Life & Work with Salma Arastu of Berkeley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Salma Arastu.

Hi Salma, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
As an internationally exhibited woman artist, I bring a unique global perspective because I was born into the Sindhi and Hindu traditions in Rajasthan, India. Later, I embraced Islam and moved to the USA in 1986. As a woman, artist, and mother, I create harmony by expressing the universality of humanity through paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, and poetry. Inspired by the imagery, sculpture, and writings of my Indian heritage and Islamic spirituality, I use my artistic voice to break down the barriers that divide to foster peace and understanding. At birth, I was given the life-defining challenge of a left hand without fingers. Seeing the unity of an all-encompassing God, I could transcend the barriers often outlined in the traditions of religion, culture, and the cultural perceptions of handicaps. My studies and experiences greatly influence my work in different cultures worldwide. After graduating in Fine Arts from Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, India, I lived and worked in Iran and Kuwait, where I was exposed to a wealth of Islamic arts and Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy, miniatures, and the folk art of Islam and the Hindu tradition continue to influence my work today. I was invited to Germany twice, first as a Resident Artist in 2000 at Schwabisch Gmund. Again in the Spring of 2011, the Westphalia Wilhelm University in Münster, Germany, invited me to publish my paper “Art Informed by Spirituality” in the publication on the International Symposium: ‘God Loves Beauty: Post Modern Views on Religion and Art. I have presented my work and given talks at Stanford University, Commonwealth of San Francisco, Seattle University, Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, and the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis, Missouri. I was invited to Morocco for a one-month Artist Residency Program in March of 2018 through Green Olives art Gallery. As a visual artist, I have had 45 solo shows nationally and internationally and have won several prestigious awards, including the East Bay Community’s Fund for Artists in 2012 and 2014, and 2020. The City of Berkeley’s Individual Artist Grant Award in 2014, 2015, and 2016. I have public art pieces on display in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and San Diego, California. I have also written and published five books on my art and poetry, including my recent one with ecological consciousness from Quranic verses “Our Earth: Embracing All Communities.”

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I have faced some challenges in my personal life, but as for my career as an artist. I have been encouraged to pursue it right from childhood. My family was very supportive, and my husband has been very encouraging even after marriage. So, I have been able to continue my practice. In my studio, mysteries are revealed each day, and I feel awed and inspired to delve further into the unknown fearlessly and look out for new visions emerging on my canvas. Success as an artist doesn’t come easily, and I never constantly stopped applying for shows or grants. Despite many rejections, I always treated them as opportunities to learn and grow. I managed my household and career without conflicts, which has been a blessing.

Thanks for sharing that. So, you could tell us a bit more about your work.
My works are lyrical, spiritual, figurative, and calligraphic. My paintings reveal stories of unity in diversity, hope, and connection, celebrating earth and women. Though abstract, my paintings carry content and concept. I like to work in series which evolved from each other and continue my intention of seeking oneness connecting humanity, soil, and soul. Arabic Calligraphy, miniatures, and folk art strongly influence my work. I have brought together Eastern spirituality and Western painting techniques learned over the years. Through the contrasting elements in my work, I yearn and search for unity and balance. My story begins with lines, and the lines represent the spiritual energy emanating from the soul. My method is a physical and meditative process that fills each canvas with moving lines and multi-layered textures. For me creating art means getting physically involved with the piece: scratching, sanding, layering materials like paper, rope, modeling paste, paper mache or copper plate, and embroidering with pen and ink. I apply thin layers of acrylic color in between adding textures, and this working process brings out subliminal images. I also paint with rust pastels, use jute twine rope on handmade Korean paper Hanji, and apply glaze to seal everything. I want to introduce my two current ecologically conscious series of contemporary paintings, “Mycelial Flow” and “Tiny Creatures: Our Invisible Sustainers.”

I have immersed myself in research to gain a deeper knowledge of science and faith to find remedies to save our planet and its ecosystems. My research led me to discover Mycelia- the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a network of fine white filaments. Through my explorations in these life-giving networks under our feet, creating visual images of these connections and collaborations satisfies my soul. I hope to bring humanity together with lessons learned from nature. The Tiny Creatures series visualizes microbes as integral to our ecosystem. These tiny creatures, microbes, are sustainers in the ecosystem. I feel Intrigued and inspired by their story and have created a body of work to draw attention to them. I use thin acrylic glazes and pen & ink drawing to create a visual language for the intricate relationship between creatures swarming on my canvases in chaos-like compositions. These works are imaginative and spontaneous and bring energy and hope. I feel blessed because I was born with two wings- the urge to create and a love for Creation. Both these gifts have been sources of eternal joy and a constant flow of positive inspiration in my life. I work daily and hope to spread the joy and blessings I have received through my work.

Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
The year 2020 brought many crises over the globe. We were all together in this period of pain and fear. With nationwide orders for self-quarantine, life was lonely and limited. But as an artist, I decided to use this period to create more as I could lock myself up in my studio and work without any disturbances. There were no social life or art events, so it was the moment to get deeply involved in my work. I completed my major project, “Our Earth: Embracing All Communities, “for which I received a timely grant from East Bay Community Foundation. I could publish the book with my project towards the end of 2020. My practice for writing poems increased, too, as I wrote every day after walking along the Bay. I witnessed much pain on television, the deaths and oppression of unfortunate communities, rising Black life matters support, misleading political games, and lack of medical supplies. All these poured out in my writing. In the end, the lessons I received were that it created awareness among people about right and wrong, climate change, and the obvious connection of humanity (as the pandemic was spreading beyond borders) about our helplessness as human beings in front of the supreme Nature. I hope we will never forget these lessons, and I am still hoping!

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