Making space for community-focused art practice
When Sushmita opened the door, inviting me into Studio PAUSE for the first time, the overwhelming first impression was: Color! Sunshine streamed in through large, paned windows, lighting blue walls covered with an ever-growing collage of art, photos, and writing from past projects. Stacks of colored paper, jars of brushes, and artwork in progress were layered on work tables and cabinets, and a kettle sat ready to make visitors tea.
The feeling inside Studio PAUSE invites creativity, and that’s exactly how Sushmita intended it. “I think what I came upon is community art,” Sushmita reflected when we spoke in September. “I wanted a community, I wanted a space where I could do what I wanted and be comfortable. And it turns out all these people needed this too.”
Sushmita was born and raised in Mumbai, which is India’s largest city and situated on the west coast. She is also Bengali, a South Asian ethnic group with a distinct culture and language from eastern India and Bangladesh.
After earning a BFA in Applied Art and working in the advertising industry for a decade, Sushmita met the man who would become her husband and moved to the US in 1999. “I picked Arlington because of all the languages I heard and the restaurants I’d seen,” she shared. “I thought, ‘This is not Bombay, but I have that feeling of hearing different languages, seeing different people—I’m good!”
While still in Mumbai, Sushmita explored volunteering at the nearby Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, thinking it could be a productive way to fill her first months in the US. When the application arrived (through the fax machine!) with an image of a sculpture from the nearby Elephanta Caves on its cover, it seemed like a sign. Sushmita joined the mostly retired (and white) docent corps, and found herself—for the first time—explaining her own culture to a non-Indian public.
Ultimately the discomfort that came from hearing non-Indians talk about Indian art and culture helped her develop effective conversation strategies. As a docent, Sushmita learned how to lead people towards increased understanding by being proactive and adapting her tours to spark curiosity. “I learned to tell them beforehand, to say: ‘Now I’m going to show you my most favorite object, it’s from my culture and it’s beautiful, I bet like nothing you’ve seen before.’ I learned how to set them up, to ask them questions, to explain my culture.” She witnessed a willingness to learn and understand that sometimes simply needed a little personalized prompting.
While Sushmita’s first child was still young, she began to write and illustrate stories to introduce him to Indian childhoods. Soon the handmade books she created for her son received interest from her friends, a neighbor, and then a non-profit. Sushmita began to teach others how to make books and fill them with their own stories through the Smithsonian, DC Public Libraries, Living Legends of Alexandria, and Arlington Arts. With so many immigrant and language communities in northern Virginia, Sushmita continued to develop skills in talking across cultures about identity.
In 2013, with support from Empowered Women International and Kiva Zip, Sushmita opened Studio PAUSE in Arlington. In 2015, she was invited by AHC Inc to bring her space to the Gates of Ballston, a historic affordable housing community in Arlington. “I’ve worked with a lot of different people, and I wanted a space where they could meet each other,” she explained. She is dreaming of growing the ways Studio PAUSE serves its community. We spoke of the idea of “cultural wellness,” the space, time and spirit you need to practice many cultural traditions—and how essential it is to nourish that foundational wellness. Studio PAUSE offers “pause sessions” that support recipients in taking time for themselves to restore their creative resources no matter the output.
Sushmita’s creative community practice has led to invitations to join the board of Arlington Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts. The Virginia Folklife Program also commissioned Sushmita to develop “We Are Part of a CommonWEALTH of Cultures!,” an interactive survey activity for the 2022 Richmond Folk Festival.
In 2020, she collaborated with ACH Inc (an affordable housing non-profit), and received a grant from Virginia Humanities to support We PAUSED! A Handmade Book by Studio PAUSE for Gates of Ballston, which chronicles a year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the neighborhood. The project team reimagined this collaborative community zine as an art exhibit, which is on view at Arlington Arts through May 2023.
“I find the fact that I am from a different country, that I know all these languages, gives me an ‘in’ into communities,” she shared. Sushmita often begins by distilling art-making into the ingredients of her first storybooks: words and colors. This too helps her increase access to the visual arts. When Arlington Arts hired her to create new artwork for its bus system, Sushmita led a workshop for the bus drivers, inviting them to choose a word (in their language) and embellish it with color. In her own work, Sushmita is interested in scripts, particularly Bangla, which she is resurfacing in her own memory and beginning to teach others.
One common language that never ceases to amaze her: the songs of Bollywood. “I have a list of so many people who’ve told me their favorite Bollywood song!”