Creative pursuit of happiness: Paintings give form to the ephemeral

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For centuries, philosophers, writers and artists have attempted to define happiness. Aristotle spoke of happiness as “the meaning and purpose of life,” and the crafters of the Declaration of Independence affirmed our unalienable right to pursue it.

For Indianapolis visual artist Chitra Ramanathan, happiness is a “universally encompassing entity possessing form on a mental level” yet indescribable in terms of physical characteristics.

“You can never really capture it,” she said. “You can only express it.”

Happiness is the common thread that runs through her expressive, highly textured abstract paintings awash with bold, vibrant colors.

Ramanathan, 51, was born in the southern Indian state of Ker- ala and raised in Calcutta. She immigrated with her husband to the United States in 1984. Shortly after moving to Illinois, she enrolled at the University of Illinois’ Champaign-Urbana campus, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts with honors in 1993. She entered the school’s master of fine arts program, but, soon after, her academic advisers suggested she rethink her decision. She was already exhibiting her paintings in Chicago and New York City, receiving attention from critics and gallery owners for her large-scale, mixed-media paintings.

“The goal of the MFA program is to exhibit your work, and I was already doing that,” Ramanathan said. Heeding their advice, she transferred to the MBA program, earning a degree in museum and arts management in 1997.

The degree has proven invaluable, she said, in understanding the business side of art. She acts as her own agent, pricing and marketing her work.

Interest in art began early

Ramanathan said art has been her lifelong passion. “My parents put me in a weekend art school in Calcutta when I was 4 and I continued there until I was 12. Throughout my childhood, I drew everything I saw.”

Since moving to the United States and becoming a professional artist, Ramanathan changed her painting style from landscapes and portraits to abstract work.

“I felt I needed to get rid of all the old styles,” Ramanathan said. “I felt I couldn’t paint like that anymore because I was living in a totally different culture. Our surroundings influence our work, and I have changed and evolved.”

Part of that evolution resulted from an opportunity to visit London in 2006, where she lectured and exhibited her work at the prestigious Royal Academy of Art. Her work will again be displayed at the academy’s Summer Exhibition, which has been held annually since 1769. A trip last year to Giverny-French artist Claude Monet’s home, with its exquisite gardens-rekindled her love of gardening and took her on a new artistic path.

“I feel happiness is like a garden,” she said. “Seasons change and the same with happiness. Good times always follow bad times-it’s a cyclical concept”-something she said reflects her Hindu upbringing.

Shortly after moving to Indianapolis in 2003, Ramanathan began to teach painting at the Indianapolis Art Center. Alice Irvan, a former staffer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has been a student. She was drawn to Ramanathan’s style and subject matter.

“She can do so much with her subtlety of brushstrokes,” said Irvan, owner of Indianapolis-based AIRVan Consulting LLC, a market research company. “She knows how much is too much. Her paintings inspire happiness without being cutesy or cloying.”

Karla Becker, who works at Eli Lilly and Co. and in her off hours is a yoga instructor, took a class last summer and was immediately taken with Ramanathan’s art and teaching style.

“I was just starting to paint again after many years, and she gave me inspiration,” Becker said. “She challenged me to paint from a deeper perspective, and I feel I have become a better artist as a result.”

Most of Ramanathan’s work is sold through online art galleries like nextmonet.comand fineartamerica.comto collectors throughout the world. Her work sells for $2,000 to $5,000 for smaller paintings and as much as $13,000 for large canvases. She’s still surprised, but honored, that people buy her work without physically seeing it.

“The best way to view art is to stand in front of a painting,” she said. “That’s why brick-and-mortar galleries and museums will never go away. However good a photograph is, it’s hard to show texture in a two-dimensional format.”

Greg Charleston, president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, agrees.

“While the Internet can’t replace experiencing an artist’s work in person, local artists are using it very successfully…allowing [them] to live more comfortably and take advantage of more local resources in an affordable city like Indianapolis.”

It also has opened up a worldwide market to artists like Ramanathan. After a representative of the MGM Mirage in Las Vegas saw her work on the Internet, she was asked to paint two 4-foot-by-6-foot paintings for the resort’s Café Bellagio. They were installed in October 2004.

Ramanathan would like to do more commissions and to travel-something that always inspires her art. She has applied for several artist fellowships to allow her to do just that.

“I’m an artist who puts inspiration down on canvas,” she said. “Once I start painting, I rarely go back and change things.” As for her future, she doesn’t plan any changes there either.

“I plan to paint until the end of my life,” she said. “I want to get work out there to be seen. The sheer joy of painting is what’s most rewarding.”

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