Sharp Shells, detail, 1999
cloth, shells, wax
19" x 12½" x 4"
from the Body Armor Sculptures Series

Mass. sculptor, painter uses everyday objects
as raw material for art

by Joy Mazolla

Cambridge, Mass.-based artist Aparna Agrawal recently exhibited her "Body Armor" sculpture series in Lowell, Mass.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - "Before it was a choice. Now it isn't a choice," says Aparna Agrawal of the career which she has come to consider a vital part of her life. "Art making is a way for me to understand myself, my losses, the part of me that was closed off. It has really shaped the person I want to be, the kind of energy I want in the world, who I want to be around, and what I want to contribute to this world. It has become completely and entirely necessary for me to do it."

Agrawal is a sculptor and a painter. Sometimes she will spend up to a year or more working in one medium or the other. Simple, household materials, yellowy, light-emitting colors, and a deliberate, labor-intensive process are common threads used in much of her work to evoke a rich early childhood spent with a large family in India.

The artist is still influenced by her earliest memories along with being shaped by new experiences, good and bad. "Sometimes I do [art]work to keep alive something that is fading, like the part of my life which is India. Sometimes I make work to try to process something that has a grip on my heart and my soul," says Agrawal.

Agrawal uses everyday materials for her art, and for her "Body Armor" series, used seashells, cloth, vials and paper.

Recently shown at the Brush Gallery in Lowell, Mass. were Agrawal's "Body Armor" series: abstract sculptures representing the armor one puts up to protect and hold tight to treasured memories, like childhood. In these works, babies' "onesies" are coated in beeswax and covered with her trademark household or found materials, like seashells, cloth, paper and vials. Says director and curator of the gallery Linda Poras, "While her fragile figures evoke a sense of feminity and longing, they are often cloaked in a protective shield or barrier and completely self-contained."

The Tufts University Art Gallery currently has on display a series of paintings that feature insect and larvae images painted on pages from an archaic dictionary dug out of the trash by a friend. "I'm a naturalist in that I closely examine wasps' nests and larvae and scorpions, and examine all their different colors and parts," says Agrawal, who has spent several weeks each year for the last two decades in the Venezuelan rainforest. "The dictionary text functions as a ground pattern, and a different visual dimension," she says.

Agrawal's newer "Figure Sculptures" will be shown at the MPG Contemporary Gallery in Boston beginning July 7th. These, like many of her works, are about the body, particularly "its presence, its fragment, its absence," Agrawal says.

Born in Delhi, Agrawal spent the first 10 years of her life living with her immediate and extended family in Calcutta and Lucknow. "I remember having a lot of people to play with," she says, "lots of cousins and aunts and uncles, a lot of activity. I had a pretty incredible childhood. I think that informs my artwork."

Many of Aparna Agrawal's paintings juxtapose life against the background of ruins, especially dilapidated Indian havelis, or bungalows. Agrawal also paints everyday images in stark reality, and often uses minimal color, in contrast to most art inspired by the Indian subcontinent experience. Many of her paintings, such as the ones below, are also inspired everyday images from India.

Agrawal's father, an architect, spent three years in Boston before sending for his wife and three daughters. Agrawal, now 47, arrived in Cambridge when she was 10 years old to a much lonelier, more separated existence. "Cambridge was much different in the 1960s. There were no Indian stores or restaurants, and it was very hard to fit in racially and socially."

Agrawal attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a pre-med student and switched to business after two years. After obtaining her M.B.A., Agrawal entered the telecommunications industry where she worked mostly in product marketing, and remained there for a decade. "I was really good at it but remember trying to figure out what more I needed in my job, and which parts didn't work," she says. "I started to have an inkling that something creative was missing in my life."

Agrawal had been an artistic child, sketching a remarkable likeness of relatives at family gatherings in her adolescence. Even before that, she says, "I remember doing a lot of crafts for religious rituals with my grandmothers, which I think was the beginning of making things with my hands for practical reasons, most of which were small, intricate, decorated with beads and jewels and sequins. I still have a meditated labor in a lot of my work which comes directly from that - it's a very natural way for me to work."

In 1992, Agrawal enrolled full time in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. "My family reacted really oddly to my leaving the business world," she says. "Many of my relatives were very proud of me for having become the first businesswoman in the family, and they didn't know what to say to me when I went to art."

Many of Agrawal's early works embrace the childhood to which she clung for years, the loss of that childhood, of India, and her trips back to the land where she was born.

Says Poras, "I find that South Asian artists living in the United States are confronted with the challenge of maintaining their cultural heritage while adapting to the conventions of contemporary art, and somehow managing to define themselves in the process. And maybe that is why I was drawn to Agrawal's work since it is evolved and timely."

Not all of Agrawal's work is about loss. Many of her pieces and the methods whereby she creates them celebrate her heritage and her youth.

She also makes sculptures using simple materials around the house rather than art materials, the way she would have, had she lived in India.

During one visit to India, Agrawal recalls, "I went to my ancestral home in the north of India. There was an earthquake that had decimated this beautiful old home. It was completely earthquake ridden and the walls were decayed, but what really fascinated me was that there were these jasmine gardens growing inside the rubble." Agrawal's photos of this scene and her resulting "Inside Garden Paintings," she says, "are about how the garden can grow inside this decimated place, but also about how your childhood is like a garden inside yourself and it's always there, and green."

Agrawal has few regrets leaving business for art. She strives to give back to the community through teaching and involvement in nonprofit organizations. She has held several artist-in-residence positions in Boston area schools, and will be heading a school-wide sculpture project in Westwood, Mass. this fall.


Mass.-based sculptor and painter Aparna Agrawal uses everyday objects like wire, cloth and wax to make her pieces. Agrawal lives in Cambridge with her husband, Willie Bloomstein, a writer, and their son.

Agrawal's paintings depicting insect and larvae images painted on pages of an archaic dictionary are currently on display at Tufts University.