Art of the Matter

Six Questions with Alumna Chitra Ramanathan

Chitra Ramanathan

Growing up in Kolkata, India, in a large extended family, painter Chitra Ramanathan (FAA '93, BUS '97) remembers an art-filled childhood. At her preschool, she learned the music and dance of this culturally vibrant region, as well as drawing, painting, and working with clay. "I must have developed an early aptitude for art, constantly drawing everything I noticed around me," she says.

She went on to earn a BFA from Stella Maris College at the University of Madras in Chennai, southern India. After moving to the United States, she enrolled in a second Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the School of Art and Design at Illinois, where she transitioned from portrait and landscape painting into more large-dimension work with abstract subject matter.

Formless Forms by Chitra Ramanathan
Formless Forms, 52" × 68"

Ramanathan became interested in process and engaged in experiments, such as cycling large, unprimed canvases in her home washing machine after using temporary materials like tempera, charcoal, and chalk, along with permanent acrylic paints. "These 'happy accidents' emerged as partially faded areas from previous layers of the water-soluble mediums and presented me with exciting possibilities, renewed interpretations, and fresh imagery for the next step," she explains. She compares the saturated details in these experiments with Indian Batik painting and rangoli, temporary floor patterns made with brightly colored powder.

While a student at Illinois, she participated in a study abroad program in Paris, where she was drawn to Monet's impressionist "haystack" series, as well as works of the expressionism movement. She sees the marriage of these two movements as the backbone of her current work: capturing the fleeting moments of impressionism with happiness as her subject.

What projects/commissions are you most proud of and how did those opportunities come about?

In 2004, my art entered the public realm through sheer serendipity. I received a telephone call that year from MGM Resorts International stating that the company had come across 18" × 24" and 24" × 36" works of mine on a website, inquiring as to whether I would be willing to re-create the pieces on a large scale as site-specific installations in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. After the designated space was refurbished in October 2004, a pair of my paintings were permanently housed in the Bellagio Conservatory, an indoor botanical garden. This commission has brought significant recognition for my career as a professional artist, since MGM requested that I sign the paintings, and I continue to hear from visitors and those who know my work through social media.

During the past few years, I have completed several projects. I am especially proud of a site-specific mural commissioned by Crooked Creek Elementary School in Indianapolis in 2008, as it involved working with young children. As the sole artist chosen, I planned the 13.8 feet wide by 4 feet high wall space from scratch and thought, why not include all 500-plus students so they could own a piece of the space to call their own? I was delighted it was met with the approval of the project coordinator and appreciation from the parents and, above all, the children, who were delighted to contribute to the mural. On the academic front, I am particularly honored at having received a visiting artist invitation from the Keeper and Head of the Royal Academy of Arts in London for an artist talk and visual presentation of my body of work, including student critiques at the Royal Academy Schools in 2005.

Mural at Crooked Creek Elementary School, Indianapolis, 2008

What informs your practice? What motivates you to paint the way you do?

After my academic training was done, I kept my practice advancing through professional artist residencies in France and Italy, contemporary art discussions, and memberships in organizations that provide cutting-edge knowledge for my work and its quality to evolve with regard to concept and material usage. One such example is being a member of the College Art Association, New York, in which I served on the Services to Artists Committee and the Committee for Diversity Practices. I have also attended annual conferences, including one at which I co-chaired an art history session in Dallas, Texas.

Does your geographic location affect the content of your work?

As I am an independent artist who has chosen to teach art part-time, the content of my work has never been geographically bound, and this situation facilitates my involvements with public art and visiting artist projects. Professional artist residencies for extended periods in Marnay sur Seine, France, and at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in recent years—which entailed working en plein air as well as in Venice, Italy—have made significant impacts on and gave inspiration for my series of works that followed. Exhibitions at the end of artist residencies provided me with new perspectives and feedback from foreign audiences. The responses have encouraged future creations based on my work abroad after returning home to the states.

Pulsating Rhythms, 2018, mixed media, 58" × 75"

Is there a professor or mentor who made a lasting impact on you?

Tim van Laar, professor of art in the painting area, was one of my teachers at the School of Art and Design during my BFA years. We are still in contact, frequently exchanging updates on our mutual work and careers. I was accepted to the MFA program at Illinois State University, where I had the opportunity to briefly take classes from Professor Harold Gregor, who really appreciated my presentations during critiques.

However, circumstances soon led to my switching to the MBA program at the Gies School of Business back in Urbana. I was in the midst of continuing to exhibit in New York City while enrolled in the MBA program from 1995 to 1997, and I recall the curious interest and excitement of my business school professors, being that I was the only visual artist in the program!

After your MFA, you earned an MBA at Illinois. Has having an MBA impacted or informed your career as a working artist?

While the MBA has not made an impact on my studio art practice or the style of my work, it has certainly helped me gain awareness about the pricing of artwork, management skills, and financial aspects related to gallery representation and, in recent years, working in a not-for-profit art gallery in Vero Beach, Florida.

When you look back on your time at Illinois, what are you most nostalgic about?

Monoprint Encased in Plexiglas by Chitra Ramanathan
Monoprint encased in Plexiglas

I enjoyed my years at Illinois, thanks to my family's encouragement of my education. During my BFA, I was able to dabble in paper sculpture, sculpture, ceramics, and several courses in printmaking aside from my major, painting. I equally cherish the memory of interactions with professors and classmates.