Soumya Netrabile has pursued study of engineering as well as visual art, balancing this with the bi-cultural experience of moving from Mumbai, India, to the United States when she was seven years old. Currently based in Chicago, she has only just recently begun to pursue painting full time. It’s my pleasure to share this fantastic interview and Soumya’s wonderful work!
First, can you tell me a little bit about you? Where are you from originally and where are you based right now?
I was born in India and moved to the US when I was seven. I was raised on the East Coast, but am currently based near Chicago. A good part of my youth was a typical American immigrant experience. I had to learn to balance two cultural identities and work out a place for myself. Making art helped me through this.
Is there a moment or an experience that you remember, when you knew that you were going to pursue art?
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on my family’s terrace in Mumbai, drawing pictures of monkeys, balloon vendors and puppet shows. Drawing has been a comfort to me since I was young. I was lucky to have people in my life who encouraged my curiosity and took me to museums. After high school I studied engineering, but I always considered it a detour. I never completely withdrew from my interest in art. A few years after I finished engineering, I enrolled at SAIC. After finishing there, life and work got in the way and I was not able to give art my complete attention. I’ve only recently been able to commit to making art full time.
What about the medium of painting is particularly attractive to you?
Even though I’ve been painting for years, I feel new and inexperienced at it. Often I feel that I’m starting from scratch, in the sense that I am re-learning what paint can do and what I can do with paint. The energy and open-endedness of this exploration keeps the medium exciting.
What ideas or themes are you exploring in your practice?
Because I’ve been engaged in making art full-time for only two and a half years, I’m still trying to figure out how to say what I want to say.
I’ve always been interested in human/animal figures and their anatomy. I like the way these figures occupy, move through and disconnect space. I feel like it’s good starting point for me as I search for a personal vocabulary and iconography. I mainly work intuitively and don’t start with a plan. At any given time I will have a few paintings and sculptures going on simultaneously which inform each other. I also find inspiration from reading poetry and thinking about how poems are constructed. I like to study how poets manipulate words to play with our sense of time and space. I think about how this might relate to how I construct images.
What is your process like? Do you do any specific kinds of research for your work?
I like to start working as soon as I get in the studio, which is quite cluttered with pieces in various stages of completion. I am a pretty messy painter. I like using different tools and mediums, mixing up paints and drawing utensils. Drawing itself an important part of my process—I use it constantly to help build the image. I probably spend equal time creating and destroying parts of a painting. Sometimes a painting can take months to complete. I take notes and draw regularly in a small sketchbook. Besides reading a lot, I constantly look at work by other painters and try to locate common methods, threads or influences that might exist.
What is the most daunting, challenging, or frustrating thing about pursuing art?
Everything about it fits the description.
One notable challenge right now is learning to trust my instinct. It’s something I have to train myself for. Negotiating between instinct and—for lack of a better word—intellect is tricky. Instinct urges me to make a particular mark or move in a particular direction, and minutes, hours or days later I can get lost in overthinking those decisions. It’s important to trust and have faith in those initial urges.
Another challenge for me is to stay directed on one trajectory. Each piece I make inspires so many possibilities and directions. These should be explored, but not at the expense of fully fleshing out one idea. I am slowly learning to work through this and better organize myself in the studio.
What do you value or need most as an artist?
What I value most is concentrated, undisturbed time to do my work. Luckily I have this right now, and it allows me to be very productive. For many years it was not possible.
Is there any advice that you’ve received along the way that you have taken to heart? Any that you’ve received that you’re glad, in hindsight, you ignored?
I’ve received a lot of good advice from many different teachers. Michiko Itatani once said during class that to become an artist, you have to look at a lot of art, but then you have to forget all of it when you start making your own. That observation has always stuck with me.
When I was 16, an estranged uncle who was touted as an art expert visited us and wanted to see my work. He looked at maybe three drawings, closed my portfolio, and told me that I should definitely not pursue art. It was my first rejection!
What is your studio like?
I divide my work between three spaces. I have a studio about four miles away where I primarily just paint. It’s a shared space so it’s more cramped than I would prefer. I’d like to move to a larger space so I can make larger paintings. I also work at a local ceramics studio on my small clay sculptures. I have convenient access to this space, so I’m able to use it whenever I want.
Do you have any routines or rituals in the studio that get you into a creative mode?
When I get into the studio, I start working right away. I’ve found that by just doing and generating work, things start to happen. I like to keep the momentum at a steady pace.
Have you ever found yourself in a creative rut? How did you handle it, or what do you do when you’re unsure of your next step?
For me the best way out of a rut is to just work through it. I go to the studio and work even if I feel discouraged or am mentally tired. If stay at it, at some point the clouds start to move and the sun peeks out. Reading poetry also helps me when I feel stuck, as does writing notes about my work.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working simultaneously a group of paintings of various sizes. I’m also getting sculptures ready for a small solo show in June, where I’ll be showing a few paintings as well. I’ve never had my paintings and sculptures together in a gallery, so I’m excited to see how they come together.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to show my work on your space. Young Space is a valuable resource for artists and art lovers. It’s great to have you out there promoting new artists!
Find more on Instagram @netrabile!