“The lockdown was a difficult phase for everyone, but with time Nature began surfacing,” says Bengaluru-based artist Shirley Mathew. “During this trying period, we survived, animals survived, Nature survived. That survival is a depiction of hope — Nature survived against all odds and now we need to nurture it.”
“A lot of my work reflects my concern for the felling of trees and how we have urbanised to such an extent that trees are struggling to survive. As an artist, that is how I express myself — others take a more assertive stance and I support them in my own way — through my art,” says the artist, whose work since 2011 has reflected this cause.
“My series on urbanisation is not negative in any way. I believe architects are creative in their own right, but there should be a way to co-exist with Nature without denuding the landscape and replacing it with glass and cement. My works usually have a tree somewhere to depict the ongoing struggle.”
Surviving All Odds comprises mostly of black, white and earth tones. “Though I usually employ a strong colour palette and bright tones, this series is different, very monochromatic,” says Shirley, adding that it is a reflection of her time in lockdown. “We all learnt to make do with what we had in that period, in so many ways. I couldn’t go to my studio where I normally worked; I used rice paper collage to introduce an. organic element as well as other mixed media.”
There is also an underlying element of reinvention to her work. For example, Gradients In Time now has bursts of colour, while the original created in 2011, initially showed foliage and edifice segments. “I’ve added more interest to it, more life, mainly to say ‘This is what we’ve done’. We went through this phase and we reinvented ourselves. This is the only one of my previous works on display,” she says, adding that the rest were created during the lockdown.
Shirley always had an inclination for the stage and says apart from art class at school, she only dabbled with colours when she was home in the evenings. Largely self-taught, Shirley says her father and brother realised she could benefit from a structured education in art and encouraged her to take it up seriously.
“I appreciate self-taught artists but I benefitted from art school. The teachers guided me and helped hone my talent. Their constructive criticism gave me a sense of direction where my work was concerned. I would have stagnated otherwise.”
Shirley studied at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington DC, training further at the Escola Llotja in Barcelona. “The instructors imperceptibly pushed us in the direction of our strengths. Over the years, I’ve realised throwing away my ego and listening to others’ appraisal of my work, has only stood me in good stead.”
Her first solo in 2002 in Bengaluru was to raise funds for Concern India, an NGO. The exhibition was a success and it started her off on her journey as an artist. “I realised that I could express myself through my art, and that has been my journey. I like working with mixed media because you start with acrylic, and then build it up, adding more elements to it before finishing it with oil.”
“Mixed media lends itself to other elements — I add whatever comes to hand — rice paper, dry pastels, Indian ink, corrugated sheet, a piece of honeycomb. One can see the different media tell a story, adding to the allure of a piece.”
While many artists choose to leave their work untitled, opening them up to the viewer’s interpretation, Shirley believes otherwise. “There’s a lot of symbolism or representational elements in my art. I believe that by naming a work, those few words can help viewers understand what the artist is trying to convey.”
She admits a lot of her work is philosophical. “I’ve used trees as a symbol to show how we have all come through a certain phase in life. You will see tendrils shooting up even when a big trunk has been cut.”
Today as an artist, curator, art consultant and collector, Shirley says it gives her great joy to help promote other artists, especially those from the hinterland. “It is so exciting to see the amazing works of other artists and you want to promote them because, in a way, the artist community is in isolation. We need to help each other rise above.”
Surviving All Odds comprises 30 works of mixed media on paper as well as oils on canvas and will be on display at MKF Museum, Lavelle Road, Bengaluru, from Aug 13 to 28.