You've got quite the multi-pronged approach to art - ceramics, graphic design, illustration, etc. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I love making and that comes in many different forms for me. I’d say my focus is on illustration but clay fills my strong desire to get messy and play in three dimensional forms. I worked as a graphic designer at a design/brand agency for about 10 years where I designed, illustrated and directed. It was a great experience where I got to work on a wide range of projects and learned how to shift between making work for a big company to a boutique brand to a non-profit. I had an amazing mentor there who taught me how to push myself and feel really grateful for that experience. I left that job in early 2017 to go out on my own. It was scary to leave my comfort zone but it felt like it was time to experiment independently and push myself in a new direction.


What's the first creative project you remember doing, and enjoying? Did you always know you'd pursue a creative lifestyle?

The first one that I can remember is making a bunch of teeny tiny forest animals out of Sculpey clay. I was probably about 7 years old. There were bears, mice, possums and definitely bunnies. And a random turtle.

I’ve always loved art so probably hoped it would be a part of my life somehow. But as a kid I don’t think I knew how much of a part it would be. I was probably 4 years old when I told my older sister that I wanted to be a butterfly when I grew up. She swiftly shattered that dream. After that I thought I was going to be a geologist. I had a sweet rock collection.


Describe your working style a bit - do you enjoy working alone, or do you create best when other people are around?

I enjoy the focus of working alone a lot of the times and got used to it since I worked remotely for much of the time that I was at my previous job. That being said, I also crave connecting with people. Last year I took part in a bunch of artist markets where I got to meet some amazing artists of all kinds of mediums and backgrounds. I loved it and it brought me a sense of community that I was missing. Hoping to do more things like that to connect with other artists and makers. At some point I’d love to work in a space with other independent artists.


Your illustrations are gorgeous - can you tell us a little bit about how you go about making them?

I almost always start with a small pencil sketch. It’s something that has been part of my process for a long time and it never fails me even when I feel stuck. I sometimes find myself flipping back to older sketches that I may not have developed into illustrations at the time but then feel inspired to revisit the idea. Sketching is the best way for me to get my ideas out of my head and onto paper quickly. From there I move to the computer and use Illustrator and Photoshop. I also like to use ink, pencil, gouache and experimenting with other tools to layer in with the digital elements. 

My process and tools have been evolving more lately because last year I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease where my immune system randomly attacks my joints and skin. My immune system decided that the joints in my right hand would be a good place to start so that’s been tough to deal with. I’m trying to think more openly about my physical limitations and to more willingly allow them to influence my art process – sometimes that means focusing on working small with clay. Sometimes that means switching up the tools I’m using for illustrating and designing. It’s really frustrating and painful sometimes so it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. I have my good days and bad days. But I try to stay positive and am learning to be patient with myself. All of that goes along with trying out new methods for art making and being flexible with my process.


Tell us about your children's book, Neela Goes to San Francisco. It was inspired by your niece - could you go into more detail regarding that, and the process behind it?

I initially made a one-off children’s book for my niece after she visited me in San Francisco. I loved seeing her curiosity at experiencing a place that’s very different from where she lives and wanted her to have a way to relive it through a book. I also loved the idea of her having a book with a character who looks like her and has an uncommon name (at least uncommon in the US). I always had a desire to self-publish it to share with other kids but I held off for a long time because of fear. I was afraid that my book wouldn’t be perfect, that people wouldn’t like it and just generally self-publishing was intimidating to me. I finally ended up going for it, doing a ton of research and learning and making mistakes. It has ended up being one of the most rewarding projects that I’ve ever worked on. The process was so worth it for the moments when someone shares how much it means to them that the character in the book has a resemblance to their child or when a stockist tells me how excited a little girl named Neela was when she saw the book in their shop. The whole experience is informing my next children’s book, which I’m working on right now. The next book has required a lot of self-reflection and digging deep meaning I’m both excited and very nervous to put it out in the world.


What would you say is a prominent theme in your work? Why is that theme so important to you?

A lot of my illustrations feature strong women and girls. I think it’s important for people to be surrounded by imagery of strong women – as inspiration or as reminders of their own strength. I also believe that representation and diversity in art is really important especially for kids. Coming out of making my first children’s book I felt even more strongly about the importance of diversity and representation in imagery. All kids deserve to have exposure to a variety of imagery and stories – ones where they can see themselves reflected and ones where they are exposed to many kinds of people who are different from them. Kids need opportunities to see themselves as heroes, to celebrate what makes them unique and to feel connected to other people.

I’m also often inspired by my Indian-American background. My family is from India but I was born in the US so I have a mix of two very different cultures within me. Growing up I think I tried to put up a wall between the two cultures but as I got older I realized how important it was to allow both parts of my identity to mix and influence me together. And to share both parts of me with people. 


You also make ceramics - how did you get started working with clay?

I always loved playing with play-doh and clay when I was a little kid. And then in highschool I was lucky enough to have a ceramics class that reminded me how much I loved it and how you really have to just get in there and get messy with clay. After highschool I kept coming back to ceramics whether that was taking community ed classes or finding places where I could do open studio time. It’s something that I would keep coming back to even after long breaks here and there. If I’m on a break I always find that I get to a point where I feel the creeping need to get my hands in clay again. I mostly handbuild my ceramics without using a wheel. It’s a slower process and I love the quiet that it gives my brain. There’s just something about rolling out clay and squishing it between your hands.


What have you learned from your creative process so far?

I’ve learned to trust my process. That fear of never having a good idea again doesn’t go away for me. But once I sit down and actually start working and going through my creative process, that self-doubt starts to fade. I just have to start. In the last year it has also taught me to be flexible and gentle with myself.



Check Meenal out on her website and on Instagram.

And check out her Ten Facts feature here.

Portrait photo credit: Sarah Deragon of Portraits to the People,