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Boston artist Sneha “Imagine” Shrestha said she believes this is the “golden age” of street art.
“Street art is riding this wave right now,” she said. “There’s no better time to bring it to Boston.”
The 30-year-old Nepalese native is one of seven Boston-area artists recently selected for AIR, Boston’s artist-in-residence program. AIR, which is in its third year, encourages artists to explore the ways in which “socially engaged art processes can be used to bolster city initiatives,” according to the City of Boston’s website.
Shrestha’s work melds Sanskrit lettering with Turkish and Arabic calligraphy influences, often using graffiti technique in mural form. She’s inspired by the local arts community, where she finds common ground with other street artists, like mentor Caleb Neelon. Neelon was one of the first American artists to paint murals in Nepal — after Shrestha moved to Boston, she discovered that she had passed Neelon’s work during her walks to school in Kathmandu. That’s just one example, Shrestha says, of how street art has become a worldwide movement.
“It’s about globalization and advancing technology,” she said. “When else in history would American artists be traveling to places like Nepal to paint? Now, we can get on Instagram and see what people are doing in all these other places. Flights are cheaper, so we can go there, too.”
Street art’s inherently public presentation dovetails with the globalizing art world, according to Shrestha.
“Of course, the wow factor is there because of scale, but it’s also so accessible,” she said. “It’s for everybody to see, everywhere. I love that about it.”
Shrestha should know. She earned dual degrees in Fine Arts and Globalization Studies from Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. After graduation, she moved to Boston, which she chose because it reminded her of cities she visited while studying abroad in Europe. Her first job was at Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit arts education center for teens in South Boston.
“I saw the impact that art has on young people at Artists for Humanity,” she said. “I realized I didn’t really have the same exposure to the arts when I was a kid, and I wondered what would be different if I had.”
So, Shrestha quit her job and returned to Kathmandu to open Nepal’s first children’s art museum with money she raised on a crowdsourcing site. Then she headed back to Boston in 2016 to study at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, graduating with a master’s in Education in June of 2017.
Shrestha points to her time at Artists for Humanity as the turning point in her career as an artist.
“It’s just a place of positivity, creativity, inspiration,” she said. “That’s where it started for me, when it comes to arts education.”
Rob ‘ProBlak’ Gibbs, Artists for Humanity’s co-founder and paint studio director — whom Shrestha calls a “pioneer” of street art in Boston — exposed her to the art form by allowing her to watch and photograph him painting on weekends. She then started her own sketchbook, ultimately returning to her roots to find her inspiration.
“I realized that I learned how to write in Nepali first, so why don’t I try to do graffiti in Nepali? It had never been done before,” Shrestha said. “Sanskrit is one of the oldest forms of written language, and graffiti is something fairly new, so I was just like, ‘What would happen if I fused these two things? There was no calligraphy to represent this part of the world. I thought it could be beautiful.”
She applied for the City of Boston’s Artist in Residence program in 2016 after deciding “it was time to do the art thing full-time.” Her murals can be found all around Boston, including at South Boston’s Underground at Ink Block. She’ll be painting at Zone3 on Western Avenue in Allston “as soon as the weather gets warmer,” and her first solo show will appear at the Distillery Gallery in South Boston in the fall. You can also schedule a private studio visit with Shrestha by emailing her via her website, or you can view her works-in-progress via her Instagram page.
“Boston is embracing more street art,” she said. “I want to strike while the iron is hot and give the city more art when it wants it.”
Here’s where Shrestha finds inspiration throughout Boston.
“It’s a safe space for me,” she said of the museum. “I go there alone and just spend four or five hours. I don’t have to answer to anybody. I just take my notebook.”
Shrestha visits the MFA for solitude, but also to spend time in the historic Japanese Buddhist Temple Room. The softly-lit room was designed in 1909 and features wooden pillars framing seven large Japanese statues, all dating back to the 12th century or earlier.
“A lot of people don’t know it’s there,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Additionally, she’s found inspiration in the Takashi Murakami exhibit, a colorful, multimedia experience from the Japanese artist in collaboration with art historian Nobuo Tsuji. The exhibit is on view until April 1.
“[Murakami is] also an artist who pulls from his culture and presents it to the world, in a way that’s so international,” she said. “How does he do that? It’s so interesting.”
“This place is really special to me,” she said of the arts park behind South Boston’s Ink Block building. “It was my first time painting around people I really look up to.”
The public park and arts space includes a nine-wall mural project featuring the work of street artists from across the country. Shrestha’s mural, which occupies an entire wall, is made up of a vibrant blue and purple background offset by white Sanskrit calligraphy painted in a semicircle, resembling a setting sun.
Among the nationally acclaimed Underground artists whose work Shrestha admires are Rob ‘ProBlak’ Gibbs, Victor ‘Marka27’ Quiñonez, Cey Adams, and Ewok. The murals range from realistic portraits by Gibbs and Quiñonez to a graphic text painting by Cey Adams that reads, simply, “Love.” The murals can be viewed by the public at any time.
Shrestha described the courtyard behind Madison Park Technical Vocational School in Dudley Square as “a living wall space where murals change with the season.” The courtyard, named The Lab, is curated, just like a regular gallery, by Shrestha’s friend and former Artists for Humanity mentor Geo ‘GoFive’ Ortega. Artists are selected to paint on an invite-only basis.
“Painting at The Lab was really my first experience painting with the big guys,” she said.
Shrestha’s contributions to The Lab space are all collaborative works with artists like Ortega, Soem, and Gibbs. A large white tiger is one of several works she painted with the group that is still on display.
Shrestha loved the “hustle and bustle” of Harvard Square before attending the university, but becoming a student at the Ivy league school cemented the historic neighborhood’s place in her heart.
“Being a kid from Nepal, I still can’t get over that I got to go to school there,” she said. “I don’t think I ever will. I started seeing Harvard Square in a different light. It felt more like mine.”
In addition to the general exhibits at the Harvard Art Museums, Shrestha draws inspiration from her collaborative relationship with the museums’ Calderwood Curatorial Fellow of South Asian Art Rachel Parikh. Parikh has a particular interest in South Asian arms and armor, and Shrestha watches Parikh’s Instagram feed for interesting patterns and design.
“We come from similar cultures,” Shrestha said. “It’s a collaboration between me and someone who isn’t a visual artist, but who appreciates art.”
Shrestha said she sometimes even creates work based on the museum’s collection, like its 14th-century Nepalese manuscripts, which she said she’s been privileged to view privately with Parikh’s assistance.