Tracking the Colourful Learning Curve of Local Artist / Activist Sandeep Johal

Whether you know it or not, chances are that you’ve come in contact with the artwork of Vancouver based artist Sandeep Johal.

Largely influenced by her South Asian heritage, Sandeep’s intricate black-and-white line drawings and vibrant pattern-filled paintings – often featuring formidable women who are impossible to ignore – have graced gallery walls and made their permanent and semi-permanent marks on many a Vancouver building. At the upcoming PechaKucha Vol. 51 (March 12th, 7:30pm at the Vancouver Playhouse), she’ll be taking the stage to expound on her creative process. But first, she took the time to answer some questions of our own…

How has your artistic process changed since you first began your art career in earnest?

I think I’m a better observer and more focused. I don’t feel stuck as often as I used to. There’s been a pretty steady progression in my style over the past few years. My line work has become more sophisticated, and I’ve added colour to the mix. I was afraid of colour for the longest time. I think the biggest surprise has been moving into the realm of figurative work, but it makes sense since my art practice centers around women’s stories. I’m still completely analog though, which surprises people because they assume my drawings are digital. Even though I take a lot of pride in being analog, I understand the necessity of living in both worlds now.

How much have you now gotten ‘figured out’ and how much of creating is still a surprising/ a learning process/ being revealed to you as you go?

I don’t know. Can you ever have it all figured out? Just when I think I’ve gotten a handle on something, the universe throws me a curve ball and forces me to reassess and redirect. Every project has its own surprises and failures. I never know which way something is going to go. It’s a constant learning curve, which can be hard to navigate when my brain is feeling maxed out.

You’ve taken on such large scales with your art (multiple murals, Facade Festival) and a myriad of spaces and other applications. How do you plan on pushing the limits in the future?

Yeah, it’s fun to see my work scaled up since I tend to work small. Last summer I had the privilege of working on a special community project with Van Mural Fest about the Komagata Maru. I was commissioned to paint the geometric portion of another artist’s design, which required tons of math, stenciling, and being 50+ feet in the air. It definitely pushed my mental, emotional and physical limits. In the future, I’d like to go bigger, higher, and experiment with different mediums/techniques.

“When I make decisions from a place of lack, I often regret it. When I trust in my abundance, everything ends up being ok.”

What space would you love for one of your goddesses to infiltrate?

I’d love to have one of them to fill up a space belonging solely to girls/women and have it be a collaborative process from beginning to end. Maybe in India somewhere?

Most of your artwork addresses some very difficult issues – I imagine that must be very emotionally draining. How do you cope with these feelings?

Smash Therapy? Ha ha! I haven’t tried it yet, but maybe I should. It’s tough not to be affected by the heaviness that violence against women carries and the daily injustices we experience. I do feel emotionally drained a lot of the time. I used to be really consumed by anger, and still am at times, but art is the ultimate coping mechanism. It’s cathartic. It allows me to transform my feelings into something beautiful and hopeful. If I didn’t have hope things could change, I don’t see how I could continue creating the work I do. And now that I have a son, the stakes feel higher.

Your work has a lot of empathy. You’ve provided illumination for a lot of other women’s stories, but what does your art say about you and your own personal story and experiences?

By sharing other women’s stories, I’m becoming less afraid to share my own but I still haven’t shared much. I grew up viewing vulnerability and femininity as weakness so I made myself “strong” and rejected anything feminine and all things domestic. As I’ve gotten older and somewhat wiser, vulnerability has become synonymous with strength and bravery. Now that I’m a mother, I see value in domestic work. I feel pride in taking care of, nurturing, and nourishing my family and home. I’d like to explore this more.

What profound personal discoveries have you made or issues have you worked through with your art?

It sucks not having a steady paycheque. I feel like artists are continually cycling between abundance and lack. When I make decisions from a place of lack, I often regret it. When I trust in my abundance, everything ends up being ok. There is enough for everyone. I’ve definitely worked through a lot things with my art. Fear. Self-doubt. Insecurity. I gave far too much power for far too long to a really shitty inner critic. Once I committed to my art practice and became more confident, the critic shrunk. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still here, but I don’t give it as much power.

Your work focuses a lot on ingrained/reinforced, highly problematic cultural attitudes towards women, especially in South Asian cultures. Besides your aesthetic references (colour choices and patterns), what other aspects of your heritage do you find beauty, hope and/or positive inspiration in?

Can’t have the sweet without the sour! While there’s still a lot of work to be done in regards to the position and treatment of women in my culture (and of course globally), there’s so much beauty to be found in my culture. The South Asian community is an extremely giving one. So much generosity and kindness flows through it, which has extended to my art career. I’m so grateful to have the support of my community. South Asians also have a spirit and resilience I’m so proud of, a work ethic I strive for, and a sense of humour I truly enjoy. But the thing that inspires me most is the commitment to family. It’s at the core of everything.

What issues, ideas or people are you most excited about tackling in your future artwork? Alternately/additionally what conversations or questions are you dying to have/ask?

All the taboo ones! Ha ha! I have a residency coming up with Burrard Arts Foundation in the fall, which I’m super pumped about, and I’m finally tackling the topic of motherhood, more specifically, mother as “beast”. Being a mother is the absolute best thing in the world, but it ain’t always pretty. Sometimes it can get downright ugly. And I want to talk about it. I want to talk about the things we’re supposed to stay hush about – the overwhelmingness, the loneliness, the isolation, the sadness, the loss, the grief, the anger, the guilt. We all feel it but we just stuff it down and pretend we’re doing great. Why? What’s the point? Let’s talk about it.

What is the most fulfilling or rewarding aspect of creating your art?

That I get do this for a living! I still can’t believe it sometimes. I spent a lot of my adult life feeling shame over my failed potential. I was very ambitious growing up and one day that ambition upped and left me. After years of going through the motions and feeling uninspired, opportunity and bravery finally intersected at the right moment to propel me into my purpose. Every time someone sends me a message telling me how much my work has impacted them, it pushes me to work harder, dream bigger, and be more fearless. Plus, I get to be the role model I never had growing up, especially for my son.

Do you have any creative tips or “hacks” that you can share?

This is my biggest hack: Outsource! Outsource! Outsource! Outsource all the things you don’t know how to do or don’t have the time to do. I outsource graphic design, writing, scanning, printing, framing, and documenting. Throw money (or trades) at the problem. Doing this has saved me so much time and stress, and more importantly, my sanity!

  • SandeepJohal_ConcretePlanter(2016)_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_SoloShow(2019)_PhotoCredit ByronDauncey_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_UptownMuralFest(2019)_ScoutMag2
  • SandeepJohal_GoddessDrawings_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_FacadeFestival(2019)_PhotoCourtesy of Burrard Arts Foundation_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_Stories For South Asian Supergirls_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_UptownMuralFest(2019)_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_Vancouver Art Gallery(2019)_PhotoCredit IanLefebvre_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_ArtSmash(2018)_PhotoCredit CarlosMBonmati_ScoutMag2
  • SandeepJohal_B+WDrawing_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_Kaleidoscope Fest(2019)_PhotoCredit John Ross_ScoutMag
  • Sandeep Johal_Rest In Power_GamGallery(2017)_PhotoCredit ByronDauncey_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_BardOnTheBeach(2019)_ScoutMag
  • SandeepJohal_FacadeFestival(2019)_PhotoCourtesy of SandeepJohal_FacadeFestival(2019)_PhotoCourtesy of Burrard Arts Foundation_ScoutMag

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