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Shreyas R. Krishnan on being an illustrator of memories

Design Log 24 Apr

While illustrator Shreyas R. Krishnan’s work has always been a pleasure to view, it's more than meets the eye, being not just fresh stylistically but also thought-provoking.

  • Shreyas Dissentfor Current Conservation Magazine

Shreyas' Dissent for Current Conservation Magazine

For Shreyas R.Krishnan, a practising illustrator and teacher, art is a means of staying in the present and documenting reality as she sees it. Her drawings reflect how art is instinctive and meditative, while her more nuanced work creating non-fiction comics show the use of the medium for visual storytelling on the themes of memory, gender, politics, and culture.

The timeline of her life is as interesting as her body of work itself, considering the Chennai-born illustrator embarked on a journey to keep learning until she was satisfied with the style she arrived at. After graduating as a graphic designer from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad and Politecnico di Milano, Italy, she pursued a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Illustration Practice at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where she also taught illustration. Today, she teaches at Washington University in St.Louis.

Being intrigued by how the mind of such a curious and keenly observant illustrator works and how she brings her visions to life, we interviewed Shreyas about how memory plays out in her art, essay-comics she has worked on, and personal projects like 100 Days of Matchboxes.

Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? What were some of your early explorations like?

I do not like calling myself an artist or say that I make art. What I make could be art. But calling it art takes away from the fact that is an illustration first, and that illustration is a separate field of practice and study - which is why I don't like calling what I make art. In terms of making, I think I am now pretty firmly situated in the terrain of illustration more than anything else. That said, my decision to apply to design schools for my undergraduate was mostly through a process of elimination – I did not want to be an engineer or a chartered accountant. I graduated from NID as a graphic designer and worked as one at Trapeze, Bangalore for a few years, primarily working on publication design. While I still hold dear all that I learned in those years, that time also made me realise that I needed to find out what image-making meant to me, if I wasn’t simply drawing in my sketchbooks.

A few months ago, I was in India and I had the chance to go through my drawings and work from NID. It was painful to look at them! I can feel how much of a struggle it was for me then to even draw. We forget that everything takes practice. Babies don’t stop trying to walk after falling a few times. I desperately wanted to be good at drawing, so luckily, I did not give up even though I was very average at it, if not completely terrible.

Live drawings from Shreyas' personal sketchbook

A large part of your work comes from documenting life as you experience it. How does memory play out in your work?

My biggest fear is that I will lose my memory. Live-drawing began as an easy way to keep practising. With time, it has become an integral part of my record-keeping, along with all the random ephemera I hoard. Drawing is muscle memory. The act of making an image of an experience at the time and place that I experience it results in a drawing that is part-place, part-time, part-me. I can look at some sketchbooks and remember how loud or how cold it was when I made a drawing, or what I was feeling in that particular moment. I’ve reached a point now where drawing, live or otherwise, is the closest I can get to meditation or prayer.

Drawing is also participatory. When I am out drawing, the relationship between personal and public interests me. When I draw on location, I make myself vulnerable by choosing to spend some amount of time doing something that draws the attention of someone around me. Sometimes, it helps in breaking the ice. Often, people around me will look around and try to work out what I am drawing (and why), and some even go a step further and point out things I should draw. There have been times when I was cautious or worried about being in a place to draw, but I remind myself that every time I pull out my sketchbook and draw outside, I am reclaiming my right to unconditionally be in a public space.

If place informs your work so strongly, does India find its way back into your art despite your being away?

Of course, the shape and appearance of things that I draw from observation changes depending on where I am. I’ve been in the US for nearly 4 years now, and I feel like my life has turned into a colour palette of black, white, blue and beige. I was back in India in December and my sketchbook drawings from Chennai, Delhi, and Amritsar really made me realise how much visual details I have lost in colour and chaos. I’m trying to find more ways to hold on to that and channel it more consciously in my work this year.

Sketchs from Shreyas' recent travel to India

You’ve studied different aspects of art and design in three different institutes. Was pursuing art formally a good decision for you?

Four years at NID and the exchange semester at Politecnico di Milano helped me grasp the basics, develop skills, and identify what I was good at and enjoyed, which was working with content-heavy projects. I believe that the five years I spent at Trapeze were akin to College Part II. I had wonderful mentors in Sarita Sundar and Ram Sinam, and working under/with them helped me better my skills as a designer, and really honed the way I approach content in my practice.

I have a big problem with this current thought that students coming out of design schools must be fully formed entities as designers. The assumption is that education begins and ends with college, and only teachers are meant to impart knowledge. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a creative community to raise a designer/illustrator/artist.

My MFA in Illustration Practice at MICA was a unique experience, because not only was I formally learning to be an illustrator, but I was also learning to teach illustration. Simultaneously learning and teaching something completely shifts how you understand a subject and identify yourself within it, because then you must work toward helping another person do the same. Teaching means I am constantly learning and re-evaluating what illustration is in a way that I definitely would not otherwise.

From Shreyas' essay-comic Standards

Coming to specific works, tell me more about Becoming Rosie: Rosie the Riveter, your first essay-comic exploring gender and visual culture.

Becoming Rosie was part of my MFA thesis at MICA, an effort to make critical writing more accessible to both people within a field and outside it. It’s a difficult line to tread, between image and language, between accessible and dumbing down. The comic was first written as an essay earlier in my MFA for a seminar class, where I was introduced to North American illustration history, a completely new subject to me. To make sense of things, I began to draw and find connections with what I knew already from Indian visual culture. Simultaneously, I was also in my first gender studies class. I was struggling with the essay until we read Judith Butler. If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it was at that moment. For the first time, my different interests – illustration, gender studies, and critical writing – intersected. And Becoming Rosie emerged from it. The essay fell into place after that.

Becoming Rosie is about the icon that we now call Rosie the Riveter. The comic examines her origins, drawing parallels with World War I propaganda, Kali as an image, and a cultural practice specific to parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. After I finished Becoming Rosie, I made Standards as a way to see if critique could exist as a wordless visual essay. In Standards, a character visits a museum filled with paintings of women. It is a walk through art history in some sense, with specific artworks juxtaposed.

Pages from Shreyas' essay-comic Becoming Rosie: Rosie the Riveter

What are some recurring themes you find yourself exploring?

Recurring themes in visual culture emerge across time and place. I enjoy the intertextual nature of these connections, they let me indulge in (to borrow and throw out of context, a phrase from architect Michael Arad) ‘meaningful adjacencies’. They allow me to go beyond the first read of looking at an image and thinking ‘oh that’s problematic’. Who made these images of women and their bodies, and why? Who were they made for? Who actually sees them? What came before and after these images?

You’ve also been working on the whimsical 100 Days of Matchboxes project. What drove you to begin that project?

I collect matchboxes. I say “collect” very loosely. My collection is almost entirely stuff I’ve picked off streets, and very helpfully bolstered by friends and family who pick up matchboxes for me on their travels. Maybe the fascination for matchboxes is another manifestation of my need to collect and record as a way to remember. What is on a matchbox? Who decides what goes on the ones we see? Matchboxes are snapshots of cultural behaviours and aspirations, I think.

The 100 Days of Matchboxes project was my third (and first successful) attempt at The 100 Day Project. I needed a prompt that would have the constraint of format but let me draw whatever I wanted to, without making excuses to not draw. The whole project was revelational for me as a process of making. There are some matchboxes that I definitely like more than others purely because I enjoyed watching the illustration happen, like #58. There are those that have whole memories of people and places attached to them, like #4, which is a pink flask a friend from Bahrain had. Every time she brought it out with tea, I was inexplicably flooded with a sense of home. There are others that are based off travel drawings in my sketchbooks, like #62-68 are snapshots from a trip to Anchorage, Alaska with my family, when I was surrounded by mountains and nature after years. As I look at them now, a year since the project, they reveal who I am, where I am, and are also immensely telling of how much privilege I carry.

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  • 100 Days Of Matchboxes 058
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Shreyas' illustrations from her100 Days of Matchboxes project

What do you look for in a commissioned work/an editorial before you say yes?

I teach full-time, so I do not rely entirely on commissioned work to sustain myself. I have the option to say no to projects that do not interest me, and I am grateful for that. I want to work on projects that voice something, that are relevant to the world we live in now – like the short comic I illustrated on sexual harassment for Akshara, or the portraits of scientists and leaders I made for Zing Tsjeng’s Forgotten Women book series.  

How I get into a project is fairly the same, whether it is personal or commissioned. I read a lot, collect reference images, make drawings of and from the reference images, write notes and make scribbles. All of these are ideas and directions. Nothing is eliminated yet. I find that I need this immersion in information. The work I am happiest with has been from ideas that have marinated for a while in me. At some point, I am able to thread them together and begin giving them shape visually. The time span and intensity of these stages change massively based on what the project is (Editorial moves much faster/Comics take longer) and what the deadlines are. A self-generated project which is steeped in content can take ages for me to work through. Case in point being my last comic Maqsood-i-Kainaatwhich took months to prepare for but the final 24-page comic was written and drawn in a couple of weeks.

Shreya' comic Maqsood-i-Kainaat

Who are some of your biggest inspirations in your artistic career?

Maira Kalman’s work gave me permission to enjoy my fascination for the everyday rather than guilt myself into thinking it was boring. Amruta Patil’s comics showed me how it is possible to delve into histories and mythologies while also considering them critically. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis was a turning point for me in how graphic narratives could look. Christoph Niemann’s honesty about the anguish and discipline that go into image-making are daily reminders to myself when I hit a roadblock. Lastly, Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk The Danger of the Single Story cemented my approach to responsible storytelling.

What are you currently working on?

This past year, I moved cities and switched visas to take on a teaching position. Now that my life is a little more grounded, I’ve pulled a project out of cold storage and I’m looking forward to get that rolling soon. It’s another comic-essay that broadly deals with how we construct images of violence, examined through the lenses of visual culture and gender studies. It’s slow work, and I’m still in that early phase where I’m reading a lot and filling a wall up with sticky notes. Post summer, I’ll also be back to teaching, and am excited to refine my classes and find ways to teach myself and my students to be more fearless in image-making and storytelling.

Design Log is a weekly design document logging every relevant art and design occurrence in India.