It’s hard not to get lost in, and even feel slightly envious of, India based illustrator and artist Madhuvanthi Mohan’s travel life which happens to be closely bound to her work life. Just in the last few years, she has extensively traveled to the USA, Singapore, and the North Eastern part of India. She has also constantly shuffled between the three metros in India including Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru.
Madhuvanthi runs a retail brand called Something Sketchy where she illustrates products like notebooks, calendars, stickers and postcards. She also runs The Sketchup, a great initiative that brings the illustrators’ community of India together through intimate and informal gatherings, steered in an interesting direction by established speakers from the visual arts community.
During her travels, she found another new love – street art. She has been a part of the St+art festival in India, and has also painted her own murals in Delhi, Mumbai and Berlin.
Over a long telephone call, we had an interesting conversation with Madhuvanthi that traces her recent travel stories, explores how travel inspires her work, and divulges the new direction her life is about to take.
Could you tell us a bit about where you grew up?
Both my parents are scientists, and after they were married, they worked in London for about 10 years which is where I was born. We stayed there till I was eight years old. I have really fond memories of London, especially of my schooling there. We would study one or two subjects a week, and be completely immersed in it. Like once I remember we were studying about the Victorian era in a History class, and the classroom was completely transformed to reflect the Victorian times. We also did a lot of creative writing which I really enjoyed.
And then you moved to Bangalore. How was that initial experience?
It was a very different experience from London, especially in those days. Now things are more globalized but at that time it felt very different. Some of those differences were subtle like in London strangers would smile at each other, but here it was slightly strange. Then there was some difficulty with the language, as I hadn’t learnt Kannada properly before. But schooling was nice; I did a lot of creative writing in school here as well. I studied Science in pre-university college and then did a Bachelor of Arts (in media studies, psychology and literature). In between, I did internships at places including Bangalore Mirror newspaper and ad agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and Orchard India as a copywriter.
When did the move to Mumbai happen?
During the internships, I figured copywriting in advertising is what I wanted to do, and so I applied to Xavier Institute of Communications in Mumbai to study advertising and marketing.
How did you like Mumbai?
You feel a bit lost after college with regard to what to do next, but there is also a sense of adventure when you are younger. I just loved Mumbai so much right from the beginning. I don’t know what is it about Mumbai, but the people, the energy, and the vibe is really nice. No one is really judging you. Also, it was great being away from the place where I had grown up and where everyone expected me to be a certain way. It was very liberating to be in Mumbai.
What did you do after your course ended?
Post the course, I got placed in a direct marketing company as a copywriter. As soon as I joined, I had to work on this internal campaign that was supposed to talk about every department in the company and how they all function together. I made each department into a piece of a machine, explaining how each piece made the whole machine work. Because the art director was busy at that time, I ended up drawing the creative myself and really enjoyed doing it. It was called ‘The Big Picture’, and it was pretty much the first thing I drew. Post this, the company sent me to Amsterdam for a workshop for a week. After that one week, I couchsurfed there for a few more days to explore Amsterdam and especially enjoyed the Van Gogh Museum, and just walking around seeing the cycles and cobbled streets and flowers.
After Amsterdam, I had to come back to real office life that included working for banking clients. I started doodling more at work to be creatively satisfied, and one day one of the managing directors of the company saw my work and commissioned me to create some artwork for his band. He needed some kind of a website or a page to give credit to me for the work, and I ended up creating the Something Sketchy Facebook page overnight.
How did it all pan out after that?
I continued at the same company for about two and a half years, and then joined a creative boutique that had some interesting clients. I did enjoy the creative work there and stayed there for almost a year.
Something Sketchy was taking off too at the same time. I had started putting my illustrations on products like notebooks and doing flea markets and Comic Cons. In advertising, you don’t have too much control over the end product as it goes through so many levels and ends up being a distorted version of what you imagined. But with Something Sketchy, I had complete creative control and freedom, and eventually I decided to start working on Something Sketchy full time, while freelancing on the side a bit. This was in April 2013.
When did travelling for long periods started for you?
I think that started in 2014 when I went to New York in the summer. I sublet my room in Bandra, Mumbai and moved to NYC for four months to do a few courses at School of Visual Arts. That was a really great experience. I met so many different kinds of artists there. For example, there was Alex from Russia, who had moved here with his family but left his dog in Russia, and every artwork he created here featured his dog in some form. Then there was this artist called JCorpTM who would plaster her signature character ‘Clownface’ all over Brooklyn. Angela Lau made these beautiful really small detailed water colour paintings of her cats in bikini aprons fighting octopuses. JLR was another artist who sold her bright coloured kooky artwork on the Soho streets. Our teacher was Elizabeth Sayles, an amazing artist and one of the most encouraging people I know.
I basically learnt a lot and got to see how different artists do things and learnt a lot in the process. I also did a silk screen printing course that gave me full access to the lab and gorgeous buckets of paint, so that was an extremely satisfying course too.
When you are a freelancer and often working from one place alone, it gets a bit monotonous after a while. You miss being around people. Moving around helps me with productivity and inspiration.
How was your experience in New York as a place?
While doing the courses, I stayed at student housing at 23 and Lex in Manhattan, which wasn’t the most comfortable of accommodations, but is absolutely prime location and has so much going on around it. I also subscribed to this email newsletter called The Skint that sends you free and cheap things to do every day morning to your inbox. I went for this free talk at the New York public library by amazing artist Sarah Bush, and ended up taking her mentorship. She helped me understand the retail system a little better, and I managed to get my linesheet in order and get Something Sketchy products into four stores in New York while I was there.
Another interesting thing that happened in NYC was visiting the Cotton Candy Machine, an art gallery in Brooklyn run by Tara McPherson and her husband Sean Leonard. They had this exhibition called the Tiny Trifecta going on for which each artist (including Shepard Fairey, Kozyndan, Alex Pardee etc.) had contributed three tiny pieces of work that were selling at 100 dollars each. That exhibition really left an impact on me. I just recently finished organizing and curating an indie art show at Koramanagala Social in Bangalore that was sort of inspired by my experience at the Tiny Trifecta show. This art show had 11 Indian artists displaying three pieces of work each. It was so much fun curating and organizing this.
I really loved what they were doing at the Cotton Candy Machine and asked if I could help out as an intern. I got to learn a lot, in terms of exhibition, packing artwork and I did a bunch of artist interviews for their blog which I loved, because I generally just love talking to artists and understanding how they work and create. I even got to visit Scott C’s studio at the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint. The building actually used to be a pencil factory but now a bunch of artists work out of there. It was a lot of fun for me because we used to pour over his series of ‘Great Showdowns’ at the creative boutique agency I worked at. Great Showdowns are watercolour pieces chronicling of some of the greatest confrontations in film history. Basically, he would illustrate bad guys vs. the good guys and you’d have to guess which movie it was. I spoke to him about the Sketchup, which is the illustrator’s group I run. I had just started the Sketchup before coming to New York, and arranged the next three sessions from NYC through Skype. He told me a little about the artist collective he had been a part of in the earlier days of his career, and it was really inspiring.
Did you end up meeting other artists as well?
After two months in Manhattan, I moved to Brooklyn, subletting a room in a four bedroom apartment from a design graduate who worked at a letterpress set up. I went to a bunch of events happening in the area and met some very interesting street artists. At one event, I met street artists Dasic Fernandes and Chris Soria who were so cool. Another artist Ullyses and a photographer George Brock who had been living in Brooklyn since forever took me on a walk around the area to show me some of the street art and told me the stories behind the pieces.
Later on at the Cotton Candy Machine I met this guy @checkback on Instagram, who did street art tours. He bought a notebook from me at one of the flea markets and offered me his free tour for artists. I saw and heard about so much street art that day, it was excellent. We even ran into this artist Uta Brauser painting a fridge in the middle of the road. It started raining and she single handedly shifted it into her madly painted van before driving off.
And in terms of Something Sketchy specifically, how did the New York experience help?
Well, the experience at flea markets I did there was good. It was interesting to see how people reacted to different designs. My creepier and darker designs did better in the US than some of my happier ones, which at that time tended to do better at my stalls in India. My margins there were also higher, as I could sell a notebook at $16 there as opposed to $3 here.
When I came back from NYC, I had a pleasant surprise – Brandon from Humans of New York had taken and shared a photo of one of my customers holding my notebook. It was only his hand and the notebook as he wished to remain anonymous. I actually remember having a conversation with this customer about his motorcycling. I got a couple of international orders after that, and my first customers from Spain through the post.
How was the coming back experience?
When I came back, it was slightly difficult to re-adjust to the very different environment here and get used to expending energy on follow ups among other things.
At this time, the St+art festival was happening in Mumbai, with a bunch of amazing international and local street artists contributing pieces. I had seen a lot of street art in Brooklyn, and got interested in it. And I was excited to see something like that happening in Mumbai. It was a real pick me up. I ended up assisting AKA Corleone on the Jude Bakery mural in Bandra.
I also met Tika, a street artist from Switzerland whom I hosted at my house for a few days. It was a really great experience to hang out with her. She would always make me walk instead of taking a taxi or a rickshaw because she wanted to explore everything. She would eat things like Chinese bhel from the cyclewala, which I would usually never do. One day she picked up an empty snack packet on the road with a red and blue tiger on it and some tamil writing and looked at me and said “This is awesome”. She basically made me see the place through her eyes and opened my eyes again to the magic of the colours, sights, smells and chaos of our beautiful country and I felt a bit more at home again.
My friends and I travelled to Kutch soon after and spent a bit of time at the craft villages exploring Rogan art, block printing, and pottery which gave me even more appreciation for the beautiful arts in our country’s culture.
You also worked with St+art in Delhi right?
Yes, that was my next long stint of travel; I stayed in Delhi for five months. I found a graphic designer looking for a roommate on Facebook, and we went from strangers to the best of friends living together. I met and assisted a bunch more artists through St+art Delhi and also ended up painting my first ever large scale mural, a 30X19 ft abstract typographic artwork at Maker’s Asylum in Delhi. It was so creatively satisfying, and a massive physical workout! We used a man lift and water soaked canopies to battle the extreme Delhi April heat and it was still so much fun.
I would show my art pieces to all the artists I met through St+art, and most of them liked my piece called 1983 which is abstract typography and hidden text which you wouldn’t see at first sight. Most of them told me this would be a good style to pick up and use across my murals and street art. And I took their advice.
You also painted a similar artwork in Berlin right?
Yes, I did in July 2015. I remember being asked in an interview where would be a dream place to paint a mural and I had said Berlin. I was going to spend about 13 hours there with my parents as part of a larger Europe trip, and it struck me that now was the time to realize my dream. I had taken paints with me and had already spoken online to a bunch of artists about doing a mural in Berlin. So a friend and I at five in the morning made our way towards this garden where another Berlin artist had told me it would be okay to paint. Unfortunately, we couldn’t locate it, so we closed in on a space under a bridge where there was some graffiti. I ended up using all my black paint to draw this huge outline of the piece and then suddenly this big burly construction worker came running towards us. We tried to explain to him that we were not vandals and somehow extracted ourselves from the situation. But we were still nervous and kept thinking that any cop car passing by was out to get us!
Eventually we found the original spot which my artist friend had suggested, and I ended up painting a smaller version of my Berlin-Bombay abstract typography mural there. It was so nice sitting in the morning sun doing this. After that I even managed to visit the artist friend Sabatino Cerosimo’s studio called the Func Haus – it was a gorgeous huge old building with a lake within the compound.
You also travelled to North East quite extensively, and also hosted a Sketchup session there. Tell us a bit about that.
Yes, that was the third long stint of. A friend of mine Jaytirth Ahya, who I met at the Coalition, started this thing called the Roadtrip Experience Project where he takes 15 artists, musicians, photographers and filmmakers on an incredible road trip, collaborating with locals and each other on projects along the way. I had already been thinking about spending time in North East, and this was a perfect way to do that. Traveling with other creative people was an amazing experience. We all painted a mural at a restaurant in Kohima, Nagaland.
We met so many amazing artists there and I collaborated on my Creature mural with Biebe Natso, who added some giant creepy insects to the mural. She conducts this large scale anime festival called Nagaland Anime Junkies in the North East every year. We also visited Dawki in Meghalaya which is heaven on earth. The water is this wonderful shade of clear blue-green that’s hard to describe. It gets dark there around 4.30-5 in the evening. So when we arrived in the evening there we did a moonlit boat ride in the dark to the river island we were camping on. Jason who runs Pioneer Adventures had already kept the tents and bonfire ready for us. We ate a meal prepared by the local villagers under a bamboo canopy and slept outside under the stars. In the morning, we woke up to the gorgeous view of the river and the Khasi and Jaintia hills which we hadn’t seen since we’d arrived in the dark. It was breathtaking, and that morning all the RTX artists painted one of the fishermen’s boats. That was the nicest day.
And then you also stayed back there right?
Yes. After that tour ended, I stayed back in Kohima to see if I could assist at the Hornbill Festival. I met so many amazing artists including Mo Naga, a legendary tattoo artist, who has spent years researching and documenting the different tribal tattoos of the different tribes of Nagaland who are living in remote areas. He has also developed his own style of tattooing in the process.
That particular Sketchup session with him was amazing. The talent I met there is incredible. I also realized there that it is so important for illustrators from different parts of the country to connect with each other. It would be nice if we become a close-knit community. We had other speakers including Kenny Ngairangbam from KOK Design who has made these lovely square paper dolls displaying the traditional costumes of the different tribes of Manipur, and Arpit Agarwal who runs NEST, where he creates North East inspired designs on beautiful handcrafted products.
You also painted a mural in Kohima?
Yes, I stayed at this lovely homestay called Morung Lodge run by Nino Zhasa during my two months in Kohima, and I painted a 70x10ft mural for them in exchange for accommodation and meals. The lodge was a bit difficult to locate by travellers. There was a huge curved wall around it and I kept imagining a giant fish there. A lot of regular working people passed the mural everyday. So I called the mural the “Finding Nino” mural, and painted the words ‘Keep on swimming’ above the giant fish’s head.
After your North East adventure, did you end up being back in Mumbai?
After this trip, I actually decided to give up my flat in Mumbai as I realized that in one whole year I had only spent two months in Mumbai. I then went to Delhi again for about three months and we had another Sketchup session there with artists including Archan Nair, Kriti Monga, Priya Kuriyan and Anant Ahuja. After Delhi I came back to Mumbai for a bit and painted the carpentry room of the Maker’s Asylum with a typography mural which read “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck”, before moving back to Bangalore in May last year.
Also I think there is a little guilt attached to me being able to do what I love doing, so I am only comfortable spending money on travelling when there is some sort of work attached to it.
Did you travel anywhere else at this point?
Yes, we had a second Sketchup session in Delhi with Orijit Sen at his lovely studio space at People Tree, Champa Gali in August. In September I did a bit of a tour with Something Sketchy stalls, starting with Singapore Comic Con for the first time. That was such a cool experience. My stall was sandwiched between these two iconic model makers – Pobbit and Instinctoy. I learnt so much just by watching them. Instinctoy makes these grotesque 3D printed teddy bears which are so cool, and he sells them for 100 SGD each. He has a group of people who work with him and they had done great pre-marketing. It was such a well-oiled machine. I also met the awesome people at the Red Dot Museum who conduct the MAAD Market, which is a flea market held once every month only for designers and artists, and has been happening for the past 10 years. My friend Sophy in Singapore has done a few Something Sketchy stalls for me there since.
After Singapore, was Mumbai for a stall at Sophia College and a lovely Sketchup Freedraw session with Sameer Kulavoor and Lokesh Karekar at The Ministry of New. This was so cool – about 60 of us in a beautiful room drawing together to good music after which Sameer and Lokesh spoke to us a little bit about questions people had. From there I went to Hyderabad Comic Con for the first time, and immediately after to Jaipur for Kyoorius Designyatra where Something Sketchy was a festival partner this year. After that, it was back to Bangalore to work on setting up my online store for something sketchy.
In December, I did three stalls in Goa while spending some time there, and then in February I had a stall at Kochi On Flea.k, and got to catch the Kochi Biennale while I was there. More recently, in April we had our first Sketchup session in Goa at Avinash Kumar and Ayaz Basrai’s studio The Greenhouse.
How does travelling so much really inspire you?
When you are a freelancer and often working from one place alone, it gets a bit monotonous after a while. You miss being around people. Moving around helps me with productivity and inspiration. I am really motivated when I am in a different setting and environment. Kohima was a great example of that. Also I had my own space but there were also so many interesting people in the lodge that I could interact with when I wanted. Also, it was so liberating to live out of two bags for six months during that stretch of Kohima-Mumbai-Delhi. You don’t really need much. My workspace is wherever my laptop is.
I remember being asked in an interview where would be a dream place to paint a mural and I had said Berlin. I was going to spend about 13 hours there with my parents as part of a larger Europe trip, and it struck me that now was the time to realize my dream.
Do you feel like travelling when work is not involved?
Something Kriti Monga said during her Sketchup talk about design being life, and where did work end or begin. This sort of resonated with me. When I’m travelling, I like my work and my life to gain from it somehow or the other. Also I think there is a little guilt attached to me being able to do what I love doing, so I am only comfortable spending money on travelling when there is some sort of work attached to it.
What’s the next travel plan?
I’m actually moving to Bombay this week, taking up a role as Creative Producer at Design Fabric and working with Sanket Avlani at A Good Feeling. I’ll still be continuing to work on Something Sketchy and the Sketchup though. I’m excited to work on the many cool design events they’re planning. And it’ll be great to work with a team of awesome people again.
You can read the rest of the issue two here.