The following feature story was published in the online ISSUE magazine, Oct. 5, 2020

Sajeela Siddiq, TASIMJAE 2019 winner, solo show opens Nov. 7

When Sajeela Siddiq was named the winner of TASIMJAE 2019, she earned a solo show in May 2020. But then the world changed and things got, well, complicated.

The COVID-19 pandemic put the world on hold and her show was postponed until November. Then, in August, Hurricane Laura blew through her home town of Lake Charles, Louisiana, causing her to lose power for a couple of weeks.

However, the Pakistan native is undaunted and will present her exhibition, “A Poetry of Line and Shape,” Beginning Nov. 7. Sajeela said the show’s concept has shifted over the months.

“The show was supposed to be very different, then COVID hit and the hurricane hit, and I’ve had to move studio, have had to move equipment — I work on large paper drawings, so I haven’t been able to finish as many as I thought I would — It keeps evolving,” she said in an online interview from Houston, to where she had evacuated from Laura.

A chemical plant by Sajeela Siddiq

“I’m currently starting last week working on a new series that’s graphic design series. I’m about be finished with it because it goes fast. (The show) was going to be either all drawings or all paintings. But now it’s going to be everything that I do — and I do a lot of different things. So it’s going to be this hodgepodge of graphic design, illustration, maybe some ink and pen, a whole bunch of charcoal drawings and a few paintings of the chemical plants that I’ve done.”

“A Poetry of Line and Shape,” will open virtually, Nov. 7. A link to the show will be available at artstudio.org, and on The Art Studio’s Facebook and Instagram. Visitors will be able to see the physical exhibition by appointment through Nov. 27.

Sajeela graduated from art school at McNeese University and said the pandemic and the hurricane have caused her to re-examine her artistic goals.

“Natural Disasters have a way of making people think about the future, their future plan, what life is about, what goals are?” she said. “I finished art school about three years ago and I’m at a plateau now where I want to learn more. I want to expand on everything. I feel like the only thing I feel confident in right now is my charcoal drawings, because charcoal is a stick of charcoal, you can just keep at it and keep at it. Painting is a lot of technique. Photography I only now do in service of the other arts, or when I travel. And then graphic design. I’m pretty confident in it. But, you can always learn more and more and more and more, there’s no end to it.”

Sajeela has been looking into MFA programs, but said she needs to decide how she wants people to perceive her art, adding that she constantly returns to the properties of lines.

“I think it goes back to so my very first semester in art school and there was drawing,” she said. “Then there were a couple of design classes, design 101 — it was all about principles of design and it was all black and white. The very first lessons I learned in both classes are all about line. And I think it just stayed with me. Line variety. That’s such a huge thing for me, the beauty of implied lines. You can create designs day in day out and it’s infinite.

“I remember my very first assignment was creating this piece — one design had to be straight lines, another design had to be only angular lines, the third was curved lines, and the fourth was combining all of them. And to this day, that’s my favorite design. So, I fell in love with lines then.” 

As well as her art degree, Sajeela has a business degree from Bryant University in Rhode Island, where her family moved when she was in high school, and an MBA from McNeese. She said her business training explains her analytical and creative sides. She said she took the right-brain, left brain test and found she fell almost in the middle.

“I was 49-51 and I’m always down the middle,” she said. “I know that it can be a benefit, but I also feel like it’s not a benefit because I am trapped in my linear brain compared to people who fly free as creative as they’re supposed to. I’m precise and linear and logical, so it shows in my work. it’s methodical.”

One piece from the show, a large charcoal drawing of a woman in a sari, took Sajeela three months to complete, she said.

A detail of Sajeela Siddiq at work

“I had to write on a piece of paper, ‘Do not overwork it,’ because I tend to do that,” she said. “Her hand was half an inch off. I had finished it and I erased it and put it back. Nobody would have been able to tell, it was covered with drapery, but I couldn’t stand that I knew that it was off by half an inch, so I had to fix it. So, I’m trying to overcome those little problems and grow.”

Sajeela’s winning piece at The Art Studio, Inc. Member Jurored Art Exhibition was a charcoal portrait. As skilled as she is at capturing the visual image, Sajeela said she tries to capture the essence of the sitter.

“When I do portraits, I obsess about the person coming through,” she said. “I think that’s the photographer in me, too. When I take their photos, I talk to them and they pose, and I feel like all the people are giving me the same look. They may be different people — some are children, some are old, some don’t even speak English — but they all give me the same look. It must be connected to me as an artist, that’s the only answer in there.”

Sajeela’s family moved from Pakistan to Rhode Island when she was in high school. She moved to Lake Charles In 2005, shortly before Hurricane Rita, when her ex-husband got a job there. Sajeela put her business degree to work and took a job as a manager at a Target for about nine months.

“I couldn’t stand it,” she said. “I’m not a retail person. I’m not a manager. So for lack of anything better to do, I went to McNeese for an MBA. It only took me a year to do and again I was bored. I knew McNeese had an art school and I had wanted to be an artist when I was a child in Pakistan.”

Sajeela said that around ninth grade, schools in Pakistan split students up into science or arts paths.

“I wanted to choose arts right then and there, despite my principal saying, ‘Do not do that, you have good grades, because you can always go from science to art (but) you cannot go from art to science — but I was so sure,” she said. 

Sajeela Siddiq at work

When the family moved to Rhode Island, Sajeela said she put pressure on herself to do something safe.

“I wanted to compete with all the boys in the family, that I’m smarter than them — which I am,” she said, with a knowing smile. “I was intimidated about art school. I didn’t have much time to create a portfolio — I didn’t even know if I could be an artist. So why not go to a good business school instead? Which is what I did.”

However, when she was a sophomore, a design firm did a presentation to her marketing class. She applied, and got, an internship with them in 2002. She remembers her first logo was for a dermatology firm. 

“That was fun when I did that,” she said. “I was already working in the marketing department in college, so when I went back to them after the summer I was like, OK, I’ll just learn a few things. Can I start doing some design work? And they were more than happy. It was so much fun, the best job I could ever ask for.”

Sajeela Siddiq’s daughter Saffren, when she was seven, with a portrait by her mother

In 2012, when her youngest daughter started pre-school (she has two daughters, Zhalay, 12, and Saffren is nine), Sajeela started looking at her career options. She talked to a friend who was the internship director at McNeese. She suggested graphic design.

“I’m like, how could you possibly know? I did not tell her anything about me working as a graphic designer. She goes, ‘Well, anytime you say the word design your eyes light up.’ I couldn’t believe she figured that out.”

The week before she started, Sajeela said she couldn’t sleep because she was nervous.  

“But when it comes to art, I can outwork anyone because it’s not work to me,” she said. I lose track of time when I’m working on design or art.”

While she is committed to pursuing her art, Sajeela said she doesn’t regret her business education.

“All the things that I learned, they’re such beautiful concepts,” she said. 

One particular theory is applicable as much to art as business, Sajeela said. 

“It’s the concept of throwing resources at a project that you know is beyond repair,” she said.  “It’s a goner, but you since you’ve already invested resources, energy time effort in it, you can’t let it go. You keep throwing more money or effort into it. I feel like that applies to everything.”

Sajeela said she advises graphic designers who want to get into branding or logos to minor in business or marketing because that deeper knowledge will help them understand what kind of design they need to make for their business.

A woman in a sari by Sajeela Siddiq

As an immigrant, Sajeela said she is conscious is conscious of the experience of other immigrants, especially women. She refers back to her portrait of the woman in the sari.

“I don’t know what it was about her that spoke to me,” Sajeela said. “She’s very gutsy. If you just saw her as silent, you would think she was a timid little five-foot old lady. But she had struggles in her life. Her husband died back in Pakistan, and the kids, she had to take care of all that. When she comes to America to visit her daughter, she stays here for months on end, and she doesn’t speak any English and she doesn’t drive, so she’s completely dependent on her daughter. But, I did her drawing. It occurred to me that that’s common for so many women. These are the marginalized women of immigration, the ones who don’t come here for themselves, but rather for their kids’ careers or for their husband’s career. 

“I spoke to my kids’ Taekwondo instructor’s wife and she knew of a Korean woman who’s like that. She’s lived in Lake Charles for 35 years. And all she does is gardening in her backyard, and doesn’t speak English, doesn’t drive, all of that. So, I did her drawing. And I feel like this could be a series. 

“Not that I am trying to be political or do the social commentary or anything. I just find it interesting because I’m very independent. I’m all about my independence and being able to do everything that I could possibly do by myself. For me, to see these women who can’t, it’s just astounding to me. If I imagined myself in their place, I feel like I would be in a cage.”

Sajeela’s latest work is a series of graphic works incorporating Arabic letters.

“Something that occurred to me a few months ago is that I know this whole other language,” she said. “I’m from Pakistan and we speak Urdu, which is the same script as Arabic except we have more sounds. I feel like our language has every sound possible out there. Urdu has a lot of sounds, because it’s a mixture of Arabic, Turkish-Persian languages. 

“It occurred to me that being a graphic designer, how is it that I’d never — and I did a lot of work on typography — I’d never worked on Arabic or Urdu letters? And it just opened up this whole discipline here for me.”

“Houston” by Sajeela Siddiq

Sajeela said she loves of travel — she had to postpone a November trip to Venice because of the pandemic. She said she always takes her children somewhere in the summer, but that was also not possible this year. She plans to take the cities she wants to visit and write them in Arabic or Urdu and set them in a way that look like beautiful shapes and lines.

“It’s for both types of audience,” she said. “The people who can read it, it will take them a minute to realize what it is, and people who can’t read it, for them I want it to be beautiful art.”

Sajeela said that during the shutdown she has been watching art videos. She said that when she travels, she takes photos of details, such as railings, doors and shadows. Sajeela said she connected with a video about the artist Ellsworth Kelly, which taught her that she doesn’t have reproduce every detail of the image. Instead, one should get the essential information and put that down. That’s how you abstract, she said. 

A commissioned piece by Sajeela Siddiq representing Lake Charles, Louisiana

When Sajeela was commissioned to do a large piece about Lake Charles she was unsure what direction to take, not being from there.

“I kept thinking, ‘What is Lake Charles?” she said. “”I wanted to do an illustration, and we don’t have a skyline. I’m obsessed with maps so I used a map as a background, and I took all the buildings and drew them separately and stacked them together at the bottom of the map. Ever since then, I keep thinking about skylines. What I really find pretty about that is windows, when you see a stack of buildings and all the windows are different shapes. The traditional method of drawing would be to draw the building itself and then to draw the windows. But when I heard Ellsworth Kelly’s words, I thought, ‘What exactly is it that I find essential in what I see?’”

When Sajeela looks at a view, if she closes her eyes, what she thinks about is the windows.

“They’re all at different angles, not just because of the shapes and sizes, but also because of the perception of depth,” she said. “I’m thinking of doing a series of windows, no building lines, just a whole bunch of shapes. We’ll see how comes turns out.”

Sajeela said listening to music is important for as she works. 

“I once raced home from a drawing class before it started because I left my headphones at home,” she said. “Since COVID started I’ve been listening to more Sufi-inspired music. It’s has a lot of rhythmic repetition, somehow the equivalent of repetition of mark-making.”

One thing is certain, Sajeela is not short of ideas.

“That’s my problem, I need to narrow it down,” she said, with an exasperated laugh. “I’ve always had that problem. When I was in business school I changed my major, like 50 times. I like learning. If people ask me what I like, it’s easier to say what I don’t like. There’s only so much I can do. There’s not enough time in life.”

In-person viewing will be available during regular Art Studio hours, noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont, Texas. Call 409-838-5393 to make an appointment, or email info@artstudio.org.

Story by Andy Coughlan

Sajeela Siddiq with her winning entry at TASIMJAE 2019

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