Profile: artist Sneha Shrestha discusses new exhibit at The Distillery Gallery


By Guy Ovadia, news correspondent

Growing up in Kathmandu, Sneha Shrestha loved to paint but never considered being an artist a viable career choice. Her family didn’t embrace art as she did, so when she came to the U.S. to attend Gettysburg College, she didn’t consider taking up art as a major. She snuck two additional art classes into her schedule atop four globalization studies classes per semester, which allowed her to declare an art major by her junior year.

Shrestha gave back to her home community by founding Nepal’s first children’s art museum, providing children with a creative space to develop art skills through project-based experiences. Shrestha realized she could channel her passion for art through education, so she pursued a master’s degree in education at Harvard.

“I was still painting at that time, too. I was painting walls. I was doing legal and illegal stuff in Nepal,” said Shrestha. “I was still doing [art] shows when I was in grad school.”

Shrestha moved to Boston and joined Artists for Humanity, a South Boston based organization that supports young artists. There she met Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs, a Roxbury artist who co-founded the organization and introduced her to American Graffiti. The experience inspired Shrestha to make a social impact by sharing her love of art and expression.

“I was around artists. So the art thing has happened since forever,” said Shrestha, “But I wasn’t thinking of being an artist. I just made art.”

Shrestha now does art full time under the name IMAGINE. Her exhibit “Mantra” will be at The Distillery Gallery in South Boston until October 28. She is one of seven artists-in-residence at Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s office.

“Her work is versatile, she can do a big mural or a small painting with the same rhythm,” said Beth Kantrowitz, gallery curator of Drive-By Projects. “Large or small, it becomes universal, intimate, personal.”

Shrestha’s art utilizes the Dev Nagari script used in both Sanskrit and modern Nepali. She draws from the aesthetic of Sanskrit and fuses it with American graffiti, producing a distinct Nepali-dialect graffiti. The incorporation of repetition and flowing designs gives it the visual appeal of street art.

Shrestha has painted walls in the Boston area as well as Nepal. Her calligraphy is in English in some pieces and Nepali in others, but the words are always in enchanting patterns and shapes and surrounded by mesmerizing colors, but mostly blue, orange and gold.

“Orange and blue just has that really vibrant color that I can talk about my culture in a very unique way,” said Shrestha. “Everywhere I paint, it’s like reminding myself of the feeling that you get when people come together, when families come together, and you’re celebrating something. And that’s the feeling that I want to share, also, through my murals. And I think it works towards just building a cultural competency in Boston.”

The orange and blue theme scheme reminds Shrestha of a flower with 100 petals that blooms during the festival of Tihar –– also known as the festival of lights. Around November, Tihar is celebrated with colorful flowers to adorn garlands and doorways and to conduct blessing ceremonies.

Many of her pieces say things like “Imagine” and “you can imagine too,” which is Shrestha mantra. Imagination is important to her because she said kids growing up in Nepal often don’t have as much imagination as people in the U.S. Her message encourages people to reach out to people from other cultures.

“That’s kind of the message of hope to just tell people that, you know, imagination is powerful and you can do it, too, and without imagination can’t really dream up anything. And imagine a world where young people don’t have imagination. That’s scary, right?” said Shrestha. “Be curious about other cultures. Be curious about differences, be curious about different cultural aesthetics. And Boston is a place where we have a lot of [immigrants], we have a lot of diversity. But does it look like it? No, it doesn’t look like it.”

Shrestha was recently invited to do a collaboration with Reebok. Given complete creative freedom, Shrestha designed a t-shirt that reads “Not a stereotype” in English using her trademark script. She plans on doing more collaborations with Reebok and possibly other brands.

“[I’m] learning about what it means to collab with various companies and still make sure that my voice is present,” said Shrestha. “Reebok just did a really good job at giving me creative control over what it would look like.”

Last spring, Shrestha painted an 80 foot long mural in the 360 Gallery in the Curry student center. Her artistic presence continues to grow in the Boston area as she just completed a wall in Lafayette Square in Cambridge. She also did a collab with Aeronaut Brewing Company by designing a can for their Hyperfocus beer as a promotion for the gallery.

Art and education go hand in hand for Shrestha. Her education in Nepal was not excellent, so art served as an escape for Shrestha but it also taught her how to be resourceful. A reason she founded the children’s museum was that she wants to encourage young people to have a limitless imagination and a better understanding of the world. She shares art to show how it can be a vehicle to project one’s voice.