Follow Your Obsessions - Interview with Keerthana Ramesh

Keerthana Ramesh is a designer and papar cut artist. From a graphic design background, Keerthana enjoys exploring themes and topics by using a piece of paper and feels the knife is an extension of her hand. She also believes the importance of following one's obsessions and allowing them to teach you about yourself.

Could you please tell us a bit more about your background? Are you a full-time paper cut artist?

I studied graphic design and communication design during my undergraduate years and, I worked as a UI/UX designer for a while. But I was always very, very, interested in the design for good sector, specifically design research and, working with marginalized and rural communities. So that's what I decided to pursue for my master's degree. It was a one-year intensive program. During the final semester, which was the capstone, or thesis semester, because work was getting very hectic because we were all dealing with very deep and heavy subjects. So I just wanted something on the side, to take my mind away from my thesis for a few hours each week. And, it just so happened, that semester, there was an elective in paper cut. Once a week, it was just six to seven girls, sitting together, in a room, cutting paper. It was exactly the break that I needed. And, I did not intend to come out of that class thinking that this is something I probably would continue after I graduate or after I finished that one elective. 

That was in 2018, so it’s been about three years since I started paper cutting. I always find it surprising that it took me so long to realize that I enjoyed it so much. Because I used to love making birthday cards and thank you cards for friends and family. I used nothing more than a very, very old and dingy box cutter. And I used to cut out greetings to decorate my cards with. 

Could you please share the process of your paper cutting work, especially to our readers who are not familiar with paper art? 

Actually, I would say my process is pretty smooth. I say that because my design research work is not smooth. It has a lot of planning, preparation, as well as a lot of work that goes in. So paper-cut is something that I don't like to plan at all. There is no planning and no preparation. I do have certain ideas in my mind of what I want to do. But then I just go for it! I just take a sheet of paper and I draw and I just start cutting. I don't make plans and sketches and thumbnails and figured out the best composition. I don't do any of that. Because that, for me, takes out the spontaneity from it. That takes out the rawness. And with my art, I think I've been trying very hard for almost a decade now, is to really just bring my soul to the art. And the whole planning process, I feel like it takes the rawness away. Because I start thinking from my head instead of my heart. 

So that's what I've been trying to do. There's definitely some planning involved - anytime I have to make grids and patterns, I think that's the only time when I plan the artwork. It depends on how precise I want my patterns to be. So, it really depends on a piece to piece basis. But in general, no planning. If I make a mistake, that’s okay. I just try to figure out a way to incorporate it into the design. 

I just try to go with the flow. I'm a bit of a perfectionist and I always fall into that trap; where I would rather work on something over and over and over again without ever reaching an end. So for paper-cut, I tell myself that if I make a mistake, I'm not starting over and just figure out how to make it work. This helps me to just finish the piece and put whatever mind space that I am in, at that moment, into the piece. So if I'm in a great mood, and I'm able to execute things very well, that's fine. But if I'm not in a wonderful mood and my hands are not perfectly stable, that's okay, too.

From your Instagram profile, it seems that your work touched on a variety of themes. Where does your creativity come from?

One piece of advice that I've been giving myself recently is just to follow my obsessions, follow anything that I'm obsessed with, till I stop being obsessed with it. So a lot of themes that I worked on are around mental health, feminism, etc. These things were themes that I just wanted to explore. And, sometimes I chose to turn them into an entire series, where I decide that I'm gonna work on some 20 or 30 pieces around the theme. Other times, I’d find something very fascinating to work on for a certain point, and then realize midway, that it doesn't interest me as much. I don't ever want to feel stuck doing something that I feel like I have emotionally moved on from. Because, I feel like it's stopping me from moving on to things that I care about more now, things that I'm currently obsessed with. So there's this one series that I was working on, body and internal organs. That was a lot of fun for a while, mainly because I re-discovered my uncle's old book on human anatomy from the 1960s. And I was just flipping through that. And I felt so inspired. But after a while, I couldn't remember why I wanted to work on the series in the first place. So, I stopped after the fourth or fifth piece. And I thought that's enough. 

And, I think that's how I tackle almost any series that I decide to take on. Either I just make up my mind that I'm going to make an artwork every day for the next, however long. Or, keep an open time frame to pick up and drop off wherever I feel a calling towards the series. Wherever I feel like this makes sense to me now. And, I have to capture this emotion that I'm feeling at this present moment into my art because I know that I'm not going to feel this way again. And once this feeling fades, I wouldn't be able to capture it exactly like it is.

Are you a more independent paper-cut artist or do you like to discuss techniques and ideas with other paper artists?

I would love to work with people I just don't have anyone to work with. I know very very few paper artists. Most of the people that I do know, I've met, through social media. So, we all live in different geographies. I don't know anyone who lives around Chennai, to meet up and work with. 

I guess, to fill that small hole (of wanting to be around other artists) in 2019 I started taking workshops. And, that was incredible. It was so very nice to just sit around four or five like-minded people, and just make art for 2-3 hours. However with the pandemic, obviously, I can't meet anyone anymore. I even tried going to a co-working space and just spend a few hours making art, but it's never been the same. I guess a part of me has at least become accustomed to just sitting alone in my room in complete silence with nothing more than sounds from the tree next to my window, and just sitting for a few hours making art. That’s become quite comfortable for me.

Paper cutting requires a lot of patience and dedication, and it is probably not a hobby for everyone. Would you say it has shaped your personal characteristics since you have started or you feel it is just the right thing for you? 

Yes and, no. Mainly because I find it difficult to isolate my art, against all events that have happened in my life, since I started my practice. Art has always been a part of my life. It's always something that I've pursued. It's always something that I've loved to do. I was just asking myself, is there anything in my life that I would feel completely lost without? My honest answer is - art. No matter what I'm doing with my life, I would always want to make art. At this stage in my life, I love paper art, I feel like the knife is an extension of my hand. It's one of the very few things that I've taken up that feels 100% natural. And, I’ve never felt as natural with something like watercolour or oil paintings or, pencils, or any other traditional medium that a lot of people are familiar with. When I took a piece of paper and started cutting it for the first time, it just felt like it came naturally. I think a lot of the reason why it also came naturally was because of my design background. Because of my graphic design background, we studied a lot of foreground and background, and all balance contrasts, etc. That gave me a fundamental understanding of how to make a piece, how to essentially cut out bits of paper from a large sheet of paper, and still make sure that it's all attached together, and it still stays in one piece & doesn’t turn into confetti. That aspect of it came naturally; it almost felt like I was solving a puzzle, which is a lot of fun. 

It doesn't feel like a puzzle anymore, though. I think that's because I've gotten so used to doing this, that it feels a lot more natural than it did three years ago. But I guess I wouldn't necessarily say that pursuing this particular art form has changed me or changed my outlook, but rather, I feel like it's helped me understand my outlook. I love lace (I even have lace curtains in my room). I've always wanted to draw lace, but I never had the skills to draw or paint lace in a way that represents it well. And, I felt really ecstatic that I could achieve that exact effect that has always left me in awe. To be able to create that with art has just been incredible. I've also always been fascinated with transparency, being able to see through things and see through people and really understanding them, understanding things, animals, nature, etc. I feel this is helped me understand this side of my fascinations than changing me.

Do you consider yourself a calm and serene person?

Yes and, no. If I was dropped on an island in the middle of nowhere. I would probably be very, very happy. I'm sure I would die of starvation on day two, but, I’d die happy.

I love taking long walks and drinking tea. I love a slow life and taking time for things I love. I love wandering. No matter how busy life gets, I never can cut out time for just walking around my backyard, I feel like that is a very important part for me; just being by myself and taking time for things. But at the same time, I do find I'm not someone who is very good at things like meditation, things that are normally associated with serenity and mindfulness, etc. But I feel like, in my own ways I practise mindfulness through art. And, that's why I don't like planning my art so much. Most of the time I make art, I do it in absolute silence. I don't even listen to music. I just like being with myself and a sheet of paper. And I normally cannot do it for more than 20 minutes at a time because it is very strenuous on the eyes. My eyes start twitching and lose focus. Then I have to take a five-minute break and come back to it. During those 20 minutes, I feel quite liberated. And even if I'm not feeling at peace at the moment, it helps me process whatever I'm going through. I'm not a very patient person. So peaceful is something that I would like to become. But I also know that it's not something that's going to happen overnight. The person that I want to become is probably something that's going to take me 15 or 20 years of practice to become.

What does serene living mean to you?

Drinking a lot of tea! Tea is a big part of my life, also a lot of long walks and making art. For me, living a serene life is just taking time to just not enjoy life, but just to notice it. Just to notice life and notice things around me. I guess noticing it has more to do with noticing plants and animals. Or even being a wallflower and sitting in the corner and just observing people rather than being a part of these things. Because that's when I feel most at peace when I'm just given the opportunity to observe rather than to speak. 

What is your favourite tea? 

I HAVE TOO MANY! I love Jasmine and rose. My absolute favourite is called osmanthus I don't know what flower that is. But it’s the most calming tea that I've ever tried. I love this brand in India, Tea Trunk. They make this really Incredible Saffron Khawa. It's essentially a mixture of spices, like cloves, cardamom, cinnamon and saffron. It is incredible. I love black tea, green and white tea. However, not a huge fan of fruity teas! 

Do you have other favorite like rituals or activities when you need time or space to reflect or heal or recharge?

I enjoy journaling. I'm very consistently inconsistent with it. But, it is something that I enjoy doing from time to time when I feel like I need the space to really process what I'm going through.

Could you please share three tips for our readers who would like to live in a serene life?

First, find time to do things that you really enjoy, that help you be with yourself. So not forcing things on yourself. 

Secondly, follow your obsessions. Just dive into them and allow them to teach you more about yourself.

Lastly, drink a lot of tea!

Get more inspiration from Keerthana.


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