Meet Sneha Shrestha, an educator and street artist hailing from Kathmandu, Nepal. She’s painting the town red (blue, and orange), one wall at a time - showcasing beautiful Sanskrit and Newari scriptures and carving an identity for South Asian women in graffiti. We talk with her about letting go of a traditional career trajectory after graduating from Harvard University, to walk an uncharted path in graffiti under the alias IMAGINE. Read on to learn about her early life in Kathmandu, where she was deemed a “problematic” child, and how her incredible vision for children’s education encouraged her to establish the Children's Art Museum of Nepal!
DS: Can you tell us a little about your upbringing?
SS: I was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal, and went to school there until college. I had a happy childhood. We didn't have a lot but it was enough to make a kid happy. At home, I spoke Nepali, English and Newari. Newar is the ethnic group that I belong to and I picked up Newari from my dad and grandma. So I grew up with three languages.
DS: How did your education shape your outlook and how did you become interested in street art?
SS: I always loved and enjoyed art. I never considered becoming an artist, not because I wasn't allowed to but because it wasn't in front of me. I wasn't exposed to any artists, per se, and had not been to galleries. I got joy from making. In Nepal, after high school, you have to pick a subject such as science, hotel management, or business. None of those appealed to me so I picked a liberal arts education. I went to college in the US majoring in globalization studies focused on a world issue or a part of the world. My focus was on South Asian developing countries and I was taking classes accordingly. But I was also sneaking in one or two art classes every semester. I thought “Oh my god! I can't believe I can take art classes!" I didn't have these in high school. I was doing well in these classes, they made sense and it was a stress relief. Imagine you've been in the same school from grade three till graduation and all of a sudden you’re plugged into a new school, new country, and new environment. Nobody dresses like you, nobody looks like you. In art class, I felt I could speak the same language so I could do well in this. In my junior year, my professor told me I only needed a few classes to be an art major. My parents didn't know - they only found out during graduation when they called my name twice. I focused on painting and eventually also majored in art.
I moved to Boston to work for a nonprofit organization called Artists for Humanity as a Painting Studio Mentor and an Education Coordinator. All my colleagues were artists as well and worked only part-time. My colleagues stayed back after work and hung out to paint. On weekends my mentor painted murals and I went to watch and that's how I was introduced to murals. Over time I was really into it so I started practising. I learned about underground art shows and started participating in them.
"Imagine you've been in the same school since grade three till graduation and all of a sudden you’re plugged into a new school, new country, and new environment. Nobody dresses like you, nobody looks like you. In art class, I felt I could speak the same language..."
DS: Tell us a bit more about your interest in education and your initiative with the Children’s Art Museum.
SS: During school life, I was considered a “problematic kid” and that's one of the reasons that inspired me to get into education. I was said to have behavioural issues and was suspended multiple times. Towards the end of high school, I saw it as a game. If I got my grades up they could not keep nagging me. I realized that it was a pattern, where I hadn’t done anything wrong. My parents were very supportive, they understood who I was. As I grew older I realized that I wasn't a problem child and it was just childhood. It was a long struggle with school and the idea of authority as I was a creative kid. It may sound stereotypical, but all kids are creative and it's up to educators to help them find their voice.
The second inspiration was my brother in Nepal. When I was in Boston I was working with young kids. And I thought, how does this make sense to help kids here, when my brother is struggling. Why am I here? Why am I not home? I quit my job and left the country to open the Children's Art Museum in Nepal. The museum was my calling and so I let go of everything to build it.
"All kids are creative and it's up to educators to help them find their voice."
The goal of the museum is to help children gain 21st-century skills through creative means. In Nepal, there is no space for kids to make art. We help kids with art as a medium versus art as a skill to build. We don't teach kids how to draw a portrait and make it perfect. Tigers can be pink or green. It's more about personal expression and building confidence and leadership skills that way. It's a new concept, but deep inside from a selfish point of view, I wish I had this growing up. It would've been so nice if a wild child just had a space to paint freely and without anyone saying “it's wrong” or “be quiet”. That's where the idea came from. Before the COVID lockdown, we had worked with over 10,000 kids in 7 years. We've partnered with organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR that make a huge impact. Over a short period, we've been able to do so much because there's a need for it.
DS: That’s a great initiative! So how did you decide to move to art from education?
SS: While building the Museum I was illegally painting a lot in Nepal. For a long time, people didn't know that the director of the Children's Museum was the same person who was painting these mysterious walls that would pop up. So it was sort of my release that I would go and paint something. I got a lot of experience painting outside. Painting outside and painting at the comfort of your studio is so different- you have limited paint and time. You don't know how the walls are going to look. You don't know what the people walking by are going to do, or the cops will do. All these things are thrilling but also very nerve-racking. So I painted a lot there and did my first solo show in Kathmandu. I wasn't thinking of doing this full time, it just was fun and I kept doing it.
To continue my education I went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That was a great experience and I was still doing art shows here and there, but I wasn't allowing myself to paint. Painting was time-consuming, and I believed Harvard was an amazing opportunity which I should focus on. Biggest mistake of my life! Art had been in my life for so long and I couldn't shut it down. After graduating, my mental health was suffering because I was trying to find a Harvard job - like the pipeline of all Harvard graduates to compete against. I felt this is what I'm supposed to do. I got scared once I started hearing back from different companies. I was grateful for the opportunity. But I needed to go for art full time. So I decided to give myself one year. One year tops, do whatever you want, and then see how it goes. It's been three years, and I'm still doing it.
Painting was time-consuming, and I believed Harvard was an amazing opportunity which I should focus on. Biggest mistake of my life! Art had been in my life for so long and I couldn't shut it down.
DS: What’s the story behind the name “IMAGINE”?
SS: Murals and graffiti artists have street names for themselves. My mom's name is Kalpana which means imagination in Nepali and that's how I got the name IMAGINE. My first arts learning experience was from my mom, and she was my kindergarten teacher, and teacher forever. I feel a certain amount of pride, every time I sign her name. When I finish a piece, I take that responsibility seriously. Every piece I sign needs to be so good that I can write my mom's name on it.
When I finish a piece, I take that responsibility seriously. Every piece I sign needs to be so good that I can write my mom's name on it.
DS: How is life in the art world and how was that transition for you?
SS: We do small group art shows. Sometimes it’s holiday shows where all pieces are $100 and people can just come and grab whatever they want. Looking back, that's how I made a lot of friends, built my network and explored art. In Nepal, there wasn’t a museum-going culture. We didn't go to museums for fun, they were dark dusty places that the school trip took you to, and you would just fool around with friends and fill out a trip sheet. I was slowly introduced to this culture and then last year I had a show at the Museum of Fine Arts. It was a one-year-long process of building the work and the program made me comfortable going to museums. The group shows introduced me to the art scene, museums and what artists did. What does it mean to be an artist? What does an artist’s life entail? There is no straightforward answer to that and you just kind of learn as you go.
I paint the gigantic walls by myself. I take a lot of credit for painting and doing everything myself, especially in such a male-dominated field. For me, my handwriting is what paints the wall, there are no figures in my work, the letters are the subject of the work. It's just my handwriting, writing different things with a big brush.
I take a lot of credit for painting and doing everything myself, especially in such a male-dominated field. For me, my handwriting is what paints the wall, there are no figures in my work, the letters are the subject of the work.
DS: Why did you choose Nepali vs Sanskrit language and calligraphy for your Murals?
SS: In the Nepali classes or other literature classes Sanskrit was always there but wasn't given a lot of significance because it's difficult. Growing up I hated reading in Nepali because all the texts looked the same to me and it was hard as I'm a visual learner. I also have dyscalculia, which is similar to dyslexia, but with numbers. If you give me a bunch of numbers to do mental math, it's very hard for me because the visuals don't stay in my head. So if you tell me to multiply double numbers you might multiply the first number and then go to the second. By the time I go to second that number isn't in my head. It just flies away.
Similarly, all the Nepali text looked the same, there were no different fonts, so a kid’s book and the newspaper would look the same. For me, reading felt difficult. But in English, there were more children's material and books with big colorful letters. So I hated reading Nepali and its class as a child and young adult. I only got into it once I moved to the US, and I graduated college. And then I was exposed to graffiti in Austin. And so graffiti united the concept, the idea of this art form that's based solely on letters. It blew my mind and I started researching and learning from my mentors. And then I got to a point where I understood the art form. But then my voice was missing. Well, this is an art form that came out in the 50s 60s in New York. What is the connection with me? How can I make this authentic? What if I wrote in Nepali? I learned how to write in Nepali even before I learned to write in English. When I tried it out it felt more natural to stylize, to make them super fancy and give them character. I started looking into Sanskrit, even more, because I was revisiting a lot of poems that we would read in school. Looking up the meanings of it and digging deeper because those poems are good to memorize and still in my head. And so looking back at them and then looking at the literature that we studied. That's when I started getting really into it.
So I hated reading Nepali and its class as a child and young adult. I only got into it once I moved to the US, and I graduated college. And then I was exposed to graffiti in Austin. And so graffiti united the concept, the idea of this art form that's based solely on letters. It blew my mind...
This language has been around forever and we don't give it the same significance as say Chinese calligraphy, Japanese calligraphy or Arabic calligraphy. Even old English used to be written so beautifully. Millions of people know this language and yet we just see it as text in a book that might be boring to most kids and adults. And so that's where it started with the lettering. It felt authentically Nepali for me.
People ask “You're from Nepal or India? Do people look like you? Do people talk like you? Does everybody eat roti, does everybody eat with their hands?”. People want to stereotype when they're trying to understand you, but they’re also putting you in a box so they understand it better. So for me, it was like, “Oh, am I used to climbing Mount Everest?" NO. It's the highest mountain in the world!! Or "Does everybody eat momos?” The idea of having to be an ambassador to a whole country that has more than 200 languages spoken is ridiculous. When I found my way of writing in Nepali. I felt it was authentically me. This is how I write Nepali and this is what Nepali looks like. I was able to define my identity more concretely. It's a process, defining identity, forming an idea, and an image of it and that was an authentic step towards that.
DS: Do you have a favorite piece?
SS: I was told by one of my mentors “You're only as good as your last piece”. And so, I've always tried to make sure that I don't have a favorite piece. Because if I have a favorite piece, then I'll try to replicate that over and over again and then I will not push myself. I have a bunch of favorite pieces because of the experience that I had doing it.
In that sense, my favorite piece is in Michigan that I painted last year. That was a great trip because it was a mural festival and I met some people who are now my best friends. We've traveled to different countries together to paint and it was such a valuable experience.
And then the wall in Cambridge at Central Square is also one of my favorites because so many people get to see it. It's in a central location, and I've been able to meet so many people through it, they get in touch with me through Instagram or email. And it's great to have that, especially in a city that means so much to you. I painted my first wall at Central Square, ever. And then now that wall there that was commissioned is one of the most prevalent walls. So it was a full-circle experience.
DS: What role does your family play in your career?
SS: It's the constant support, but also the challenge. Sometimes my dad asks me if I'm going to get a real job and it jolts me. I did everything right, as a good South Asian kid getting into Harvard. It matters how your parents think and feel. No matter how much the Western world would tell you to follow your dreams, and don't care what people say, you care about these people that love you. There's the world where people are saying “Wow, IMAGINE you're doing amazing, love your work”, and then your dad says “so when you're going to get a real job?’. It's kind of like a reality check, you're pulled down onto the ground. It’s difficult sometimes, but it also fuels you. It makes you think about: What is a real job? and What are we supposed to do? Aren’t we supposed to grow up and be happy? Is the ultimate goal to get the perfect job, get lots of money, and get a house and be happy? But what if happiness for me comes differently, doesn't it mean I should take that path instead. It makes me think about all these things. My mom has always been supportive of my work. Their support means a lot to me.
My mom inspires me because of her strength and her creativity, and how she takes care of herself mentally and physically. These are things that I aspire to be. I kind of look up to her for her kindness and compassion and all of these qualities.
DS: What is the best part of your day, do you have any other interests and hobbies?
SS: There are no typical days. Becoming an artist, every day is different. Some of the best parts are when the weather's perfect and I'm high up on the lift painting. Nothing is going wrong. It's just me, my brush and the blue sky. I feel peaceful, joyful and happiest in those moments.
And then for hobbies, during quarantine, I've been experimenting with dried flowers, they're super tiny and then you can arrange them on greeting cards. Using little tweezers I put them together and make different compositions on paper making cute cards for friends. Also, I like using watercolour and making something nice to give to friends.
Some of the best parts are when the weather's perfect and I'm high up on the lift painting. Nothing is going wrong. It's just me, my brush and the blue sky. I feel peaceful, joyful and happiest in those moments.
DS: What would you like to recommend to our readers to read/watch/listen to and why? It could be a book, series, podcasts etc.
I've been reading a bunch of books by Samrat Upadhayay. He is a well known Nepali author and his books are based in Kathmandu. I haven’t been able to go home since February 2020. So just reading that makes me relive a Kathmandu that I grew up in or a Kathmandu that my parents grew up in. When the revolution was happening, I had heard my parents talk about it, and then I read it in the characters that the author writes about. I have these questions and I talk to my parents about their experiences and sew the stories together. That's been great.
DS: Can you name another woman who inspires you?
SS: On the work front, one of my favorite artists is Sidney G James. She is an artist that I met on the Michigan trip and now she's my really good friend. I look up to her and her work. Another artist that I've been a fan of since forever is MadC, she's a German graffiti artist. I've been looking at her work since I was introduced to graffiti. At that time, there weren't a lot of women graffiti writers.
DS: Describe your ideal life in five years. Personally and professionally.
SS: I hope to paint more murals and bigger walls. Right now, I wish for basic things - get on a plane and not be here, travel, go see my friends. My friends are all over the world because we met through mural festivals.
I also hope to spend more time at home. Home will always be home, regardless of where you live and work. I work in Boston, but my home is in Kathmandu. I want to spend more time there because that makes me happy. And a lot of my inspiration comes from being home. That's one of my life goals for the next few years. I was doing that before COVID lockdown, I'd go home two to three times a year. I need to build back up to traveling that much again and work towards that.
DS: Is there something that you'd like to see more of in the art industry that is seen as missing?
SS: To see more South Asian women doing street art. I hope to see more dialogue about how there's “Asian” and there's “South Asian” art. What's considered Asian in the US is not South Asian, and I hope people make that difference and give us our identity. Nepal especially, being such a tiny country, doesn't have an identity. And I'm working towards building one for the art world but if there are more of us then it would be a little easier. Seeing more women in the street art world and more South Asian women would be pretty amazing.
Nepal especially, being such a tiny country, doesn't have an identity. And I'm working towards building one for the art world but if there are more of us then it would be a little easier.