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The street versus the studio: the two spaces of Anpu Varkey

While street art is about flexibility and efficiency, painting at home is slow and meditative, says the artist

Varkey at her studio
Varkey at her studio (Credit Sandeep Salariya)

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Anpu Varkey is a true artist of the streets—that much is evident from the fondness with which speaks, even of the many challenges of working in the heat, dust and grime of Indian roads to create public murals. A student of fine arts – she has a BFA and an MFA from MS University, Baroda – who has been part of exhibitions all over India and abroad, Varkey started painting on public walls about a decade ago and has since felt the medium transform her.

From the gigantic mural of Mahatma Gandhi on the wall of Delhi Police Headquarters (which she co-created with German artist Hendrik Beikirch) to the recent one of a girl smelling a flower on the wall of Chikpete Metro Station in Bengaluru, her work has never failed to turn heads.

When she’s not taking on street art projects, Varkey enjoys making graphic art, oil paintings and digital animations. She has self-published two graphic books Jaba (2014) and Summer’s Child (2021). In an interview with Lounge, the versatile artist opens up about finding inspiration in different places, exploring multiple avenues and evading pigeonholes as a creator. Edited experts.

Tell us about your experience of working in public spaces as opposed to painting in your studio.

It depends on the city, but in India, there is almost always heat, dust, grime. My energy levels are super high when I’m painting on the streets because I have to be very efficient. I work a minimum of eight hours a day for three to five days for each project. And it’s not just me imagining a picture in my head and putting it on the wall. There is usually an immediate reaction from the people around, so all that also goes into how the painting turns out.

In my studio, I’m very lazy mostly. I am distracted by the wind and the clouds. There’s a lot of mulling and waiting: projects take six to eight months, maybe I’ll find a publisher, maybe I won’t. There’s a lot of self-doubt as well.

How has your relationship with your workspace evolved over the years?

Very beautifully. When I started over a decade ago, I was a very introverted artist. When you’re working in the studio, sometimes it’s like you’re fighting a battle. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re painting stuff in the hopes that in a couple of years you’ll have an exhibition and some rich person will buy your work.

But when you work on the streets, there is no privacy. Every other passerby stops for a chat, wants to get a story out of you—it’s strange and humbling. You evolve out of your ego-centric world and enter a domain that is so public and accessible. Accepting this has sharpened my talent as an artist. I think differently when I’m painting on the streets. I think for the passerby when I decide the aesthetics.

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

While doing public art projects, my workday starts at 6 - 6.30 am because it gets quite hot later. For big projects, I sometimes have people helping me so I get there early to get a headstart—there is a lot of coordination that is required. There’s a tea break and a lunch break and the workflow eases up towards the evening. When I did the Gandhi mural with Hendrik, we had a regimented way of doing things and somehow I have maintained that.

Working on a public art project
Working on a public art project (Credit RS Gopakumar)

Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had at your workspace.

My eureka moments come when I’m running, driving, swimming or watching something silly. They never come to me when I’m at my desk. I am also patient—I don’t force anything. Recently, I got the idea to create a book about my public art projects—I don’t know where it came to me or how I’ve never thought of it before. But I’m excited about it.

Between a public and your private workspace, which do you prefer?

Deep down I have always wanted an exclusive studio space, I would have been really happy if I’d had a patron make that happen for me. Right now, I work in a small space in my home. The work I do here is more meditative and time-consuming—I do large walls in days but I take a week to finish a page! Here, you need to be rigid with the form and ideas—I like that as well.

I’m happy in both spaces. I like exploring avenues without being stuck with one, and I know that my process in the studio is lifelong. I’m 40 now, I don’t know how many years I have left to be climbing up ladders. I really love the street environment but I’m also comfortable in the studio exploring artforms that cannot go on the streets. The balance is great. I gather strength from both spaces.

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

A one-inch roller a friend of mine once gave me. Even if I don’t use it, I have always carried it with me. It evokes the memory of a time when we were together painting. There is a bag that I have carried for most of my projects and some special brushes. And there’s a Ramones t-shirt I bought at an underground market in Delhi years ago that I wear to every single project, at least on one day. Something about it reminds me of my early days as an artist.

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

I have followed the work of Spanish artist Escif for the longest time. The reason I like his work is mostly because it looks so good. His work is also very political. It looks like watercolour on a wall—I really like the way his style blends with the message he wants to portray. He draws things like an old plastic chair or a dull-looking potted plant on large walls—without beautifying them or taking away the context—but he makes it feel so poignant. The fact that he can engage with the streets in this manner is so great.

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

In the beginning I used chalk to draw because I worried so much about making mistakes. But now I just use watered down paint and a roller. I’m a lot calmer now and I don’t worry about failure or people judging me anymore. I have learnt to simply enjoy the process.

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

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