I met with artist, educator and sustainability consultant Seema Lisa Pandya. As an artist her practice spans medium and form, incorporating painting, photography, kinetic elements, and woodworking. Her sculptural pieces contain constructivist echoes, kinetic, graphic assemblages which incorporate pace and rhythm as their abstract material. Constructivist austerity is eschewed however in favor of warm, familiar textures, natural forms, and a distinctive human touch which occurs both literally and figuratively.
In her consultancy work, Seema’s aim is to create more sustainable, livable spaces. She teaches sustainable building courses at New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) and FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). We spoke about the ways her practice not only links disciplines, but forms, and how notions of interconnectedness influence her work. In her art, Seema allows the past life of materials to shine through in their repurposed forms. As a sustainability consultant, she invites her students and clients to think about material flows, where something came from, and where it will end up. These notions of flow recurred in our conversation yet started somewhat paradoxically: with a discussion of boundaries.
CL: I wanted to begin by speaking about the ways boundaries come up in your work, and how you view those relationships, in your work and in the world.
SP: I’m South Asian, or American born to South Asian parents. My family is from India and my name Seema, in Sanskrit, translates to the word “boundary”.
As a kid, that was something I grappled with… Just the contemplation of what is a boundary, really, started to spark a lot of my artistic exploration. Not only as a way to understand myself and the namesake, the more I was learning about the environment and sustainability and how natural systems work, the more it was becoming clear that all of the nuances in nature happen at the “boundaries”.
Interesting things were happening when systems came together. When you see a water body and a land body come together, or even different parts of your body … What’s the boundary? Where’s the actual line? I asked a doctor about this: where’s the boundary between the respiratory system and the circulatory system? Because we know the heart is the heart, the heart is not the lungs … and when you start looking for those lines, you realize that in certain ways, they’re not so defined. Those boundaries are more like including and excluding meandering curves between systems and how they interrelate.
So then I started looking at boundaries as being this unique place where life starts to fractal … bending and turning and curving, including and excluding more and more, it becomes this rhythm and this pulse. It creates this undulating force and the shape of that force becomes really interesting because that’s when you start to see certain patterns start to arise that we see everywhere — in lightning, in our veins, and in tree roots and all of these types of things [that are] like self-replicating forms. I started to think about boundaries and the “form” of boundaries. A lot of times we can think about a boundary as being a blockage — like building a wall at the southern border or something. There’s also the abstract perspective. If there is a boundary, there is evidence of two things, any two things, in relationship, not talking about what the nature of that relationship may be, but relationships are defined by the form of the boundary. So why not explore form with that lens?
To illustrate these boundaries, Seema directs me to some of her paintings, which tessellate natural forms into complex patterns. They manifest as interlocking positive and negative space, blurring the line between the two and questioning which is which.
CL: I feel like this discussion that we’re having now about how these boundaries exist in the physicality of your work also comes into the nature of your work as existing between different disciplines. You are an artist, and also do sustainability consulting. So how do boundaries function in a more metaphorical sense, in all of these outputs?
SP: On the consulting side, I’m working with green building design and construction teams (primarily now with a company called d2d Green Design), to build better buildings — so that things that are more energy efficient and water efficient and have better material health and indoor air quality, contribute to wellness and all of these [goals]. In those processes, we find that the boundaries between goals end up starting to dissolve. If we are trying to reduce energy by introducing more daylight into the space in the way that it’s designed, sure, that reduces energy, but it also improves wellness and health because we as humans have an affinity for nature, and the more we’re exposed to it, the better it is for our circadian rhythms and for our own connection to nature, then people are more productive and healthy when they are exposed to daylight and views. The boundaries between those goals are also fuzzy. We could try to save water by using low-flow faucets, but that also means less water that you have to heat, so you’re also saving energy. It’s this whole working system, it’s almost like the body. You pull on one part of the body, and it is in some way connected to the entire rest of the body. So I’d say treating green building and consulting in that way kind of follows the same philosophy.
Seema’s explanation gives us insight into how the distinction between individual actions are blurred when compounded in an amalgamation of effects acting upon a structural whole. Her technical work in sustainable buildings appears to share a boundary with the abstraction found in her sculptural works of art.
CL: I also wonder how you incorporate those philosophies of communal and public spaces into your work with public installation.
SP: On my journey as an artist, I want to do more in the public art realm. That’s something I’ve been working towards. I have done some public pieces, but I’m wanting to do more. The journey has been: you’ve got your green building world, and you’ve got your artistic world, and there is a place where these two things become married. Finding, again, not to have a boundary between those two things, but really focus on the interrelation between them. That’s been my own personal struggle, and a lot of that comes from a pretty common South Asian upbringing where they, almost historically, have discouraged the arts because it’s so risky. There is a struggle to want to satisfy both, or to fight to do your art, even within yourself, when you’re being told messages over and over again, that it’s not a viable path. In a sense, that may be why I’ve pursued these two paths simultaneously. The goal is to merge them, and public art is an excellent place to do that, because it’s not just living in a gallery, where somebody is going to come and see it in the context of a gallery, but they’re going to experience it on their daily walk. I have pieces on the drawing board [that] are integrated into a building function. So they’re not just beautiful, but maybe creating renewable energy, or filtering the air in a building, or treating the water — functional. The U.S. Green Building Council says that we spend 90% of our time indoors, which is crazy, but it’s true.1 These buildings should be speaking to us and reconnecting us to nature. So that’s where I would like to take the next phase of my artistry.
CL: I think the functionality of art is something we don’t discuss all that often, because it’s not for a lot of people an intuitive relationship, but it can serve this purpose.
SP: There is plenty of public art that is not functional and that doesn’t lessen its value as art. Part of what art can do is, [though] it may not be its only purpose, it can capture people’s attention to affect us on an emotional level and if that’s the case, public art could emotionally help reconnect us to a more natural world.
CL: You’ve spoken previously about sustainability being a personally transformative journey, how do you feel about those transformative aspects of your relationship with sustainability and how that influences your work?
SP: I think a lot of us that are in this field, deal pretty directly with the realities of climate change. There is a little bit of a dark cloud that we all work very hard to keep at bay … I think all of us are pretty keenly aware that we have passed certain tipping points, scientists have told us over and over and over and over again, and I’ve been asked in the past, “How do you not [feel] down about it? How do you not let it really take over? Or why even do any of this if scientists are telling us it’s too late?” One thing that I tell myself and my students is to think about all the things around you, to think about the interrelationship of things. I can, at my sink, think: where does this water come from? When it leaves my sink, where does it go? It doesn’t just go away. What am I putting in the water? What has been put in the water? Who else is this affecting? How does this then translate to the aquatic marine life once it leaves my house and then goes through a water waste treatment plant and goes back into the Hudson River that then joins it? It can branch out into — everything. It can really help give you this awareness … a sense of where you are and how connected everybody is, to everybody else’s actions. That in itself is a more enlightened way of being in the world, even if it’s too late, it changes our collective consciousness. And I don’t think it’s too late. I think we have all the tools that we need. We already know what needs to happen.
Seema’s perspective invites a method of looking at the problem of climate and its great intricacies, rather than looking away. In our conversation she cites inspiration such as Chris Jordan’s photographic series “Midway: Message from the Gyre”, a visceral image of plastic pollution found in the stomachs of seabirds.2 Works like these are small encapsulations of big environmental consequences.
CL: It’s quite comforting to have these conversations because you do sit at home and thought-spiral. To think about interconnectedness in that way is grounding. Thinking about source and waste, I want to talk about your work, and the material aspects of it. Specifically the works you’ve made with tabla heads.
SP: I use a lot of repurposed materials in my work. With these tabla heads, it’s not just that I want to use something that’s been discarded but has life. I learned to play tabla and, at least in the tabla series, it became a primary material for me. I didn’t really plan it, it just kind of happened. I [played] tabla for about five years or so. The school that I was studying from (Taalim School of Music), they would repair (tabla) heads. They get really worn out, they get overstretched, and the tone won’t stay [the same] over time but you’re talking about after thousands of hours of practice. When they get overstretched, they have to be changed. Sometimes they get ripped, sometimes they break. What I found was, at least with my school, they didn’t throw them away, they just kind of tossed them in this big canvas bag and after 10 years, it’s filled, but they can never do anything with them — they can’t make them into new tablas or anything like that. When they were moving, they needed to make space and [they gave them to me because they knew I made art]. So I kind of sat on them for years, until the opportunity came, or the material started speaking to me. What I love about them is that the material is made out of leather. So it’s something that used to be alive. It’s also been endowed with rhythmic practice and touch.
To me, Seema’s tabla series connects the familiar with the abstract. She shows me an image of her 2016-piece Tabla Feedback, pointing out how each drumhead resembles a cell, the disc of iron filings that give the tabla its signature metallic sound serving as a nucleus of sorts. These cells converge and the work becomes its own body, an indefinite flow that ends and begins in the same place. She describes the work as a rhythmical “push-pull,” “inhale-exhale”— two states of motion, one creating the other. While the form itself belies a rhythm, the history of the material imbues the pieces with a richness, and a meaning in how we might come to perceive disused objects. Seema has utilized materials with past lives in several of her works, not only the tabla series.
For her public sculpture, The Seed of the Void, Seema sourced a fallen Norwegian maple from a public park as her material. In its final form the tree shines through, the untreated wood bright against its surroundings. Seema tells me: “and knowing because this is not cured wood, it hasn’t been kiln-fired, I knew it was a temporary type of thing.” Ephemerality factors into these discussions of flow. A material like wood can only exist under certain circumstances for so long but that same wood, salvaged, and placed in the hands of an artist with vision, can live a hundred lifetimes. Seema’s material approach show us that things don’t disappear, and all matter flows back to us, allowing us an opportunity to envision the ways that physical matter can breathe in new life, and exhale new meaning.
Conversations with Calli Layton. Written by Calli Layton. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.
Page design by Kiana Blakemore.