Expressing emotions - Interview with Rukmini Poddar

Rukmini Poddar, a NYC-based artist, designer and illustrator, believes what is most personal is most universal. Inspired by the complexity of human emotions, Rukmini’s artwork has helped many to understand their emotions and feelings. As a creative storyteller, Rukmini strives to enhance people’s emotional wellness through art and illustrations.

When did you start drawing illustrations? How did you start drawing emotions?

I usually introduce myself as an illustrator and designer. I studied Graphic Design in university and that is what I do professionally. At first, I started illustration as a hobby, which has grown more since then. I often tell people that I stumbled into illustration accidentally. To be honest, I never intended to become an illustrator or make a business out of it, so that all happened organically.

If you check out my website and my work, I do a lot of 100-day projects which have become a big theme of my career and also a big part of my life. I am on my 7th one this year. When I did it in the first year, it was so transformational in my personal life as well as in the way I see art. Although art and design was already part of my life, I was slightly burnt out after graduation and was wondering why art and the creative world matters to me. In 2015, I saw something called 100-day project, and I decided to do some abstract art for 100 days, just something simple. Then the act of showing up everyday for my creativity without expectation and judgement was amazing and helped me become more disciplined. I used to fail even a 30-day project, however the process of showing up everyday and the progress gave me faith to keep going.

Now I could say that seven years are like a testament and I realised that this actually gave me life. So the project led my career to become an illustrator.

In 2016, I started a series called “Obscure emotions”, which has built up my “Dear Ruksi”brand. It started at a very personal place as I just wanted to understand myself better, so I started doing some simple drawings which in fact gave me a rich language to talk about how I felt. By doing that, I developed a style and really explored myself. I was not held by a sense of being perfect or a sense of achievement - the work was purely expressions. As I did not expect it to become my career, it was an exciting and explorative time which was very helpful when I look back now. It is a gradual process and consistency is a great skill we can develop. There is a quote that says “anything worthwhile will take a long time” and I really believe that.

Any particular reasons that you wanted to draw emotions?

I did a gap year after graduation when I was exploring and at crossroads wondering what next. One day, in my journal, I was articulating how I felt that day and there was a click that maybe I could draw it in a simple way. I was very interested in drawing complex concepts in simple ways. As human beings, we feel the complexity but we often do not know how to articulate it. One example is, for instance, you want to explore but are afraid of getting lost. The other example is you feel you are running circles because you are afraid of dealing inside. If we find it hard to express ourselves, how do we even explain our feelings to others. Hence I feel it is very meaningful work.

Are you very good at interpreting feelings?

I think there are certain things I feel easier to articulate. But I would say it is all about practice. Creativity is like a muscle, even emotion articulation is a muscle. So the 100-day project helped me strengthen the muscle. Even after 15 or 20 days, I could feel transformations already.

The other part is I was amazed by how people felt the same way after sharing on Instagram, especially when people said they felt that way their whole lives but no one had ever put into words. We have so many languages in the world and different cultures, however emotion is universal. If we understand emotions, we could really understand each other so much better. As a result I became very passionate about it and started drawing year after year about emotions. It speaks for people and that is what has driven me to do this.

After drawing emotions for many years, do you feel it is getting easier or better for you to deal with your own emotions or feelings?

I would say more than feeling better, I become more aware about my emotions and it is just more freeing for me. It does not mean that I won’t affected by other things or feel anxious or confused. The art of drawing emotions means I have a lot of conversations with myself as I have to check in with myself a lot. The more I do that, I become more aware. When I draw emotions, I also need to separate myself from the emotions. That is a very powerful thing as most of the time we think that we are our emotions. Like we say “I am sad”, but not really, it should be “I am experiencing sadness”. So by drawing the emotions, it feels like having a conversation with sadness or disappointment or other emotions. It is a very self-therapeutic process and I am happy that others feel therapeutic when they see my work. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are not our emotions.

When drawing the 100-day project on emotions, where do you get your inspirations from?

Inspirations always come from life. When I visit beautiful places, I am alway inspired by nature.

When the pandemic started, although we suddenly had more time, it was hard to be inspired as I felt I was not living my life. This has happened to many of my artist friends and I had to find inspirations somewhere else.

Two things I found particularly helpful are, firstly, lower your expectation and do not be hard on yourself. Last year, I did not finish my 100 day project, and that is okay. Know your rhythm otherwise you will be burnt out. Secondly, learn to become an essence seeker and I have made a drawing about it. This is a term I heard a long time ago and I immediately wanted to be an essence seeker. It means finding good things in small places that you would not usually look for, for example, a bumblebee can still find a beautiful flower in the most muddy field. That how I want to be in my life - when things are crappy, I could still be able to appreciate the positivities. It is hard to do but that is my aspiration.

It is very powerful that you allow yourself to not finish something, which many people struggle as some may just finish for the sake of doing it maybe because of peer pressure etc. Tell me a bit more. 

I always think this term “creative paralysis” and we do have seasons of creative blocks. Sometimes I was very productive for the 100-day project and I was blocked for the rest of my work. Then I would feel very negative about it. But I decided to think differently - actually it is a “creative rest”. When you say “rest”, it is so important as rest is a process. You cannot keep creating unless you take a rest, otherwise you are a robot.

Why is it so hard to deal with emotions?

When we struggle to identify or work through our emotions, we may have distracted ourselves from emotions to avoid the real feelings. Numbing is not helping or relaxing. But we get so used to numb out ourselves if things are not going well. We need proper time to digest emotions and also make sure we leave quality time to ourselves. Those quality times are not for scrolling on instagram or watching Netflix, but really talk care of ourselves. It is where the idea of mindfulness and self-awareness come in.

What would you suggest people to do when they face negative emotions?

When feeling negative emotions, there are many mindful practices to try. If sitting meditation is too difficult, you can take a walk and have your bare foot touching the ground. In addition, I find journaling and singing also help a lot. The past year I started teaching using creativity as a mean to deal with emotions, which has been an amazing experience to many people.

Aside from artwork, do you have other daily rituals?

Morning is key for me. Lately the weather has been nice, so I take a walk every morning. Then I have a cup of tea during my day. Since everything we do now is with screens, so to be honest, anything off-screen is a mindful practice for me at this point.

How has the pandemic impacted on your life and your creative world?

As difficult and challenging for many people, it definitely has given some blessings to me in unexpected ways. My illustration and art business really have taken off because of the pandemic as it has pushed me for it. I was already in the art space prior to pandemic as I was teaching courses and creating products. But I felt space opened up for me a lot now.

For the past few years in New York, I always felt busy constantly and did not have enough time for my creativity. So the pandemic is like a giant pause, and a helpful pause for me to navigate relationships that are important for me. Because of the pandemic, I came back home to stay with my parents and that was great. I have more space and time to create and I must say it is very fulfilling. Of course I do miss my friends and other things out there, but I enjoy the current when I cocoon myself to create and explore. 

Apart from the projects you have mentioned, are you working on something exciting at the moment?

Last winter, I launched my card deck on obscure emotions which could facilitate conversations for therapists, coaches or regular people who want to understand emotions generally. That was very exciting for me as a product.

Additionally, I am doing zoom art sessions which is very fulfilling. We do meditation together first and drew emotions, afterwards we share with each other. I started with one session in last September and slowly added on more content. Now it is a 6-week course to learn how to draw your feelings and I have done a few ones now.

After being busy with the courses, I am now concentrating on my 100-day project. I don’t know what it will turns out but I trust the process which makes me feel creatively alive. For an artist, there is aways a balance between promoting and creating. To me, the 100-day project is sacred as it is a way to reconnect with myself.

Are you always a mindful or serene person?

At least when I think about mindfulness as a spiritual awareness, I would say it has been a big part of my whole life. I have grown up in a very spiritual family and we follow Bhakti yoga which comes from Hinduism. I did not realised how much that has impacted on me until I started doing art. Art is very helpful for me to show my spiritual side. So in my artwork, you could see that I am sharing and exploring mindfulness, connections between self, higher self etc. which are the things that I grew up learning that I can share through my art.

What does serenity mean to you?

Serenity for me means finding harmony in one’s own self. Before we can ever think about changing the world, we need to find peace within our own self. And I think living a serene life is to feel balanced within oneself.

Are you a tea drinker? What is your favourite tea?

Yes I am. I am not a fancy tea drinker. I like the simple one such as ginger tea and chai.

Could you please give three advices to people who want to pursue serene living and become more mindful?

  1. I would encourage people to become essence seekers - to find hope and beauty even in adversities.
  2. Learn to find your rhythm, not to just follow the current. 
  3. Spend quality time with yourself alone.

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