to school for architecture for five years but midway through I felt, “Okay, this is not really for me and I don't think I want to practice architecture”. I still wanted to get the degree in my hand though, and figure out where to go next. During my architecture studies, I enjoyed making my sheets look pretty and drafting drawings more than actually making a good building. I don't think I made very many sensible buildings.
UC: Did you pursue architecture more so because it was a practical way to use your talents and pursue a career?
DS: Yes. It’s also because in India at that point there wasn't as much exposure to visual art as a profession. There weren't many colleges that could teach you art. Now it's a lot more popular and there are more universities for art studies. Even so, I don't necessarily think that all the programs are the best, so a lot of people still go to the West or somewhere in Europe to study art. When I was applying to college, it wasn't really something that I knew was an option— maybe if I'd known it was viable, I would have pursued it earlier.
I was always a well-performing student and in India, studies are pretty important. Doing well academically is something that you need to do because there's so much competition. I wanted to gain some science and math related technical knowledge but still do something creative, so that was what made the decision for me — architecture was a combination of those two things. After starting my architecture studies, I kept feeling it wasn't creatively satisfying enough for me. I wanted to do something where I was in charge of the creative process from beginning to end, where I was the one making the object with my own hands, and I wasn’t getting that.
UC:What other places did you consider going to art school at?
DS: For about a year after I graduated I was just seeking. I attended a course on Indian aesthetics and another one on architectural theory, and they greatly helped me expand my views on art and design in general.
In the midst of all this, I was paying a lot more attention to illustration but I didn't think I could actually pursue it myself. I heard through a friend that this illustrator she knew, Tanvi Bhat, was looking for an intern to help her with a project, so I sent her my drawings. She generously took me on and did more than just show me the ropes. During my time working with Tanvi, she was largehearted enough to bring me in on a project she had been hired to work on, and I got to illustrate my first ever children’s book thanks to her. I discovered that I liked the work, and even more so, that I had a flair for it. That’s basically where it all started, and I wouldn’t be here today without her help.
I started doing a couple of freelance projects and did a bit of work in India after that, but felt I needed to improve my skills and study the craft more. I started applying to art schools. I applied to one school in Sweden, a couple in the US and a few in the UK as well and then eventually picked FIT.
“It’s constantly a feeling of being torn between two places. When I'm in India there are things that I miss from New York, and when I’m in New York there are things that I miss from home.”
UC: How has your experience been here in the US with the political climate towards expats and people of color? Has that had any direct effect on your experience here?
DS: I’ve been lucky enough that nothing has directly happened to me. There's pros and cons to everything, but sometimes I wonder if it’s better to just go back home. However, I've been in the US for four years now so I have all these people who are important to me and have made a space for myself in New York as well.
It’s constantly a feeling of being torn between two places. When I'm in India there are things that I miss from New York, and when I’m in New York there are things that I miss from home. It’s like a weird dual existence. You’re almost a different person in both spaces because they're so different from each other culturally. For instance, there's so many people around you all the time in India, and in New York it's almost like an individual existence - you're encouraged to be an independent ‘I-don't-need-anybody’ kind of person.
UC: When you say surrounded by people, do you mean that people are flocking together in India because in New York we have a ton of people as well but like you said there is a super autonomous way that people live their lives here.
DS: Yeah. India and a lot of Eastern cultures in general are very oriented towards gathering and living in more crowded social settings. You kind of do everything in a group rather than do it individually and you're encouraged to be that way even if you know you do have to lead a life as an individual. Family members and friends will come and drop by during the day and I feel like those things don't happen as much in New York. People are more proper about coming over and so I miss those things when I'm in New York. I miss having people around me all the time and having the support system my family gives me.
UC: Was it a difficult adjustment coming from that type of background and then kind of being thrust into a space that is almost the exact opposite?
DS: It was and it wasn't. It’s kind of liberating to get your own space and do whatever you want because in India people tend to give you their opinions even if you don't always want them. It’s mostly out of concern, but a lot of times you can also feel like they're butting into your life. When you leave that, it feels like you get the freedom to do your own thing. Nobody is telling you what to do and nobody is watching what you're doing.
So it was liberating to come to New York but it was also very different from India, and therefore it was an adjustment. I remember the first day that we started our classes. I was the only Indian in my class which is not a common university experience when you go abroad from India, because most people go for engineering or medicine degrees. You have tons of people coming from India to study those things. I’m kind of an anomaly because I was studying something not many people take up. I was the first Indian student in my MFA program at FIT. This was also because our program was only four years old when I joined though.
UC: Oh wow.
DS: Yes, we were a class of 13 and we had this entire session the first day where we were introducing ourselves. Then we got a lunch break and everyone went their separate ways. I was so confused. We’re all going to be in this class together for the next three years, why is everyone going in different directions? In India, during that lunch break you would get to know each other, one or two of you would go get coffee or lunch together and talk. I couldn't understand why everyone was going elsewhere. It took me some time to realize everyone just took a little longer to open up and had different ways of opening up than I was used to.
“I like escaping into my own reality in a way. I’m always daydreaming about other things that aren't really happening in my life and so I think my work is kind of an extension of that.”
UC: You briefly touched on how when you were in school for architecture there really wasn't a lot of space for art in India at the time. What are some of the biggest differences between the art world in India versus the States?
DS: A lot has changed since I've been away because there’s been a boom of interest in illustration and design work. Art and design were always around but right now people seem more interested in these kinds of things, and there’s a lot of young artists doing interesting work and putting it out there. In India the nice thing about the art world --- I'm not talking about the fine art world because it's very different, I’m speaking more about illustration and design --- is that a lot of it is new and people are more aware of it for the first time. The youth is eager to see more stuff like that even if they themselves aren't artists. You may not necessarily be getting paid fantastically because you still encounter clients who don't think your services are valuable or don't want to pay and will fleece you. There aren't as many procedures in place to guard you against all of that, but it's an exciting time to be doing things in India because there's more room to play.
There aren't as many rules so you can kind of do what you want and figure out your own thing without all these limitations in place. In the illustration world of New York, people almost make a brand of their type of art and as an illustrator, you have to have a style that you stick with to get more projects. All the artists that I am following from India are getting a chance to experiment more because there’s not all of these expectations. You're just having fun and you're figuring it out and in the same way, brands and other people that can hire you are also responding and trying to think differently. I feel like there’s an opening up of avenues for doing something that wasn't necessarily done before so that's kind of exciting. In New York, it almost feels like a lot of stuff has already been done.
UC: Yeah, they say there’s no such thing as like an original idea and that is definitely amplified in New York.
DS: Yeah, and sometimes I feel it’s that way even in India because a lot of the Indian artists are inspired by Western artists - they're seeing other illustrators out there doing cool stuff and wanting to do it too. There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes people are creating things outside of the context of who they are, they're not really making art that's from their own experiences. Everyone has their own process of figuring out what they like to draw and paint but sometimes I wonder if we gave more importance to our own history and we had more pride in our own country, what would come from that and can we go about making something that's not connected to the rest of the world? We’re constantly seeing so much visual information it's hard to stay away from it and be original. I wonder how much of what we think is our own isn’t really ours anymore and if it’s possible to have a process that's not connected to that.
UC: In a lot of your pieces, there’s an element of vibrant, fun youthfulness. What inspires you to create this type of work?
DS: I've thought about this a lot recently because I've also been trying to answer this question for myself. When I'm creating, I'm not thinking of why I'm doing it or how I'm doing it but I think I've always been a little bit of an escapist. All of the books that I liked to read as a kid were always fantasy or fiction in some way. It was always about somebody having an adventure in a strange land. I like escaping into my own reality in a way. I’m always daydreaming about other things that aren't really happening in my life and so I think my work is kind of an extension of that.
UC: You mentioned that you’re doing a lot of freelancing now. How much of your work is client work and how much of it is just pure passion project?
DS: It's mostly been a mix. I got to do this artist-in-residence project with the Children's Museum of the Arts recently where I made these giant paper mache animals and plants with the help of the public that came to Governor’s Island. That was essentially a passion project because I was getting to do everything that I wanted to do. I think that's the perfect marriage. When both of those things come together it's great because you're also getting paid to do something that you love to do. On the other hand, though, there is a lot of liberation in making something just for yourself.
The pressure of art becoming my career sometimes gets to me. As a kid I always made art just for myself or made something for somebody else that would bring them happiness, but it never hinged on me getting money for it. I think that's definitely a point of pressure for me.
UC: You always have to go back to the kid you were when you were just creating for the joy of it. When you're a creative person and you're capable of doing so many things it's really hard to function in a society that tells us we're supposed to choose one specific path. You could take so many different paths with the type of work that you do but it's programmed in us that we shouldn’t.
DS: Yeah and it almost feels like you need to have some form of clarity for your audience because it allows people to have a better understanding of what you do. The people close to me sort of know what I'm doing but there are other people who may look at my Instagram who don't really get what I’m doing and I don't necessarily know how to explain it either sometimes. I do a lot of different things but I'm just making stuff and it makes me happy to make that stuff. That's really what it all boils down to.
UC: Yea, that’s all that really matters.
DS: I think it's hard for someone who’s not necessarily familiar with art or isn’t an artist themselves to understand what artists are doing and why they do it. I suppose it could feel like you're somebody who's very external to that world and you're just looking at it from the outside.
UC: How does creativity empower you?
DS: Creativity for me is a space I can go to where I’m just in my own world and nothing external is necessarily affecting me because I'm doing what I'm happiest doing. You’re in this moment where it's all making sense, it's all coming together and it just feels right— there's nothing quite like that. I think that's what empowers me, remembering the feeling that it gives me.
I also think it’s more about the process than the end result. It’s so much fun to just be in the midst of it. The act of creating is more important than what we create most of the time. You are out there making something. That is more beautiful than what it becomes or what people expect it to be or give money to fund or don't fund. You’re doing it for yourself at the end of the day and I think that's what makes it beautiful.
To learn more about Deepti’s work, visit https://www.deeptisunder.com/
You can follow her on social media at @deeptisunder