“Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself. To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
– E. E. Cummings
As an artist and founder of community space, Studio Pause, I was excited to talk with Kaviya Ravi, a first-generation Indian American from Louisville, Kentucky who was in the new batch of makers on Season 3 of NBC’s “Making It”. The light competition, hosted by Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, has the best makers from all over the country compete each week as they take on complicated do-it-yourself crafts.
Kaviya Ravi’s story starts in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India and transitions to the US. She comes from a very traditional family, so it’s a traditional story, she says. At 21, she had an arranged marriage to a man who lived in the US. Growing up, arts and creativity were not encouraged as a career path so Kaviya got her degree in science and when she came here, she enrolled in a master’s program.
“I was just so miserable,” she says. “I was not passionate about it. I was always a creative person wanting to explore that side of me. My husband – who is my best friend, we’ve been married fifteen years – he saw how unhappy I was, and he said I should follow my dreams, just go do what I want to do.”
That’s how she enrolled in art school. She got a BFA in interior architecture and has not looked back since.
When I first came to the US from Mumbai, India, it was to meet my sweetheart and his parents. When we got engaged and my in-laws-to-be threw a party to introduce me to their community, I remember how the guests would ask me if I was a doctor. No, I would say. Engineer? No, I would say. Oh, they would say with a smile and move on to catch up with the next person. But that was 22 years ago. Nobody back then was interested in an art director who worked for one of India’s famous advertising agencies. What does such a person do? It was hard to imagine. Mad Men hadn’t been imagined yet. It would air 10 years later…
My first struggle, however, was at home, when I was 16. Why would you want to go to art school when you have such good grades in science? That was the question.
I asked Kaviya what her family’s response was. Turns out, she actually did not tell them for a long time that she had quit biochemistry. “I don’t think they were very happy with it but, you know what, at the end of the day your life is your own and you follow your dreams. If you’re not happy with yourself then what’s the point?” Her in-laws were probably okay with it—they did not have that discussion, she said.
I wanted to know more about that wonderful man, her biggest supporter – her husband. I wanted to know his views on her work. She said she was very lucky that in spite of having an arranged marriage she had ended up with this very supportive man who is not afraid to let her take the spotlight. He is also somewhat of a feminist and they believe in equal rights. Their ideologies are similar, and she felt lucky to have someone who is unconditionally loving.
I remember how my fiancé, worried about what I would do for 6 months waiting for my work permit after we got married, had faxed me the application to be a docent at Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Art Museum in Washington DC, where we would be living after we got married. Volunteer at a museum? I was not excited by the idea. But as I watched the fax machine print out the application, I saw the famous elephant sculpture from Ellora caves on the cover page. As I looked at it, I felt a warmth, a familiarity that could comfort me in a new country where I had no family and didn’t know anybody. Little did I know then how the museum would become my school, my most favorite space.
CREATIVITY & IMAGINATION
“The desire to create is the vehicle by which we, as humans, extend our minds and souls beyond the limits of our physical selves.” – Gustav Reyes
Family stories settled, I asked about the fun stuff—her work, conceptual as well as the artmaking. She explained that since she started so late on her journey of becoming an artist, she had to learn to be conceptual as well.
“It’s a thought process for me. Growing up I was so constrained in my thought process my imagination didn’t run wild. So that in itself is a process for me.” To think that you don’t have to restrict yourself in your thinking. You can let it open up now. “I don’t think it’s completely open yet,” she says. “It’s a gradual process. I have to tell myself push it some more, push it some more…”
As for working with her hands—she has loved that forever! “I love feeling my materials go through my hands whether it is yarn or clay, shaping these beautiful objects. Or even just being covered in paint. Notice in “Making It!” I am the messiest maker!…My dad said when the pictures came out, ‘Oh my goodness, you have the dirtiest apron on!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s how I work.’ I feel everything through my hands and it’s everywhere. You are an artist so I know you understand the feeling of all those materials. It gives me so much joy, you have to go through it to experience it.”
I knew exactly what she meant. And I knew many like her. As a book artist, I play with structures and papers that help tell the real-life stories from my childhood, stories I taught myself to write with my American kids in mind. And I also knew exactly how that kind of imagination and creativity can upset others because they cannot fathom where your ideas and skills, curiosity, and play are coming from.
I was recently talking to a CalTech graduate now in his 80s. “When they have stacks of 1500 applications and will only take 300, I asked them what they look for,” he said. “Creativity, for one, they said,” he smiled. I had to ask, “Which STEM schools teach that?” Because research shows that many STEM students don’t even know how to brainstorm. That skill students learn from the arts. Yeah, imagine that!
Kaviya’s excitement and joy show through so clearly. As does her culture. You can’t miss all the color and texture on her and in her work. I know it comes from being Indian because it’s in my art as well.
“In a lot of ways our culture is so loud—in our love, in our conversations, in our love for color. I tend to gravitate towards textiles and textures. It comes from starting any celebration by going to the stores and buying sarees. Spending hours with aunts and cousins looking at so many sarees and buying one!” she laughs.
I relate totally. “It’s all that passion that is in my work. It is almost an homage to all my women and my connection to textiles,” she says. “It’s not like everything I make is Indian, but it is part of my story. Art is self-expression and my story is my tie to my culture.”
Her words take me to a book I recently read, Desire of the Moth, by Champa Bilwakesh. Set in colonial Southern India a lot of the setting was not familiar to me. But the moment the women interacted with their silk sarees and jasmine, I was there! The senses of sight, touch, and smell immediately connecting me with them, with their loves. It made me marvel and wonder: how long have we been connected like this?
Kaviya used to work with Anthropologie but has recently ventured out on her own with her website Khromophilia. It has given her the opportunity to be the woman that she wanted to be. She wants to be a lifestyle brand — her catchphrase: Unapologetically Colorful. Right now it showcases items created by her but she would like to encourage more people to make their creations and bring them to her so she can represent them. “I am absolutely living my version of my American Dream. Coming here definitely opened my eyes to possibilities to dream big, follow my passions even to give up the steady paycheck and to make this work full time.”
The word full-time hit a nerve. I had decided to give up my work after I had my second child and it rankled for a long time. I missed my money. I missed that person who I used to be. But it led me to my new career moving from making art for my clients to making art for myself and my children. As I taught myself how this worked, I taught others. Turns out there are many who wanted to tell their stories to their children and were happy to learn how to do that from me. And they were not just immigrants.
Kaviya and I discuss the cultural implications for this trajectory and she says desi culture didn’t really affect her. “What does affect me is when people don’t take this seriously, like this is a side gig you do or just like a hobby. I put a lot of hard work into it and that doesn’t get recognized. Being a doctor or a scientist or an engineer are the only things that people take seriously and that is so unfair. There are so many ways to live a fulfilling life and we are all doing our part so that needs to be recognized. Hopefully, someday it will be.”
This statement reminded me of the work I do every day at my community space for art and stories. So many from all kinds of backgrounds grew up having to think of what career they can have so they can get a good job, get married, buy a house… the usual. But where in that equation is finding out what you are good at? Or what your purpose is in life? Or what work brings you joy? So many have shared stories about parents who told them to not pursue the arts, even told them to not waste their time doing that. One young Nigerian man said his parents told him to give it up because he was not good at it.
“Are they artists?” I asked. He shook his head. “So how did they know you were not good?”
This question is always left percolating throughout my studio. I remember a retired editor who visited.
“I have to warn you, my art teacher told me when I was little that I was no good in art,” she said as I gave her a brush.
“What color do you like?” I asked.
“Yellow,” she said dipping the brush into it. I held her hand and helped her brush make a curve.
“I painted a banana,” she squealed, and the others cheered. But I was fuming. How dare an art teacher take that away from a child!
India Currents was born from the first-generation Indian immigrants coming to the Bay area and not having a space of their own. We try to amplify different voices that speak of doing so many different things. For many, there is a struggle that goes with being desi. How do we tell them how we embrace what we need, to get to where we want to be?
Kaviya had so much to say! She said it was definitely a very lonely experience. Being in art school and not knowing anybody who had done it before, she had to figure it out for herself.
“I tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m not a biochemist anymore. I gave that up and I’m going to design school,’ and they just don’t get it. They’re like, ‘How is that a serious thing to do?’ But life is not only about a lucrative career or above making money alone—at least for me, it is not. I want to have fun with my work. When I am 90 years old and in a nursing home, I don’t want to feel like Oh my god I missed out on all these things! I do not want that, so this is the path I have chosen for myself. I might make millions! Who knows?”
SHOWING THE WAY
Clearly, Kaviya Ravi has a vision of what she wants, so kudos to her for paving the way. Being on TV she represents the desi community. Turns out, it was very stressful for her in the beginning. Representing the entire community is a hard place to be at.
“Especially the pressure you are under when creating all these things in the time frame that they give you on the show.”
So she had to think about what she wants people to see her as, what message she wanted to convey about her culture.
“At the end of the day, I want to come across as a good human being and portray my culture and my story in a positive way.” She was happy to be on such a positive show where everybody was so encouraging.
Speaking up and mental health are stigmatized in desi culture, especially in response to desi women. Kaviya Ravi was fortunate that her husband saw that she was unhappy and was able to help her.
“Luckily, he was able to see it and vocalize it,” she said. “Depression is real and I did go through it and even though you see the colorful part of me, I remember being under all this pressure. It’s so new being in an arranged marriage, to being a wife. I am a child-free woman, and I chose this lifestyle for myself. It is something so not-heard-of in the Indian community and all this really got to me.”
Her husband encouraged her to seek help and also got her a puppy, Zorro, who had a positive impact on her mental health. In fact, he was scratching at her door as she spoke with me over Zoom, she said, laughing happily. “It’s your life and if you don’t want any of those things you don’t have to. And ten years from now if you change your mind you can absolutely do that,” she explained. “I am not ashamed to say I go to therapy—everybody should. Taking care of our mental health is so important. I don’t understand why there is a stigma connected with that.”
The burden of representing an entire nation became a joy. Many resonated with her story and got in touch with her saying, “I’m getting married and I’m already being questioned!”
As an artist, I know how sensitive we are and how we feel everything from our inside and outside worlds. Our art is often our way of processing it all and creating something out of it—be it novels, poetry, paintings, dance, or music.
“I am 37, so in a few years I’d have lived here more than I would have lived with my parents back home, and it feels like home. Louisville is home. It’s hard back in India because I have been away so long people don’t connect with me. India has moved on and I have also moved on,” mentioned Kaviya.
She feels like she is in the middle. “Sometimes it gets lonely because I am American, but people don’t see me that way here. You can understand we are all that way. You just take the best of both and keep positive and create a community for yourself.” If there is one thing that would come out of this show, she says, is finding that connection, because she has been to that lonely dark place where she felt no connection with anybody. “If I can provide that connection to somebody that’s all I want really. That’s it.”
Then there is pushing the boundaries of what mainstream media might consider art done by Indian Americans. But art is so subjective in everybody’s eyes Kaviya says. The media will broadcast what feelings her art projects and she hopes viewers can just absorb it and enjoy it.
Kaviya wants all the women watching—irrespective of their culture or background—to knowing that we all have the common patriarchal society where we take a backseat. “None of us have to follow the rules set for us, none of it. It’s all in our heads. Break out of it, follow your dreams, follow what you are meant to be. Life is so short, so just be you and do you.” Do not compare your life to anybody else’s, she points out because everybody is on very distinct journeys. “Our stories are so different and it is so unfair when we compare our own success or what we define success to somebody else’s. So just follow your own path, concentrate on what you want to do, enjoy it, and dream big.”
This is Year 8 of my studio, a space where anybody can share their art and stories. I believe when we get to know each other, our knowledge of people and community changes; we become more accepting of each other. That’s what I have been doing here and that’s why I am curious about what Kaviya said about using her work to build community.
She was excited and thought it was wonderful. “I wish I lived closer! I want to connect with more people…best ideas are born from collaborations and all of us working together…Are you on IG? I will find you right now and we will connect!”
“Art is Fun. Art Heals” is the title of a write-up by a person who is part of my community space. She is a therapist and wrote this piece for our current community project We PAUSED! A handmade book by Studio Pause. The collection chronicles the creative process of the Studio PAUSERs during the pandemic from Feb 2020-Feb 2021. How did they process it all and cope with the anxiety and the uncertainty?
Sharing these stories can change how we understand what art is and who artists are. And the range is all around us, if only we care to look and learn. Kaviya did not make it past week three of Making It, which airs on Thursdays 9/8c but her story has already been viewed by millions. She is on her colorful way and enjoying the ride. How many of us can say that? How many of us will give our dreams a shot? And to imagine that we already have it in us, as South Asians, those colors and textures from our heritage which can help with that. Then we can have more reasons to celebrate it all!
Sushmita Mazumdar is a self-taught writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood for her American children and making them into handmade storybooks. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration she opened Studio Pause in 2013 mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.