When Bhavna Mehta worked as a software engineer for Nokia, she had a sign on her door that read “Software Gardener.” The label seems telling, now that she has become an artist and her poetic, lush imagery in paper frequently contains trees, plants and flowers.
Hindsight can make someone’s path look clearer than it appeared at an earlier moment in time. But Mehta does think her penchant for intricate designs made from cut paper has a strong connection to early origami lessons from her father.
Still, she never could have realized, as a child growing up in the Indian town of Ahmednagar, that learning how to execute this Japanese art form would affect her life in two crucial ways. Exploring its intricacies, as she sees it, foreshadowed a passion for problem solving that led her to an education and career in software engineering. These same youthful lessons in design and structure inform her recent work as an artist.
“I learned precision,” she explains.
Precision alone couldn’t yield the kind of lush visual metaphor of a forest seemingly emerging from a human figure in "The forest inside of you will go deep and wide." Or the way she depicts a pair of hands knitting, in "How We Remember #1," with strands of paper-like yarn in turn becoming strands of words such as “forget” and “remember.”
Mehta, 49, clearly imbues her imagery with the force of archetypical symbols. Some of this approach reaches back to her youth and early adult years in India. A series of delicate circular works are collectively titled "Chakra," which in Indian thought refers to the centers of spiritual power in the body.
She is just as inclined to offer social commentary in the form of compact visual narratives. In the series dubbed "Modern Woman Story," the central figure is in fact a woman, but she has multiple arms (much like a Hindu goddess) and seems to need them. She is attending to children, keeping a stack of plates from falling, making money, flying a kite and myriad other things. She exists in a thick network of forms, some organic and some not, that are an apt symbol of our multifaceted culture -- if also a wry symbol of the same.
As she has written, “I draw with a knife, cutting paper to tell visual stories.”
This approach to drawing has attached a good deal of attention to her work in the last five or so years, earning ardent admiration from peers, a grant from the San Diego Foundation’s Creative Catalyst Program for a memorable project from the San Diego Foundation and a string of well received exhibitions. When painter Marianela de la Hoz was given the San Diego Art Prize in 2014 in the “established artist” category, she selected Mehta for the “emerging artist” prize and they created memorable collaborative works for their exhibition at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla.
In her current exhibition at Bay Park Press in San Diego, "Body 1.0," the story is halfway hidden, suggested by images containing feet, hands and hearts. It is a rumination, as she puts it, on “what makes the body tick.” In this series, Mehta adds a new formal dimension to her art, sewing forms into the paper: a heart (in two selections), a bird, hands and feet. These images are surrounded by intricate forms, cut from paper and protruding from the surface in relief fashion.
This meditation on the body, as Mehta says, has a strong personal dimension: “Feet are about me, indirectly. My life is in my hands.”
She lost the use of her legs as a child because of polio. And yet it is no exaggeration that this setback was one reason she made the move from India to the United States in the early '90s -- a move she describes as a fortunate one.
Her father believed that the traditional path to marriage for Mehta was unlikely, given her physical limitations.
“My father said: ‘you need to be financially independent.’ And I thank him for that.”
She earned a pair of degrees in India: a B.A. in physics from Ahmednagar College in 1987 and a M.S. in electronic science at the University of Poona two years later. But she decided opportunities were larger in the United States and came to Los Angeles to earn an M.S. in computer science at Cal State Northridge in 1993.
Professional opportunities followed: a decade at Nokia in San Diego beginning in 1995 and then two years at Motorola starting in 2006. But the impulse to pursue art took hold. And with the support of her husband of 16 years, George Cunningham, also a software engineer, she quit in March 2008 with the intention of seeing what it was like to work full time on her art for a year, maybe two. She found it too scary to think that she might be making “a life change.”
“If it doesn’t work and I’m totally bored,” Mehta recalls, “I thought I could go back to engineering. That helped me. I was blessed that I didn’t have to pay for a mortgage with my art. “
She was anything but bored and Mehta has never looked back.
At first she explored various media: painting, one day, collage the next. Then, in 2008, she enrolled in a paper-cutting workshop at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, led by the well-known Beatrice Coron. This experience proved pivotal to Mehta’s search for a medium.
A large measure of validation came with an invitation for her to create the designs, in paper, that would be turned into mosaics by Robin Brailsford, Wick Alexander and Kelsey Hartley for a large-scale Long Beach Transit Mall project. Its eight stations stretched over three blocks.
She hasn’t worked on anything that large in scale since. But the sense of connecting art to community endured for her and when she had a chance to apply for a grant that emphasized working with an arts organization (Oceanside Museum of Art) and its surrounding community, she seized the opportunity. She was then awarded a Creative Catalyst grant from the San Diego Foundation, in 2015, and the result was a memorable installation that year entitled "Gush."
It filled a small gallery with thick arrangements of cut paper that resembled, in many ways, a kind of botanical effusion of cut paper forms, suspended in the modest sized room. Other thickets of form evoked water. Much of this imagery looked as if it was in motion, which linked up with the word gush. There were also shadow box constructions, with silhouette figures framed by windows.
The installation was the end result of a project called "Paper Pattern Story." Over several weeks Mehta conducted workshops and asked people simply to think about the implications of the term pattern and to draw or cut accordingly. Along with exploration of visual patterns, she encouraged attendees to reflect on patterns of culture and patterns in their own lives.
“Initially, people focused on the decorative aspect of pattern, and so did I. But then, over time, they started thinking about pattern in different ways,” Mehta says in a video made by fellow artist Ann Mudge about the project.
“There ended up being lots of images about movement, about water moving, about a breeze. Even images of arrows.”
The concept emerged, as did an abundance of forms and the title itself. "Gush" describes the formal qualities of the installation, but it also describes the emotional joy that animated it for her.
When this idea emerged, she literally jumped up and down, Mehta recalls.
“I have everyone in the workshops to thank for this.”
That may be a humble way to describe what she achieved with "Gush." Then again, Mehta says of paper, “It’s a humble medium.”
At the same time, she feels fortunate about what this medium has done for her art and her life. When she first began devoting herself to working in the studio, Mehta had no sense of an art world, or a community of artists in her San Diego. In a few years, all that has changed.
““I feel rooted in San Diego” she ways, “It makes me feel like San Diego is home.”
Top image: Bhavna Mehta, "Tears," 2014. Paper. | Courtesy of the artist.