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March 26, 2018

Nonsense In Her Imagination: Elissa Patel Marries Technology And Art

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

The San Francisco-based artist Elissa Patel seeks to break barriers that surround the world of art, even as she gives free rein to her creativity

A few years ago, at a public art project, the San Francisco-based artist Elissa Patel innovatively put a bunch of people in Bart Simpson masks and had them ride BART for a few stops — this was a creative attempt to draw some sort of a comparison between BART’s ridership and the number of people who visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) daily, advocating that more people should see art. In fact, a major part of her work is dedicated to the attempt to create an interest in and awareness about art through her surrealist Insta projects and her community-based endeavours.

Patel weaves her work through everything she does, this includes travel and working on weekends. On any given Saturday, you can find her at galleries or drawing in the park with her partner, Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb. While Chesky went to the Rhode Island School of Design, beginning his career as a fine artist and eventually moved into technology, Patel, grew up in Silicon Valley, began her career in technology and moved into art. They both have a great symbiosis when it comes to art, technology and travel.

Personally, Patel, who is an intrepid globetrotter, always travels with her easel and paints. Every year, the Indian-American does at least one solo trip where she produces art and plans for future bodies of work. Currently in Oahu, Hawaii, where she is planning for the release of a ceramics line and book, Patel is spending the days working at Arvo Café and evenings writing on the beach. In an interaction with Verve, she talks about what drives her to explore the world and interpret it in her own way….

How integral is travel to your life — personally and as an artist?
I find inspiration all around me. My grandfather, Dr Seuss, time travel, culinary chefs, my strong female friends, travelling — all of these are an inspiration to me.

But the best way to derive inspiration is to travel into your own imagination. It is the one place that most people shy away from for the fear that nothing in your dreams could become real.

As an artist, how do you choose destinations to visit?
I try my best to choose destinations that are off the beaten path, as they lead to greater discovery and deeper understanding. I recently did a road trip down the Mississippi River, starting in Nashville, Tennessee and ending in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was special to learn about a part of my country that I hadn’t seen before.

What is the thought behind your ongoing Canvas Project that marries travel with art?
It shouldn’t be surprising if I said that most people when visiting, for instance, London would want to take their photos in front of the Big Ben. When I began sharing this project, which was to go to the Big Ben — and other places — and paint my clothing, almost everyone said, ‘Why are you travelling all the way to London to paint your shirt? It doesn’t make any sense’.

True. There’s something nonsensical about travelling around the world to only paint the patterns on your clothes. But a lot of things in this world are nonsense. They appear one way, when in actuality they are something else. For instance, taking photos of yourself in front of monuments is also nonsense. It doesn’t bring you any closer to the country’s culture or people. Sure you are there and you have the photo to prove it. So I travelled to monuments around the world and painted my clothing instead.

You work in different mediums. Which one do you enjoy the most?
What child do I love the most? Although they span a century, I love writing poems on my typewriter and designing art on my iPad equally.

What is it that continues to inspire and drive you?
I have a friend whose parents are from India. He is a first-generation Indian-American, like myself, and is an engineer at a large tech company in Silicon Valley. We spent one afternoon talking about my transition from business to art. A few months later, he came to me and said, “You really inspired me to go to the art store for the first time, since being a kid. I bought paints and painted something for my home.” My Indian engineering friend is the most unexpected person to participate in art, and yet he felt comfortable enough to put a brush to a canvas. Stories like this continue to inspire me. This is more important than any art I create.

As an artist, in what way do you see the world differently?
I was born in Silicon Valley, the heart of technology. Hailing from a family of Indian origin, I grew up with the idea that science, mathematics, business and engineering were the only defining elements of success. When I jumped out of technology into art, I saw the world from a different perspective. One of the first things I noticed was how many barriers there are that keep the art world insular. The problem with these barriers is they keep the art world small, when for the sake of the world we live in, the world of art should let more people in.

As a first step, I’ve really tried to narrow in on the community in San Francisco. A lot of people here don’t participate in art, since there is a hyperfocus on technology. However my concern is this technology reaches the rest of the world, so if people don’t have a wider perspective on art, culture, design, what does it mean for the types of products that are built? What does it amount to?

I often find that some of the best companies marry art and technology together. John Lasseter from Pixar had a famous quote: ‘Art challenges technology, and technology inspires art’. I tend to keep one foot in the art world, and the other completely out of it.

What is the strongest memory of your visits to India?
My parents would take me every year as a child. Some of our visits were for months at a time. I have to say my fondest memories are of having home-cooked Gujarati food, negotiating in clothing stores with my mother, drinking streetside sugarcane juice and enjoying the occasional plate of Maggi noodles.

How does your Indian connect influence your creativity?
The majority of my family was born in India and we were the first of the family to come to the US. So since I didn’t grow up in India, as a child, I loved hearing stories from India.

My family would tell me tales from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. My grandfather would spend hours telling me stories of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of truth. I have a lot of pride in Gandhi being from Gujarat.

What is the longest travel that you have undertaken?
I spent five months in Shanghai studying Mandarin. At the time, I felt China would become an important player in the business world. I wanted to learn the language, and business culture. I also took a job there. But now, you could say I’m just an Indian artist who randomly knows Mandarin.

Being an avid globetrotter, what does going home mean to you?
Home is inside my imagination. It’s the place where I feel nonsense can exist. It’s a place where I can dream. Everyone should have this space for themselves.

After a long journey, what about the places you have visited stays with you most?
Learnings from the people I meet and the experiences I have, all of these ultimately lead to more discovery and inspiration for art. I recently went to Marrakech. Hidden in the backstreets of the medina is a magical art-filled riad. The home was built by a husband-and-wife team. When I first walked in, the wife told me her story: ‘My husband was a painter. He filled every square inch of this home with his work. But, in 2010, he passed away, so now, I keep his memory alive by welcoming guests in to see his paintings. A thought hit me as I was gazing around, looking at the portraits, so I wrote this poem: People are mortal / Though, if they are lucky, / their life’s work can survive them.

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