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Studio Visit with Priyanka Kumar

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Piles of papers, colorful prints, stacks of t-shirts waiting to be silkscreened, artist  Priyanka Kumar’s studio buzzes with vibrant energy. Kumarillustrator, printmaker, visual storyteller, and professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)guides me through her space, occasionally directing my gaze to in-progress paintings, drawings tacked to walls, and the brightly colored pages of her numerous tiny  sketchbooks. Here and there she unzips plastic pouches, lifts lids off bins, and opens overflowing drawers. These containers are home to years of artworks Kumar has stored in every corner of her two-room studio.  

Like her eclectic work, the artist fills her creative space with dynamism and vigor. Kumar has resided in Baltimore since 2018. Born in India, she grew up in Kolkata during the 90s. The artist recalls a childhood filled with books and illustrated texts, particularly works associated with “Soviet and Ukrainian culture and aesthetics.” Her passion for narrative writing blossomed in college, where she studied literature and film. 

Kumar is the only artist in her family. Amidst her parents’ confident predictions that she would find a career in the sciences, and her own initial desire to pursue journalism, Kumar discovered a passion for illustration while completing an MA in art  history. The degree introduced her to “old Indian manuscripts” and ignited an already glimmering curiosity about visual storytelling. Kumar continued to develop her interest in visual narratives through a job teaching mural painting to youth. Five years ago, the artist ventured to Baltimore to complete an MFA in illustration at MICA. 

 

Like Honey, 3 color Silkscreen with hand-drawn stencils, 2020
Aloe Reader for Anchovy Press, 2 color silkscreen, 2021

Kumar’s intricate and varied artistic/academic background is reflected in her wide-ranging practice. She says she finds art particularly exciting when it functions as a tool for “reinvention.” Traditional, pencil-on-paper drawing is, for Kumar, merely one  mode of image-making. Her projects often bloom from an array of materials and take a multitude of formsincluding digital sketches, mixed media paintings, collaged drawings, and cut and reassembled prints. Kumar excitedly tells me how she reuses and recycles materials, occasionally even remodeling past experiments into new works and narratives.  

Storytelling is foundational within Kumar’s practice. Inspired by what she describes as illustration’s “inherent theatricality,” the artist’s drawings, prints, and paintings transport viewers to vibrant environments at once familiar and extraordinary. Sensuous radishes, saturated landscapes, heart-tiled backgroundsKumar’s, often lighthearted, forms and mark-making infuse her illustrations with raw emotion and dynamic energy.

‘Movement’ and ‘transition’ are profound conceptual, as well as aesthetic, motifs in the artist’s work. Early into our studio visit, Kumar references a somewhat recent journey: the trajectory of her art (i.e., visual storytelling) since her arrival in the US. At first, Kumar recalls, her illustrations were direct nods to her heritage: to India and the spaces/communities she had recently left behind. Upon graduating from MICA, however, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, the artist found herself longing for something “more.” With a smile, Kumar describes how an itch to “play” prompted her to shift her content, loosen her technique, and begin telling stories that were/are more rooted in fiction and fantasy. 

Currently, Kumar and her art reside at the intersection of the sincere and absurd, figurative and abstract. How long she will remain at these crossroads is unclear. The artist’s eclectic color choices, surreal compositions, and playful patterns reflect a practice propelled by exploration, experimentation, and metamorphosis.

 

SUBJECT: Priyanka Kumar, 33 
WEARING: Dark gray vintage-washed t-shirt, gray pants with rolled cuffs, crimson  Saucony sneakers, just above shoulder-length hair, silver dangling earrings, silver  nose stud 
PLACE: Area 405 Oliver Street Studios 
WEBSITE: https://www.priyankakumar.net/ 
INSTAGRAM: @priyankakay 

How would you describe your relationship to drawing and your sketchbook(s)? In what ways has this relationship shifted or maintained as you’ve  grown up?  

I’ve always been a doodler. My mom has this story of how they got the house painted when I was really really tiny, and the first thing I did in my freshly painted room was take a crayon to the wall and draw a line across itshe was so livid! Of course I don’t remember any of this, but my textbooks have always had scribbles in them. I was always taking notes during my university days and drawing alongside, and although I thought I wasn’t a disciplined sketchbook keeper because I rarely did the observational kind of sketching, the more I think of it, the more I’ve always needed to sketch to make sense of the world. 

I’m not consistent about it in the sense that I didn’t always draw everyday to start with,  but now I find a way to visit one of my sketchbooks everyday, even if just to flip through  and make a little note, and I think it’s a win. I think I was shy-er about it when I wasn’t working with art professionally, because it’s always a little nerve-wracking to be drawing outside somewhere and submit yourself to someone’s gaze on you and your art, but it’s gotten a lot easier over the past few years to let the self-consciousness slide away and bring my sketchbook everywhere. 

  What’s a routine day for you in your studio? How are non-studio days similar/different?  

I go in, put the kettle on to boil so I can brew a pot of green tea, water my studio plants. I’ll give myself some time to warm up in some way. The old practice of taking a crayon to the wall clearly hasn’t gone away, because I’ve been using glass markers to doodle on my window panes of late. Or I’ll sit down and do a quick observational sketch, or do a few mark-making exercises to loosen my wrist up. I try to be flexible about what this warm up is, but I try to do it every time so that I get some play before I get into the more intense stuff. 

My studio space is divided spatially, there’s a half where I work with electronic devices  like tablets and printers, and another workspace where I make everything by handcreate relief and silkscreen prints, or do traditional media-based projects. So I’m usually going back and forth on most days, scanning something I made on my workbench and then tweaking it digitally, or printing out the dummy for a zine or something I want to make, and carrying that into the other room where I can work on it by hand. 

What’s comfort food for you?  

Most stereotypical answer evermy mom’s food! I miss it so much. She makes the  best dal-chawal in the world and literally every person from the Indian subcontinent will  tell you the same thing, and all of us are speaking the truth. 

Overgrowth, Linocut block prints, 2021
Awake, 2 color risograph, 2020
Shehr, 4 color Silkscreen, 2020

You say you enjoy recycling and repurposing materials in your art. What are some of the weirdest or quirkiest media you’ve worked with?  

I’m not an artist who works with waste materials per se. I know I say this as someone who has mostly a paper-based practice, but I very much believe in creating art in non wasteful ways. A large part of it, for me, is to understand where in your process you’re tempted to discard your work, or overconsuming to the point of being self indulgent: there is something callous to me about using up all this material and then throwing it away because you’re in the throes of some kind of self-rejection.

I grew up in India and I was made to understand very early on that being wasteful was deeply, unforgivably selfish because the burden of what you throw away always weighs on someone else, and I think this learning forms the core of how I think about materiality: everything can be reused, everything can be rebirthed, everything can evolve into something else if you stretch the imagination far enough. 

Illustration’s a game that requires so much creating and discarding, creating and changing, creating and reworking. There’s a reason so many of us stick to digital media when working with clients. But outside of professional commissions, I’ve come to enjoy repurposing my own artso I’ll have monotypes that I ruined with an additional layer of paint that didn’t need to happen, but if I cut them up and see if I can make a collage out of the pieces, I can give them a new life.

When I make something I don’t like, I try to save it for another time no matter how awful I feel about it. I don’t throw any of my art disasters away because there’s always the potential for them to be something elseif nothing else, I’ll stick them into my sketchbook or throw them into my scrap box to take into class when I’m doing collage-based projects with my  students, or soak it all in glue and make paper maché. I also enjoy working with the Risograph because it uses non-toxic ink and is free from emissions. Currently I’m using old Risograph misprints that I hope to tile onto canvas and create a background for a large painting. 

You mentioned that your art often occupies nontraditional “fine art spaces.” Can you  elaborate? Why/how is ‘environment’ significant to your practice? In what spaces do  you envision your work ending up?  

Generally speaking, most art across human history has existed outside of the locus of fine art: people have always created outside of formal artist-patron relationships. I grew up in Kolkata, eastern Indiaand India as a rule is just such a visually maximalist culture in the sense that there is art and ephemera everywhere: hand-painted signs, art on walls, buses, everyday objects… decorative art in every capacity you can think of. The visual disconnect between this richly detailed outside world and regimented viewing spaces like museums and galleries is massive. 

I didn’t start off wanting to be an artist. I came to art-making as a professional decision in my late twenties after working a whole bunch of design-adjacent jobs in publishing, museums, non-profits, and art education. I spent a lot of my time as an education consultant trying to bridge the gap between everyday art and visual heritage in India, and formal spaces where art is collected and maintained and exhibited.

There is so much money and resources put into making these places work, but it doesn’t guarantee that they are visited and experienced by everyone outside of these spaces. Working in gallery spaces in my early twenties made me realize that’s not necessarily where I see myself at my creative bestand that I had a different idea of what it meant to be a career artist. 

I also grew up in a really fun and vibrant print culture. Ephemera is everywhere in Kolkata. Folks still buy and read newspapers every morning. My city has a history of printing presses for woodcuts and oleo-lithographs set up by the British, and it’s now morphed into an industry where you’ll see posters and calendars and matchboxes with all this pop art on them.

When I came to the US, I found that screen printing and Risograph printing really fed my love for small-edition art making. I love doing small print runs that I can sell at fairs or festivals, and I love making zines. It also helps me think of alternatives to large scale, industry based, capitalism-driven art production. One of the projects I work on, Anchovy Press, started off because my collaborator and I wanted to work with publishing in more intimate and organic ways. 

 

I’m ok with my work being hung in a white cube space, or published in a big editorial piece that’s behind a firewall, but I’m happiest when I’m teaching a workshop, or painting a community mural, or tabling at a festival and speaking to folks I don’t know about my zines and prints. 
Priyanka Kumar

In a prior discussion we had, you described your practice as “multidisciplinary.” In what ways are you multidisciplinary and how has this label impacted your sense of your (artistic) identity?  

Hmm… I don’t know about multidisciplinary. I choose to say I’m an illustrator because of the freedom it gives me to work with many different kinds of art-making, and many different kinds of artists. The crux of it is visual storytelling, but I like that it means I could make an erotica zine today, and work on a children’s book the next.

I teach art for the same reason that I make iteach day of walking into the classroom or my studio feels different, and I’m always so excited for the potential of what’s going to  happen in the next few hours. It took me a while to talk myself out of trying to develop a  trademark style or way of working, which is such a huge part of art discourse right now: develop a style, develop a signature, have your name become a brand. I’m just not convinced that’s where artistic innovation flourishes.

I find myself happiest when I’m bouncing around doing multiple things – I make  comics, I do printmaking, I do some editorial digital illustration, I do sketchbook and visual journalism-focused projects. I’m presenting a paper at an illustration research  symposium later this year. I used to make murals for a living in my pre-Baltimore life and I’m dying to do more murals this year. I like being in flux, because I have the kind  of brain that tires of doing the same thing over and over. 

My goal for being a working artist is mostly to not be bored to death the same way I  would at a productivity-centered desk job. Art is where I see the possibility of constant reinvention, and that’s what I’m here for. 

Words, writing, and narrative are, you’ve said, particularly important in your practice.  Do you have a favorite word or phrase? Where did you first encounter it?  

I spent most of my teen years buried in a book, or complaining about existence in my diary. I initially studied literature and film in university because I wanted to be a  journalist or writer of some sort. That has morphed into this love of visual narrative  because I think my sweet spot is when image and text intersect. 

Narrative art is unendingly fascinating to me because it’s ultimately a complicated  translation job, isn’t it? You have this amorphous jumble of many things in your head, and you’re trying to find a way for it to make sense in a tangible form. Sometimes you storyboard, sometimes you stick a word or two together next to an image and hope it meshes, sometimes it’s a simple caption to accompany an image and that’s it. 

I don’t have a favorite word or phrase, but I grew up multilingual and I’m always  delighted at interesting turns of phrases, or complicated words that could mean many  different things at the same time. When I moved to the US, I remember obsessing over  “doohickey” for a bit and trying to find an equivalent in Hindi or Bangla. I want to make a bilingual or multilingual narrative piece someday, but it’s super tough! 

You describe your practice as one of “sharing.” What do you mean by this term, and  how has “sharing” affected your art over time? 

I think sending my work out into the world in a way where it can be accessed is important to me. It is also important that I share my art-making process with others,  which is why I teach and collaborate. There is the art I make for myself, and there is the art that I want to offer, or create with others and when I do that, it’s interesting to think about systems of access. I’m ok with my work being hung in a white cube space, or published in a big editorial piece that’s behind a firewall, but I’m happiest when I’m teaching a workshop, or painting a community mural, or tabling at a festival and speaking to folks I don’t know about my zines and prints. 

I find myself puzzling over art production and ownership quite a bit, because I teach at a university where we have conversations about illustration exacerbating a culture of mass reproduction, of everything looking a certain way, of the eye becoming desensitized because everything is accompanied by a stock image that you can purchase for a dollar. I think this could also be said of the art industry in general, though, and how trends circle through both museums and algorithms; it’s a larger problem with how capitalism encourages quickness and sameness.

I don’t think having reproduction-friendly art is the issue as much as the need to think differently  about the scale and local-ness of how we produce and experience art. I’d much rather you spent ten bucks on a silly print of mine, one that I pulled myself or watched being printed, because you thought it was funny and want to stick it in your toilet, than buy a museum shop postcard reproduction of some dead white dude’s work.

Jokes aside, I’d love to see us reach the point where we can support art spaces by visiting them, AND support local artists by buying from them. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. 

  

Wyman Park, Baltimore sketchbook, 2021
Quarantine rooftop time, Baltimore sketchbook, 2020
The Crown + Red Room, Baltimore sketchbook, 2019

Do you prefer silence or audio when you’re working in your studio? If you could listen  to anything while creating, what would it be/what is it?  

I listen to music, but my studio music needs to either be without lyrics or in languages I don’t speak, otherwise it’s too distracting. This is also why I can’t do podcasts. I listen to entire albums or live studio sessions at a go, I couldn’t tell you what each song is  called but I’m tuned into the soundscape in general. Of late I’ve been rediscovering a  lot of Indian classical music, which tends to have drone instruments and repetitive  vocalizations, which I find incredibly soothing for creating… and for focus in general. 

You’re a teacher as well as a practicing artist. What’s a memorable moment in which a  student has inspired you? Vice versa? What do you feel is missing from art education currently?  

My students inspire me all the time! Mostly because I think they are open to being vulnerable about their work in a classroom environment, in different ways than the conversations I have with fellow art professionals. More than a specific instance, what I enjoy the most about teaching is the creative problem-solving and troubleshooting. I really enjoy puzzling out the smaller intricacies of what’s stalling someone’s work. And I enjoy talking about turning that nebulous thought in your head into something  concrete. I teach process-focused classes because I’m fascinated by how we go from  idea to execution, and I find that when I talk with students about things like  perfectionism, and self-doubt, and the general woes of trying to get it just right, it helps me bring a new perspective to whatever I’m working on as well. 

Stories and storytelling are at the core of your art. Is there a story that’s influenced  you/your work? What’s a story you enjoy telling people you’ve just met? 

I’m really awful at small talk so my way out is to just let folks tell me a story instead. Don’t tell me about your day, tell me about your life! I love it when folks overshare, I’m here for it. 

When I first moved to the US for art school, I realized the primary expectation for an artist like me was to center my art and storytelling around identity. It’s a culture that enjoys putting people in boxes, and I found that people reacted positively to me doing that queer brown south Asian femme stuff, so I did it for a bit and got it out of my system. I find myself resistant to creative personal narrative nowadays because there’s  always the question of who I’m trying to tell this story to. 

A lot of the visual storytelling I was doing circa 2019 was about body and sexuality. These are things I’m still deeply interested in, just not in a figurative or representational way anymore. And while I figure this out for myself, I’m gravitating more toward the absurd and the abstract. I’ve spent most of the pandemic years working in my sketchbook and making standalone images and prints. I hope to be able to push out a long-form visual narrative someday, but for now, most of my work is experimentation and process, and trying new ways to make images. 

You mentioned that sketching helps soothe your social anxiety. Have drawing and your  mental health always been connected? If not, when do you recall the two first merging?  

Yes – if we’re to agree that most artistic expression is this dance between experiencing the outside world and processing it on the inside, and then spitting that out. I think of a while ago when I was in a conversation with a couple artist friends about using fidget toys as icebreakers during workshops, and it struck me that drawing works the same way for me. I’m more unapologetic nowadays about using my sketchbook as a place of refuge, as a way to cope, as a way to process information, as a way to listen. If you see me at a work meeting and I’m doodling all over the agenda, it means I’m 100% here. I believe in play as the best way to make sense of anything. 

You’re the first artist in your family. What was it like growing up surrounded by non artists? How have these experiences shifted as you’ve gotten older?  

I come from a working-class family, and while I have a lot of social and caste privilege back in India, we weren’t well-off in the ways where being an artist was encouraged. Being surrounded by non-artists meant that it was mostly seen as a hobby and a pastime, and I really had to justify and reason out every step I was taking because the expectation was very much that I would become a doctor or an engineer or some other stereotypical good Indian child thing.

But I think the skepticism did me a lot of good; it took me through this journey of working so many other jobs and trying out other things, of centering my financial security as a working woman and only child who has parents to look after. I think it’s why I actively sought to live with non-artists when I was in art school here. A lot of my closest friends in Baltimore today are from distinctly non-art  spaces and it keeps me grounded. Mostly it means that I’m checked when I’m being  navel-gazey or myopic about things. I appreciate that reality check. 

You say you enjoy (sometimes even seek) “surprises” and “mistakes” during the creative process. What are some examples? What interests you about ‘the unexpected’ in art? 

That it shakes you into feeling something! I’ve been teaching a Risograph printing class and my favorite thing about it (and printmaking in general) is that there’s always a variable. I love that the Riso throws a fit every now and then and gives you variation in color and line and registration.

It’s kind of like cooking: you can have a recipe, but most recipes are ultimately a template, chances are it likely won’t turn out like it did the last time, and besides. Food is the most boring when its taste is standardized, no? I love pushing my illustration work into areas where unexpected things happen, because that’s when it feels the most rewarding to me. I love not having an undo button to press.

 

2022 Portrait commissioned for the Central Baltimore Partnership

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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