Shanthi Chandrasekar is a Maryland-based artist who has been drawing and painting since early childhood. Her interest in understanding different forms of visual media has led her to experiment with drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking and papermaking. She has also been trained in the traditional art forms of Kolam and Tanjore-style painting, along with an introduction to Indian miniature painting. While many of her works are influenced by her Indian heritage, her true inspiration comes from the mystery and majesty of the world around her; her muse lives where the scientific overlaps with the spiritual.
Shanti Chandrasekar Artist Statement
As a student growing up in a nuclear research center community in India, I was stumped by certain questions in physics, such as the nature of light, space and time. I wondered if a vacuum was really empty and what if it was filled with some kind of matter that we couldn’t perceive. These questions seemed very basic and so I hesitated to bring them up, instead daydreaming about them. Asymptotes with lines tending towards zero or infinity would take me to other dimensions. My curiosity about the journeys of light and negligible particles would lead me to imagine myself in their world at their scale.
As an adult, I continue to visualize these scenarios and picture myself as a photon or a neutrino traveling through space and time, making decisions as I zoom along. Now I have extended this adventure to include neuroscience by trying to understand the workings of the brain and memory at quantum level.
Although I may not know the technical ins and outs of physics or neuroscience to the same degree as a career scientist, I strive to convey the awe that I feel in response to these phenomena through whichever medium I feel can translate it the best. By collaborating with scientists, I can further explore the world of physics in its depths and peaks, and create visceral connections and immersions through my art. Through this process of scientific enquiry through art, I seek to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos that continue to fascinate me.
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Q&A WITH SHANTHI CHANDRASEKAR
LAMINAproject: Can you tell us about your education and background?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: I am a multimedia and multidisciplinary artist with a BSc in Physics and a MA in Psychology. I grew up in a Department of Atomic Energy township in India, which fed my aspirations to become a scientist and an artist. Though I did not become a scientist working in a lab, I experiment with mediums, ideas, and concepts in my studio as an artist. My family, teachers, and artist friends have been my support through my artistic journey.
LAMINAproject: What prompted you to start making science–based art?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: As a child growing up in scientific community, science played an important role in shaping my future, by tickling my curiosity and seeking to delve deeper into it. Though I was fascinated, I found it difficult to understand some of the concepts like the nature of light, space, time, and energy. I had a number of questions that seemed very basic, and was too timid to ask. The textbooks weren’t too helpful either. While I struggled with the concepts and retaining all this information, I realized that drawing came easily to me. I would doodle all the time, even through lectures. As an adult, I realized that I was a visual learner who needed images to have a better understanding. At the same time, I also realized that my doodles were mostly a response to my inner thoughts based on what was going on around me. So, I started doodling as I listened to videos and online science lectures, and a new series of science-based art evolved.
LAMINAproject: What inspires and informs your work? Which artists have had an influence on your work?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: I grew up in India surrounded by traditional and folk-art, ranging from Kolams drawn on floors, intricate Tanjore paintings with gems and gold, to beautiful bronze and stone sculptures. These images and styles have greatly influenced my work. Growing up in a small town, I was not exposed to Western or modern art. It was only after I graduated that I was exposed to Indian art in local galleries, and Western art through books, which opened a whole new world for me.
My work has been inspired and informed by a number of fields including science, philosophy and traditional art. I enjoy listening to scientists describe abstract concepts and this helps me form a visual vocabulary to better understand such concepts. Some of the scientists I listen to online are Sean Carroll, Brian Cox, Richard Feynman, Brian Greene, Priyamvada Natarajan, Sir Roger Penrose, Lisa Randall, Leonard Susskind and many others. PBS Space Time and Don Lincoln’s short videos have been very useful resources. Often, their descriptions or explanations would be the starting point for new drawings or paintings, sometimes even becoming the inspiration for a new series. The works of Indian philosophers like Adi Shankaracharya are filled with metaphors and analogies, influencing motifs that appear throughout my artwork. The Vedas and the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, along with various ancient texts like the Lalitha Sahasranamam, are filled with powerful descriptions and serve as a resource for my artwork. I enjoy reading the translations and focus on interpreting the multifaceted meanings they espouse to use within my work. These texts, along with the narratives, describe the ancient ideas of creation and other geological events along with detailed description on concepts like energy, space and time.
Traditional art forms, especially Kolams, have inspired a number of pieces and series. They serve as a wonderful tool to depict various concepts as narratives and also juxtapose science and philosophy in my work. Western artists, such as Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, and Wassily Kandinsky have influenced my work since they encouraged a sense of freedom and the unconstrained ability to explore uncharted paths without having to follow conventions.
LAMINAproject: What references do you draw from in your work?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: I draw references from traditional art, languages, music, dreams, science and Indian philosophy. In more recent years, I have been focusing on topics related to cosmology, human anatomy and neuroscience. My research tools include textbooks and online resources.
LAMINAproject: What techniques and processes do you use to create your artwork? How do they inform one another?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: My art making process and techniques are very fluid and usually pretty unpredictable. I listen to a number of online talks and lectures by scientists and philosophers and doodle along. Once in a while a sketch will pop out and lead to further exploration leading to a new idea. Once I have a starting point, I decide on the medium I would like to use and get started. The work will inform my decisions as I progress with it. There are other times when random drawings would lead to a concept. I tend to chose the medium that works best to communicate the idea I have. Sometimes I go for the immediacy of pen and ink on paper, while at other times I enjoy layering paint on canvas. Sometimes, paper, thread, wire, and other materials also come in handy to create three-dimensional forms. I am not limited by any medium and tend to use unconventional tools in the process. Playing with ideas and mediums is an integral part of my process as they inform one another.
LAMINAproject: What is the primary focus of your work? What types of concepts interest you?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: The primary focus of my work has been this search towards the meaning of life and its place in this vast cosmos. I am very interested in finding patterns and making connections, which is one of the reasons why most of my work is interdisciplinary. I worked on a multimedia series titled Samadhana, which means reconciliation, where I juxtaposed ancient Indian and current scientific concepts of cosmology using traditional Indian art forms and craft techniques. I am very interested in thresholds where opposites meet and enjoy the challenge of depicting the overlap. I love abstract concepts that are difficult for our perceptions to comprehend and attempt to capture their essence in my work.
LAMINAproject: In your view, how are art and science connected?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: I think art and science are like the two sides of a coin, one does not exist without the other, and the two together make a whole as both fields involve similar approaches. Both artists and scientists seek new frontiers, exploring and experimenting in the process, with the main difference being the tools they use. The two fields involve creative thinking, processing, and executing constantly, using both divergent and convergent approaches almost simultaneously. Problem solving and decision-making are part of the process. I believe that collaborations between art and science can result in innovative ways of thinking and lead ventures into new directions.
LAMINAproject: What do you hope people get from your work?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: My artwork is a result of my love for learning, curiosity, and imagination, and I hope that my work can inspire the same for the audience. I would like to reach out to the community through my artwork and share the joy of exploring and experimenting. In this day and age of rapid advancements in science, there seems to be a wide gap between the community at large and science. I hope my work will, in some small way, be thought-provoking and connect them both to inspire a lifelong interest in science. I am always in awe of science and its continuing discovery of unimaginable mysteries and hope that I am able to impart this sense of wonder through my work. Apart from that, I would also like each viewer, with their unique background, to experience the artwork in a way that may be totally personal to them.
LAMINAproject: Can you tell us about current and future projects you are/will be working on? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or other news that would interest our audience?
Shanthi Chandrasekar: I received a grant from the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County in 2019 to create a body of work over the course of one year that is inspired by science. I am currently working on 24 pen and ink drawings based on cosmology, human anatomy and neuroscience for this project. I will be continuing to create more work based on the sciences for upcoming shows that are still in the planning process. I have also been collaborating with a retired physicist from FermiLab to publish a book with his writings and my drawings. Lately, I have been very interested in turbulence, chaos, and order, and hope to create artwork dealing with that and, as always, explore any other new paths that arouse my curiosity.