Padma Rajendran

Women are able to hold onto cultural elements of homeland much differently than children and men, how does the immigrant woman create and sustain her stories? I consider how I can honor these stories to bring them out of hiding. I am interested in the aftereffect of migration on interior and domestic life. The role of women and interior spaces are linked. I am curious about the unseen experiences and traces of labor that are lost to time and consumption. This disintegration connects to cultural loss which accrues from migration.

Home is a tended space, where the decorative beckons prosperity to flourish. I am engaged in the symbolism of “fruitfulness” within the home and how this blessing and burden has traditionally derived from the female body. The work on fabric conjures forms that are personal translations of shrine and monument. The vulnerability and trauma of moving from one place to another gets overlooked unless it is part of one’s personal history. I merge the personal, symbolic patterns, and textile structure to communicate the quest for prosperity and homecoming. 

Padma in her studio.

Padma in her studio.

Interview with Padma Rajendran

Questions by Emily Burns

Hi Padma! Can you tell us a bit about your background as an artist? Were there any early experiences or influences that sparked your interest in painting?
Since I was a child I liked looking at cultural art objects and being the observer. I had the opportunity to live in other countries when I was young, and that has always presented me as an outsider in most situations. Looking at cultural objects from my own and different cultures has always fascinated me.

My interest in painting didn’t begin till college. I decided to practice drawing because practically I thought I could be a designer, and when I was little I would draw interiors foolishly thinking could be an interior designer. Ultimately, I just want to make home-like spaces and that has not changed. I think that’s why I linger working with fabric so much now. My undergraduate painting professor, Ying Li, introduced me to painting and that was a welcome and strange challenge. Meeting her was critical. It didn’t matter if I could count on one hand how many times I had gone to an art museum before that or all the artists I didn’t know. She is an Asian woman that offered time, encouragement, and presented possibility in her teaching. That was invaluable because I definitely did not think I would or even could be an artist till years after graduation. I previously had male instructors tell me not to pursue the arts because of the way I drew, and I realize now it’s because of the way I depicted space. It can be motivating when some people tell you not to pursue something because they deem you can’t, but there does have to be some give along the way. She didn’t present a time limit to when I had to absorb the information. I learned a lot in her classes and from her kindness.  I came to painting through drawing as that is a typical academic progression. I still view a lot of painting or sculptural moments through drawing eyes.

Can you give us some insight into how you begin a piece or series? What is your overall process like from the start to finish?
I draw a lot. Some of it is meaningful and other times it’s not. I write a lot as well. I figure out what I want to talk about in the work. Often it is a reference to a particular action or ritual. I try to honor it in the image and authenticate it with the particular visual ceremony and shrine. I do ten or more drawings and then reflect which ones are still interesting to me and select one or two and draw six iterations of those. These are small so I can do a lot quickly. I plan some things out and then start my approach on fabric. Pieces definitely change or problems arise, but I feel better equipped to plan and see what works along the way with these studies. Then with the dye drawn work I translate the drawing on to white (or lightly dyed) fabric with the resist. Let it dry and then paint color with the dyes. After I heat set the color I wash out the resist. It feels so domestic to do this. I usually wash the work outside by hand, and I can’t help but think of women for centuries washing garments by a river. It’s silly but my mind always goes there because I’m crouched on my haunches plunging the fabric in and out of water. After it is set to line dry. I iron it and keep going!  

Your work always seems to reference painting, even though you work with a wide variety of materials, including dimensional, sculptural sewn wall pieces, clay works, dye-resist works on unstretched canvas, prints, and more. Do you identify as a painter? Can you talk a bit about the sewn work, the clay work and the works on canvas and their relationship to each other?
I do approach the work with as a painter. I am interested in the surface, the façade and in my mind the clay and fabric work supports those impermanent structures. Clay has a beautiful paper like surface that holds my drawings. Even in the process of creating slabs, clay takes on the texture of canvas. It’s takes on the surface it and it can be a material full of contradictions. I think of it as another material that is part of the language of the domestic. A necessity to the functions of that space.

How do each of these processes change or influence the expression of your hand? They all seem very much connected through your visual aesthetic and mark-marking style.
Yes, I’m very conscious of how the mark making holds the shifting materials together. Even if I’m cutting fabric how I make those choices are very evident. I truly think of it all as an opportunity to draw and create different surface. Right now, I am looking to make some bigger jumps but not sure what that will look like or how long it will take me.

 Is drawing a part of your practice—whether as preparatory sketches or finished works?
Yes—a huge part of my practice! I love to draw. I do a lot of preparatory sketches. Sometimes very fast and then very labored. The sketches let me work out ideas for sure and then after repetitively working on a solidified plan through 6–10 sketches I will start a larger fabric piece. The resist/dyed fabric works are a version of direct drawing.

When did you begin working the way you are now? How are these paintings similar or different from your past work?
I started the fabric work in 2015. In some ways, I still feel as though I am still in the beginning stages. I can work a lot faster in the technique, but I am still working at understanding the material and getting new things to happen. Even the prints on paper hold a conversation with fiber and shaped image. Prints on paper and the dye works still have the connection to fiber and the mystery of the reveal after following through with the process. 

You incorporate the dye-resist and dye process into your work to stunning effect. When did this become part of your process, and can you tell us more about how it works and the history and significance behind it? What draws you to this method?
I had done Batik style work a couple times as a child in summer camp programs. I started this water based process in 2015. While many cultures across the world use resist to create pattern and image on fabric, my awareness of the process was influenced by its visibility in Malaysia (where I was born and where my mother’s family lives). Batik is visible there in so many circumstances most often in dress and the decorative. The absence of the mark is defined by what is around or next to it. The subtracted areas bring a glow with the contrast and interaction with color. I like the process relying on reclaiming portions of older or original area by the taking away the most recent addition. There is still a lot of layering happening that is connected to the print or traditional painting process.

You have written that you are "engaged in the symbolism of “fruitfulness” within the home and how this blessing and burden has traditionally derived from the female body.” Can you elaborate on this theme?
A lot of decorative textile imagery is wishing to the present or future. Adorning one’s world with imagery symbolizing abundance and prosperity is tied to fecundity. Fruit and the female body are linked and even cultural imagery can connect the two.

In many places a woman’s worth is still linked to her ability to produce offspring and be a domestic provider. I don’t think we talk about it in the US the same way, but it is present. In migration, the role of women is crucial to establishing prosperity/success. Women across the world work inside and outside the home and this labor extends through the family in her charge. Women that come to a new place or new country and often establish their home as an annex of their homeland. They are responsible for providing through and for the performance of the body. Food and textiles have a lot to do with providing this literal and emblematic comfort.

What were the biggest, most essential ideas on your mind when making your most recent series?
Communicating to the past and future. Connecting these ideas and influences to present and place. It is my finding that dreams and wishes begin at the juncture of interior and exterior space. I’m revisiting ideas of the threshold and often the imagery and objects I’m making relate to contradictions and functioning in both existences.

You studied Printmaking as RISD—do you still make prints and, if so, what methods are you most drawn to and why? How did studying printmaking effect your process or perspective overall? Your monoprints are particularly beautiful—are these made with paint or crayon, or something else?
Thank you! I was without consistent printshop access for a few years since RISD, but recently I have started making prints again. The monoprints I made were using screens and water-soluble crayons and watercolor. I mostly screen print on fabric and love printing because it can be direct, graphic, or very subtle. I often think of it like drawing. The hard edge of a stencil kind of reminds me of an early way of making image and pattern. I am still very interested in this surface appearance.

Studying printmaking presented alternatives. The labor and planning is somewhat different from painting. Random occurrences can happen with printmaking, and I find it allows for more opportunity in the unplanned. I find that exciting and sort of takes some pressure off in a strange way. I find myself relaxing a little bit with printing.

Can you tell us a bit about your current studio? What are the most important components of your space? Is there anything you love about your current setup?
Right now my studio is in my home. It has nice windows and gets lovely light. I have a big table to work on and a patch of floor to work on as well. The floor space is covered with drop cloths. I tend to keep a lot and can see all my materials at once. I have a strangely circumstantial specific memory with where I last put something and by some chaotic order and can rummage my way back to getting what I need fairly quickly. My goal is to get better more organized in the conventional sense.

I like working on the floor. It connects my process to textile work and presentations I have witnessed while traveling. The floor size doesn’t dictate the size of the work and I sit, get comfortable and move within the space. It originally was a practicality but a choice that has made its impact in ideas that guide the work.

Is there anything that is currently affecting your mood or your work in a dramatic way? What's happening in the studio right now?
I am definitely affected by what is happening politically domestically and globally. I have been for a while, prior to the current administration. However, the emotional stress of the last two years is quite exhausting. These issues are unnerving and impact so many people. My family and I moved to the US in 1993, and I am always conscious of the sacrifices of being here in the US. It has been information that has impacted my studio practice always but even more directly the last five years. I am focused on presenting narratives, dreams, and celebrations amidst contradiction. I do think of these objects as functional—the way a talisman performs or the direct communication of Story Cloth.

Can you walk us through what might be a typical day for you?
I work/ teach most of my week. I wake up between 6:30–7am. I teach at different institutions and am an artist assistant, so each day is different, but I always have the opportunity to think about art which is feels rare.

I savor slow moments when I can simply look out the window and think. Mornings feel special and productive, and I try to keep them just for myself. Sometimes I only get to record in my “weather journal”. The past four years, I have been keeping a weather log book. It is frequent but not daily. A lot of my memories of place and time are locked in to weather events. When I record weather observations I also draw a small drawing. Acknowledging the weather this way allows me to hold on to time, its passing, and later its physical accumulation which is personally satisfying. 

Who are some of the artists you look at most often?
I am drawn to looking at functional objects by anonymous artists from hundreds of years ago. These objects are made up of clay, cloth, and stone. These objects are not just for the eyes with intricate design work but primarily serving the body. I often look at South Asian Miniatures, Southeast Asian Batik work, Indian Kantha quilts and Greek Vessels.  A few names: Gee's Bend Quiltmakers, Lois Dodd, Faith Ringgold, Nicole Cherubini, Belkis Ayon, Louise Bourgeois, Holly Coulis, David Hockney, Pierre Bonnard

Is there anyone or anything that has had the most significant work impact on your work up to this point, whether it be an artist influence, a teacher, a place, or something else?
My time in grad school was very influential. I think it took me some time to get to what I’m doing now, but I believe I learned how to be an artist there. I had never had the opportunity to care for my studio practice in that way before. It was wonderful to be around other people doing the same thing and supporting that endeavor. While I wish I could of done even more there the combination of who I encountered, location, and access to certain resources is still so meaningful to me. In some ways I'm still trying to work and build my life towards the attributes of that place and time. 

Also, the show I had at Ortega y Gasset Projects last year was pivotal. I hadn’t had the opportunity to transform a space with such freedom. It initiated pleasurable play and consideration of how and where the work was located in the space. That show was hugely exciting for me to reimagine the art experience and action.

What is the best exhibition you have seen recently?
So many good ones! Hilma af Klint, the Guggenheim, Chitra Ganesh at The Kitchen, Eugene Delacroix, the Met. 

Are there any apps, tools, resources, etc. that you find helpful as an artist or person?
Like other artists, Instagram has been helpful to gain visibility, find out about opportunities, connect with other artists, and even sell work. I struggle with who is allowed visibility within the formal art context (galleries, museums) and who remains at the periphery and even though Instagram has its biases and problems as well it has been very helpful.

On IG: I always enjoy @verbumplacet . An Art Writing Library run by Laura Jasek
Podcasts: Tate Events

Recently I have been redirecting my energy to affirming some of my existing connections. Like many people, I feel hard pressed for time and am trying to spend a little bit of it with other artists that are in the periphery of my daily-ness. Talking face to face and sharing unexpected ideas, advice, books, and if needed materials is a significant resource and is helpful to me as an artist and person.

Is there any advice you have received that you remember often?
Not so much advice but a subjective declaration from a teacher—that good artists are good cooks. It was mentioned when I was not such a good cook. I didn’t have much experience cooking. So far, I think that the statement is true. I think the process and connections are similar and have influenced a lot of my thinking in and out of the studio. I reflect a lot on how textile and food are carriers of specific cultures and provide emblematic comfort.

What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
Reading: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo & revisiting Yoko Ono’s Acorn

Listening: Classical—Pablo Casals, Cibo Matto, Code Switch and Hidden Brain podcasts

Watching: one shot viewing as of late—RBG, Young Frankenstein

What are some of your interests outside of art?
I take a lot of pleasure in eating so I try and cook a lot, reading, letter writing, humanitarian causes and women’s rights research, word search puzzles, and a lot of daydreaming.

What’s up next for you?
I recently started the Keyholder Residency at Lower East Side Printshop in NYC. It is a yearlong residency, so I am excited to get some work on fabric underway and re-engage working on paper!

To find out more about Padma and her work, check out her website.