Laura Jane: Can you tell me when you started making art?
Rani: The first time I knew I was going to be an artist was when I saw this amazing older woman painting Christmas motifs on a store window, like the really bad, cheesy Christmas decor, you know? And while I watched her every brush stroke, I was like, I understand you. I get this. I was so satisfied by that interaction and the task she had at hand. Since then, I’ve tried to figure out ways to get that feeling.
I was homeschooled so I was never with my peers. I never had the schedule and the expectations that come with public school. I filled my time with what I didn’t understand at the time was making art.
Artist has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember. It’s taken on different forms, but it’s always been there.
LJ: How has your practiced evolved or transformed?
R: It has transformed a lot over the last year and that is because of several factors including my mental health. Getting my thoughts organized and getting my brain in a place where I can find the playful part is really important, to not be as plagued by the heavy stuff. The “practice” has always been a part of my day but I have never shared it with anyone until recently.
I started sharing my work after I started seeing a therapist a couple years ago. She is so magical to me—she is such a bright spot in my life. She would give me these assignments—and I love to complete task, like, easy actionable task are huge for me. You can see that in my artwork because I repeat things. I make problems for myself that I can solve. So my therapist, she asked me one time what it felt like to not be able to make the thing that I wanted to make because I was riddled by all of these other things. So I started painting all these snake holding my hands and holding my feet. I was painting this idea that there is something in the room that I didn’t want there. It was so literal and so elementary in so many ways but that was really freeing for me, to let it be simple and easy and obvious. It felt childlike. But it ended up feeling so right that I kept painting and painting them until eventually I stopped painting snakes until I just started painting hands. So while it is just a repeated print and it is just like any other repeated print, like a graphic, they are made with a lot of love because to me each one represents freedom. It was really fun when I started making those for different people and companies and other people responded to it for completed different reasons which is great.
LJ: I know you do a lot of other body parts—did it go from hands to other parts of the body pretty naturally?
R: It did, especially around the election because I started thinking a lot about women taking up space. When Hillary went into the woods, I felt this gasp of air. Where are the women taking up their space? Like, they all left. They were all going to go with her and they were going to fill 50% of the seats and they are all gone. And where are they? What about their space? This was our space. It gave me a lot of compassion for people who are so much more marazlined than I am. It put these huge aches in my heart.
I started to make this childlike reaction to a feeling. The feeling was: we need to take up space, we need to continue doing that, I need to remind my friends that we need to do that. So I started drawing these women in all shapes in all lumps and sizes, taking up their space on the page. Then I made one for every year of Hilary’s career since Yale Law. Then I sent one to all of these different women. I sent this call out: who needs this thing in their life? It ended up being this amazing moment for me, this moment of healing. It was the first time I used the internet for something I actually cared about. It was amazing to feel like people were holding my hand from all over. It was called “Women Taking Up Space.” There are about 40 something women all over the world that have these drawings that I made when I was feeling sad, by myself, in my apartment like everyone was those days.
LJ: Why do you want to make art of women’s bodies?
R: I feel that as a visual artist, I have this enormous responsibility. I think about every class that I’ve ever taken and everything that I remember are the images that someone presented to me. It’s really important to me that whatever is found from whatever I make in my time represents the world as it actually is and not how I was told it was when I was younger. The world that I’m actually in is filed with lopsided boobs and mushy tummies and all these beautiful things that I'm so obsessed with drawing that I literally can’t stop.
I studied art history a lot when I was in school because I couldn’t get away from the lens that it provided for me. And something that was really fundamental from those classes is that every time I considered how someone handled the human form, you could understand how they felt about life and their world. And it speaks to what was going on in their time, whether or not there were wars or famines, it speaks to literal things and existential things. When I go to Soho and sit around all these other people to draw this naked person, you can just look around the room and see how we have very different feelings about the same thing. I really like that, about drawing the form. It’s an amazing practical and obvious way to participate in the conversation about life. It’s one that goes back centuries and it’s just so fun to jump in and say, oh I’m here too and my friends are here too and this is what we’re up to.
It’s nice to strip things back and have things be simple. Like, these are breast and they are so beautiful and then have everyone be like, ‘Yay we love boobs.’ It’s so fun for me. It just feels so right.
LJ: Tell me more about how you’ve developed as an artist? How was social media been a part of this in terms of sharing your work and engaging with that aspect of your identity?
R: “Women Taking Up Space,” was one of the first things I put on social media that people could participate in. Before that, I did some sharing here and there. But mostly, I stopped sharing after art school. Social media was very different back then and I was kind of afraid. I spent a lot of time being fearful of being a phony. It was really hard for me to hold the identity of being an artist while I was juggling these other things. I was trying to be practical in ways I didn’t need to be but I didn’t know that yet. It’s easy for me to think that I lost those years where I should have been making and sharing work, but the truth of the matter is I wasn’t ready. From where I sit now, I have a lot of compassion for myself back then. Now I can see that when I wasn’t making and sharing art, it was because I was just percolating. I was learning the things I needed to know to do what I am doing now.
It was a really cool experience to use the internet as a place to use my voice or find my voice. Like, the alternative caption for every photo I’ve ever posted or of every painting I’ve ever made is, “This is a process!” Nothing is final and no piece is ever actually finished. I’m making it a part of my practice to invite my friends into what I’m sorting through and what I care about. It has been really good.
On a good day, being an artist is great. On a bad day, it is really fucking terrifying. I’ve always had jobs that make it really easy to hide behind the work there. I could be so happy thinking, ‘They don’t know me. They don’t know my secrets. They don’t know what I’m actually up to or care about.’ I would think, if I failed at that thing I was doing, no one could judge me for it because it wasn’t my thing, I was just doing it for shits and jiggles and to have a day job. And there is so much comfort in that because you can just float along. It’s so transactional and so easy. But there ended up being so much cognitive dissonance. I think I just burned myself out. I physically and mentally couldn't’ hold up all the pieces anymore.
LJ: And has social media been a safe space for sharing?
R: My experience has been mostly positive because I’m not in a space where my comments invite negativity. I know that happens, it will probably eventually happen to me, and I’ve seen it happen to my friends all the time. But so far, it’s been a really positive place for me to exist a few minutes a day. It’s been really cool to find like minded people. I’ve made my first internet friends this year. Even back in the day, I didn’t do that. I made a couple of friends in New York that have been really influential and really positive forces in what I’m doing because they are already there. They are like magnets and I stick to them because they know. They know. They know what I’m doing and thinking.
It’s really interesting because I am, when I strip it all away, a maker. But in my life, everybody I surround myself with, they are not. And that’s special in some ways. Specifically, in my marriage, in my partnership with Ryan, I get to exist in this total playground where I call certain creative shots. I get to play and try in a way that I wouldn’t if I was sitting next to somebody who was also creating.
LJ: I get that. No one is going to tell you you’re wrong or that it doesn’t look good because your partner isn’t in that world so I can imagine that you get so much freedom and so much safety.
R: It’s interesting to be partnered with somebody where there isn’t a lot of crossover in career. It’s really amazing because it creates this really full day of experience where I get to use all parts of my brain and my heart by the time I go to sleep. But It’s been really amazing to have someone get it, to have someone say to you, ‘Your red is too red,.’ or ‘That composition sucks, that’s why you hate it.’ To have someone immediately be in it with you is really cool. I’m starting to find that community in New York City and that has been really big in my studio practice too.
LJ: I want to talk a little bit about your relationship to your body. Do you remember when you first started thinking about yourself as a bodied person. I’m curious if you have a memory you could point to and what the journey of your relationship to your body has been like.
R: When I look back on it, I have, in brief moments, flirted with social expectations, and have really quickly spun myself around and thought, ‘That is so crazy.’ I grew up in a conservative community where there was a lot of shame tossed around where women’s bodies were brought up or seen or shown. And, from a gut, fire in my belly level, that always felt really wrong, even before I had the vocabulary to understand why I thought so.
My relationship with my body has changed a lot over the years. I lived in cities by myself since I was barely 18-years-old. And as a woman in a body walking home after work, I so quickly didn’t feel safe. To dress the way that did justice to the things that people told me where important, like looking youthful or flattering my body, made my spaces and my communities and my world feel less safe to me. I felt like my space was constantly threatened by attention that I was not in any way asking for. Because of things that had happened to my friends in the past and things that you read about all the time, I stopped. I never wore shoes that clicked or things that hugged because it just made me feel—which is so upsetting, that shouldn’t be the reason that you change the way that you dress—it made me feel unsafe.
LJ: How would you describe your relationship to your body now?
R: I have come to a few conclusions over the years that have been pretty rough and tumble getting there. You try things and they don’t work and then you try something else and it doesn't work. One idea that has really stuck with me is this idea of kintsugi. I learned about it when I was reading on Japanese art history. It’s this process that when something is broken, or flawed, instead of camouflaging or covering it up, you fill the spaces with gold. This concept means a ton to me in my world view. You take the thing that is “wrong” with something and you worship it and you honor it and you think that is so good that this is a thing that only you have. It means so much to me and how I have learned to love my body as it is. There are so many times when my body seems so broken or when I think, this doesn’t look the way that I want it to look. Then I think, like what and for whom? It’s bogos, so bogus that my mind goes there.
I also see a piece of artwork that is all sunshine, like Thomas Kinkade for example, and I think it is such a lie about the world. The world just isn’t that way and no one lives like that, where the sun is always shining and the stream is running past your little cottage. When I see artwork like that, I think, ‘I don’t trust you because you're not telling me the truth. I can see that you’re lying to me about the world and yourself.’ And my reaction, sometimes, when I see perfection achieved through unnatural means with women is like, ‘Why are you choosing to lie to me?.’ I think it’s so sad that we live in a cultural of new and shiny and tight because I want the jagged old thing that has seen some shit. It’s so much more interesting to me. And then, just from a purely aesthetic standpoint, another way I am kind to myself about my body is the fact that I just think pretty is boring. I’m so bored of it. It’s so mind numbing to me. It’s scary, it’s Twilight Zone-y. To get on a train full of women who are all trying to achieve the same cheekbones and the same legs they don’t have through trickery and magic is heartbreaking.
When I was growing up, my dad would spoon feed us cultural and one of those things was the Twilight Zone. And there is one episode that you have to watch. In this episode, everyone in the new world has pig noses, these really scary pig faces. I don’t remember what happens in the whole episode but there is one beautiful, perfect woman who shows up in their world and they are all looking at her like, you’re so ugly, we have to fix you, you’ll never make it here, we can’t even look at you, you’re so ugly. And then they pull her into an OR to operate on her and make her look like the rest of them. That sticks in my head when I see the homogony that is women’s media. Even instagram! There are pockets that are truthful and responsible but there is just so much stinking culture which I’m even more opposed to now than I’ve even been. It’s crazy. It’s crazy.
LJ: Do you think your artwork informs the way that you see yourself?
R: When I sit down to make something, I feel like I’m always adding to my visual vocabulary . I’m finding marks and textures and colors and things that I respond to for some reason. I tuck them away for things for me to refer to to sit down in my studio the next time. And as I’m finding these things that I feel this kinship with, it kind of warms everything. I have all this evidence that I like things that are undone. I like things that are messy. I like bodies that are imperfect. The work turns back around and speaks to me after I finish it. It reminds me what I care about when I leave the house and I walk past a billboard and then I get on the subway surrounded by posters of the same thing, of people who look the same and things that look the same. Then, when I question everything, I come back and I remember, I don’t like those things. It’s crazy how many times we have to decide that in one day, that we don’t like those things. It’s so exhausting. Especially living in New York, in the city. I should keep a ticker in my pocket and count every time I have to say no to the way that I’m told something should be.
LJ: What advice would you give to women who are trying to make peace with their bodies?
R: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this because I’ve been dealing with this long recovery process from two major foot surgeries for about a year and a half. That has changed the relationship with my body because it’s something that I watch and I measure and I push and I pull. And there is progress that I track and there are things that are physically there that weren't there before, like new scars and new lumps. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about my body that, on a bad day, isn’t being nice to me even though it’s just doing it’s best. I’ve been thinking about how our bodies are like our family. It’s how I carry my mom and my dad and my grandma and my stories and my places. And how could you talk shit about that? It’s so sad. It’s sad to decide that your body is for aesthetic purposes only. It’s really sad to live like that because I’ve tried it and it’s so miserable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Pretty = boring? Tell us what you think @bodyposproject.