The Artist Formerly Known As: Sharmistha Ray

Sharmistha Ray is a visual artist who works primarily with representational figurative work in charcoal on a mural-sized scale. However, as a self-professed “jack-of-all-trades,” she has worked in a variety of media throughout her career at Williams, including video, photography, drawing media and paint. In the summer of 1998, Sharmistha received a Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alumni Network (BiGALA) internship, producing an extensive exhibit on issues of sexuality and gender. The contents of this exhibit can be found at http://wso.williams.edu/~sray/project/home.html. Her work has been exhibited at solo shows in the Wilde Gallery in the Spencer Art Building, as well as at Goodrich Hall and in group exhibits for various classes in which she has participated at Williams.

You do work in a wide variety of media. Outside of any class-influenced decisions, in what medium do you feel most comfortable? Do you choose the medium and then the subject, or vice versa, or is it a simultaneous, more organic process?

I have always been more interested in the subject and I’m most comfortable in charcoal, but I’m trying to push that a little bit now just to explore other media and use different media to say what I’m trying to say. Because for me, it’s more about saying something and then using what I’m good at and saying it, but I suppose the good thing about class-influenced decisions is that my professors really push me to do more with different media and really bring everything together. So I’ve started to be really interested in collage rather than just one medium, combining video with photography…it’s a challenge with drawing, because I know I can do all these things, but they’re all separate, for me, and I’m trying to bring everything together in a collage and represent that with the ideas I have. But yeah, my ideas have always been more important than anything.

Does a change in medium change the way you envision a project? In the sense of the sort of idea that you might be tackling?

Because I’m very interested in gender and sexuality, I’m also kind of obsessed (laughs) with the human body and I work a lot with psychological conflict, tension, building tension in space between two people or figures. But I always come back to the human figure. But I don’t want it to be so that it’s just a great representational drawing of a figure and nothing else. I want sexuality, gender and all these other things to be there as undercurrents. Because I think that’s the power of a piece of work – when you have many layers.

Can you put into words how those elements get infused into your work?

Well, my first pieces of work dealing with these issues were very self-referential. They were a lot of self-portraiture and narrative. There were some where I was actually transgendered, where I was in a male body; there are others where I was with a woman as a woman, I was with a woman as a man, so I think I was really breaking down my own clear-cut definitions of gender and sexuality that were very frustrating to me. And more and more, they’ve become very fluid, and as they become more fluid, I find myself being able to explore other media to say different things about gender and sexuality instead of just about myself. I kind of explore homoerotica, male sexuality and not just myself and my personal issues, which are always present – but it’s not so self-referential now, which is nice.

Given the fact that you have definite themes which show up throughout your work, would you consider your work more abstract or representational, or where along the continuum, perhaps?

As I said, I’ve always been obsessed with the human figure and I’m very interested in being able to draw more like the masters, like Michelangelo or something, so I was very obsessed with trying to get perfect form, perfect figurative form. I can’t say I got there, but I’m far enough that I can start letting more abstract elements flow in. For me, “abstract” is more about ideas and concepts, like I was talking about before in my figures – as I was letting my ideas infuse that figuration more, ideas, conflicts and psychology became a part of the work, and not just the representational figure, and that to me is abstract. And in another sense, I started doing some inkworks with very abstract shapes, and those were very sexual, as well. But they weren’t figures – representational figures – so I’ve loosened up a lot more in terms of abstraction, but to get there I had to be able to say, “Well, I can draw.” For me, it was very important that I knew how to draw traditionally.

I’m always interested in hearing artists’ perspective on the artistic community here at Williams.

Hmmm…(laughs)…let me tell you the pros and the cons. Let’s start with the pros. Now that I’m graduating very soon, it’s kind of scary to me realizing that I won’t have easy access to things like the darkroom, or the printmaking studio, or the video studio editing system, and just all these great facilities that we do have, which may not be as extensive as other schools, major schools who do art, but it’s still something to work with. And I like that, and I appreciate it, but at the same time I feel extremely frustrated by the isolation of Williams…I mean, the art community here is very small, it’s very isolated, and sometimes I become very sluggish, and in a slump in terms of ideas. And in times like that, actually, I go off to New York with a friend, or a couple of friends, and go gallery-hopping, or go to museums, and that is just this whole fresh break. I can come back and put that into my work, but it’s just frustrating that it’s not here and that I have to go away and come back, and work with that.

And it’s also frustrating that art here is kind of secondary to theory, and to intellectual thought. [I’m] trying to find a space for art where it can be a force of its own and not be overrun with intellectual thought – because art is intellectual, as well, but it’s kind of brushed over by liberal arts mentality. You can’t just be like, “I love doing what I’m doing,” you have to always have a theory, and an intellectual thought. And I guess that’s how it is in the larger world, but Williams is a kind of microcosm for that, and a greater force because I am at this institution which is a liberal arts college. And while I appreciate that, it can also be frustrating because you always have to justify what you’re doing and where it falls in this intellectual space.

Are you happy that you came here? What influenced that decision? I don’t know what you were like as an artist before you came here…have you outgrown Williams?

Artistically? Yes. I feel like I’ve definitely learned a lot here, that Williams was actually a safe space for me to explore gender and sexuality – a lot of people don’t think so, but I personally do – and that has influenced my work a great deal. But I feel like I’ve come to a point where my being at Williams is not conducive to my art-making, and that I do need a change – a change of scenery, a change of environment to continue to grow in terms of ideas and concepts because I feel, in a way, that I’m kind of rolling the same ball (laughs). That I kind of got to a stage with the idea that I had freshman year, because I knew that I wanted to do art when I came to college, but I have to take it to the next step, and for that I need a change. If you’re asking whether I’m ready to graduate from here, yeah (laughs). Yeah, I’m ready. But I don’t regret being here at all, because it’s been frustrating and difficult but that has also meant [a lot] to my artwork in a lot of ways. So – no, not unhappy, but I’m glad it’s over.

Where do you see your work headed in the future? And, dare I ask, your career?

The future…well, idealistically, I do see myself as a working artist, and I love to travel, and change of environment and scenery always does me a lot of good. So I see myself traveling a lot. I see myself working with my art, but I also have to have a lot of money to get there. So what comes in between? Grad school is somewhere on the horizon, working, obviously, to get some money to fund my artwork, but no, ideally I would see myself as a working artist, being free-flowing and doing what I want to do. Plane-hopping, jumping around the world, because I also have a very international background, so being in one place is very constricting for me. I’m not used to it at all.

What about your art itself?

That’s a difficult question. A very difficult question. I hope to assimilate everything – because I think my artwork just develops on its own, and as long as I’m thinking, it’s growing. And I’m growing with it. So how it’s going to change, I don’t know, because I don’t know how I’m going to change, or what experiences I’m going to have. But I just hope it keeps on developing and that I always know that I’m going somewhere. Because the day I sit down and say, “I don’t like what I’m doing,” that’s the day that I’m going to go into investment banking (laughs a lot). I’ll say, “Damn it, I had a Williams education, I can use this damn degree and get some money!” (laughs more) The future of my artwork? I have no idea.