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Drawing Between the Lines with Sandeep Johal

This August, Civic Hotel commissioned a mural in the staff room from this talented Vancouver-based visual artist. Johal’s art draws on her South Asian heritage, using traditional art techniques, intricate lines and patterns to explore themes related to contemporary culture, gender and politics. Born and raised in Kelowna, BC, Johal is rapidly gaining profile for murals created for festivals like Art Smash, as well as, most recently, for the 2018 Wall to Wall Mural Festival in Winnipeg. Last week, this busy artist and mother of 3-year old Safa sat down with us and provided some perspective on her art practice and working at Civic Hotel.

Q: Which themes do you reference in your work at the Civic?

For the hotel mural, because it’s in the staff room, they wanted something soothing and calming for staff on their breaks. Nothing too colourful or bold. They wanted a BC-themed image, but I wanted to make sure it was still my style. It’s so important to me that everything is consistent with my style. The challenge was how do I take their ideas and create something that makes them happy but still makes me happy stylistically.

So I did a mock-up of the mural and they liked the idea of a city image turning into a forest image and then turning into a water image. I do a lot of geometrics so I wanted to make sure there was geometrics. And I do a lot of line drawing so with all the animals in it, there are patterning and lots of line drawings. I’m really happy with the result.

Q: How did you celebrate Surrey and BC in your mural?

Surrey’s pretty diverse. It feels good to see all of these different people and they’re all speaking different languages, some in traditional dress. In the mural, that diversity came in through the different styles. There’s geometrics with organics and the line work, some hard lines and shapes and then more organic shapes working together. Also, I used one paint chip that has seven different greys and I used all of them together with pops of colour. I used 14 colours in all, but just to see how diverse you can make a mural based on a very limited colour palette was quite amazing.

I look at artists from different places around the world and that influences my art practice. I definitely absorb different cultures and influences and people often look at my work and say that looks Mexican or First Nations. So different cultural groups can all resonate with my work because it’s got a kind of universal appeal, which is important to me.

Q: Surrey City Centre is an emerging tech hub where innovation is championed. Is innovation a word you relate to?

Absolutely. You have to be innovative with your art if you want to have a successful art career. You have to constantly look at your work and push yourself to the next level and keep trying different things and experimenting with different things. I have two very different styles. I have bold geometric styles and then I have very intricate black and white line work. So I’m starting to merge the two into its own sort of design.

For artists, it’s important to work outside their comfort zones because otherwise, you’ll just continue to make the same kind of work. This mural opened up a whole new perspective for me with my art. It made me look at how do you translate your signature style to something that’s not necessarily the themes that you normally work with.

Q: How did it feel working at the Civic?

To be honest, it felt amazing being in the staff room where there were so many people from different countries. The vibe was very comforting. Everyone seemed to get along really well, joked around with each other. I got to know some staff members, who told me their origin stories and what they’ve done since moving here to Canada. It is important for places to be diverse so that everyone feels that they’re reflected. It was a very delightful job to paint and I was actually a bit sad when it was done.

Q: What can local artists offer that artists from elsewhere can’t?

I think they’re possibly more reflective of the space we live in sometimes. Artists are influenced by the cities they live in and the spaces they inhabit. I think it’s important to support all art but if local art can be prioritized that’s great. I felt really pulped that I was getting to paint a mural in this space in the Lower Mainland, where I live, and that the people in the hotel are also local and can tap into that.

Q: What does art add to the workplace?

Everything. This might be idealistic but I honestly feel that art can save the world. I just applaud anyone who’s out there creating and making, because we need it and in a workplace in particular. A lot of workplaces are very sterile. The fact that the hotel was thinking about the staff and their staff space and how they can make it a more comfortable, relaxing space says a lot. I had lots of people say this is so much better than a white wall. They were thanking me for it and I said thank the hotel.