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Achieving mindful creativity in a messy workspace

Shubhashree Sangameswaran, creator of the Slowing Down Circle on embracing imperfections and bringing ideas to life in a studio that resists tidying up

Shubhashree Sangameswaran.
Shubhashree Sangameswaran. (Courtesy the artist)

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The pandemic years made us realise just how non-negotiable slowing down is — especially since our bodies and systems were forced to halt and reinvent. Several artists and creative facilitators have taken to social media to help us ritualise rest and reflection during these challenging times.

In the thick the second wave of covid last year, Shubhashree Sangameswaran (@thehungrypalette) was among those who'd started conducting online sessions. These aimed at guiding people through a practice of mindful creativity. Her Slowing Down Circle now has members from around the world who commit to sitting together once a month to draw, write and relax into the present.

Last month, the engineer-turned-illustrator released Slowing Down: An Art Journal for Mindfulness with the intention of encouraging everyone, even those who think they cannot draw, to dabble with art-making without inhibition. The journal contains 52 prompts to help us pay attention to the world within and without and gently engage with it.

In a conversation with Lounge, the artist talks about her own creative practice, her dream studio and the messy workstation where all her cool ideas are born.

Shubhashree Sangameswaran's desk
Shubhashree Sangameswaran's desk (Courtesy the artist)

Describe your current workspace to us.

More often than not, it’s a mess. But I’m learning to embrace the mess, my beautiful riotous mess from which ideas are born and take shape. Maybe there is a reason why it defaults to this state after every attempt to tidy up. Maybe I should stop fighting it! There are mugs holding my brushes, pencils, pens and markers. There are ink bottles, journals, sketchbooks, paint palettes that I have forgotten to put away, and some scraps of paper. There’s also my laptop, printer and iPad which I sometimes use for digital illustrations—it’s a lot! Sometimes, you’ll also find my one-year-old cat Cuddles chilling on my laptop, while I’m trying to work on it.

Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?

Thanks to the pandemic, my two-desk setup has shrunk to one, as I found myself having to (grudgingly) share my space with my husband. But it has largely remained the same. I’m a bit more organised now in that I have storage under my desk to keep my paints and papers and I have added more art supplies as I explore different mediums. I’ve added dip pens, fountain pens and brush pens to my practice over the years. The nature of my work has changed over the course of the pandemic too, and I’ve now added a ring light for my online workshops. That was unexpected.

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How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

When I sit down at my desk each morning, it feels like I’m formally starting my day. In that sense, it lends structure to my days. It is important for me as an artist who works independently. Even though at first, the mess messes with me, once I clear some space and get to work—whether it’s writing, making art or working on the business side of things—it all falls away like background noise and I can focus. I intend to have a larger, airier space with more desks for my creative exploration, some plants and lots more art on the walls in my studio.

Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.

One of my favourite pieces of work to date is my personal project titled Let’s Talk Trash which is a set of illustrated books on sustainability. I worked on this four years ago. It started when I read about and became deeply interested in packaging-free bulk stores in the West. I thought this was exactly like my own childhood. Growing up in Bangalore in the ‘80s, when we’d carry milk cans and use Bournvita bottles to get oil. So I filled up a little sketchbook with my story and the zero-waste practices that we can learn from our own parents and grandparents and shared it on Instagram. That took off, and I ended up making and selling over a thousand copies. I followed it up with an activity book for kids on the same theme.

The other project that was born here at my desk is my Slowing Down Circle. During the pandemic, I was looking for ways to raise funds for covid relief, and decided to host a couple of online workshops on visual journaling. These workshops were a hit, and I realised it was such a meaningful way to connect with people around the world over art and shared stories, so earlier this year, I decided to launch it as a monthly event. The online nature of it made it possible for us to be all right at our desks and do this.

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

My dream studio would be a space on a little hill that overlooks the sea (I want the best of both worlds!) which is bright and airy and has lots of desk space and an oversized couch to take naps on and ample space for all my books. It should also somehow magically expand time to accommodate all the things I want to do!

What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years? Why?

The current sketchbook that I’m in the process of filling up, and my pens. Even though I’ve dabbled with a few different mediums over the years—watercolours, gouache, digital and watercolour pencils – my sketchbook and pens have always been my steady companions. In fact, I often half-joke that my sketchbooks will be the first thing I rescue in a fire. I sketch, paint, write, doodle, draw and make packing lists and grocery lists in my sketchbooks. They are my playground, my safe space and time capsules that are a witness to my life.

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The first artist whose work you followed closely or sometimes imitated. What about them appealed to you?

This illustrator called Danny Gregory (co-founder of Sketchbook Skool, based in New York City) has been my biggest influence. I think I owe my career as an artist and illustrator to him in many ways. When a friend first introduced me to his books, I was quite amazed by his style, and the imperfect quality of the art that he made. Suddenly, it felt like the art I was making (had) space in this world. He’s written a book called The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are. And that’s exactly what his work did for me— it gave me permission to fearlessly continue making my art, and embrace it fully.

What was the first medium/tool you used in the early years of practice? How has that evolved now?

I’ve always been drawn to using pens—ball-point pens and technical fineliner pens. I did a 100-day project with a friend in 2015, and we primarily used pens and watercolours to draw. It pushed me to be more deliberate about my lines because I wasn’t using a pencil to draw at first. I now use fountain pens and dip pens because I love the variation in the line weight (or thickness). Watercolours are another medium that I absolutely love for the textures they create, their transparency, and the fact that they have a mind of their own.

Indumathy Sukanya is an artist and independent journalist based in Bengaluru

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.

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