Sangita Phadke’s dramatic pastel paintings put nature’s beauty in the spotlight
By Gussie Fauntleroy
The Artichoke takes the stage for his first-ever audition. He stands directly under the spotlight. He wants to make sure his best features are seen: his dewy freshness, his naturalness, his remarkable color in the dramatic circle of light against the black stage. The audition, in fact, goes very well. The Artichoke shines.
Sangita Phadke looks at the just-finished painting on the easel in her beachside New Jersey studio and smiles. As she was painting THE ARTICHOKE’S AUDITION, Phadke imagined a story involving this piece of produce, which took on a personality and, in her mind, a life. Because it was the first artichoke in her ongoing still-life series featuring vegetables and fruits, the artist envisioned her subject’s happy confidence, as if he is proudly showing off his splendid qualities in front of an audience for the first time.
When Phadke (pronounced FUD-kay) presented her own remarkable talent to the public for the first time a few years ago, her self-confidence was decidedly less buoyant. She wasn’t familiar with the ways of the art market back then; she didn’t know how to present her work to the public, and she had no idea how it would be received. But there was no turning back. She had already jumped off the ledge, so to speak, quitting her full-time job and committing herself to a career in art.
As it turns out, the 29-year-old artist’s extraordinary talent, energy, and determination served her well. Before long she was earning awards at juried shows and catching the eyes of collectors. Among the more than 60 honors Phadke has received since 2007 are a First Place in Pastel in the Prismacolor Annual Competition, an Award of Excellence from the San Diego Art Institute, a Gold Medal of Honor from the Audubon Artists, a Best of Show from the Sierra Pastel Society, and a Grand Prize from International Artist magazine. She was honored with the Master Pastelist designation from the Pastel Society of America, and in 2010 she was inducted into the Master Circle of the International Association of Pastel Societies. Her work has been exhibited internationally and is in a growing number of private collections.
In her no-nonsense studio, with its minimalist decor, Phadke concentrates on one painting at a time, becoming completely absorbed in each piece. Not only is she obsessed with the perfection of detailed realism as she applies layers of color in soft pastel; in her imagination she is also weaving a story. MS. CHIQUITA, for example, portrays a single banana, partly peeled. “It’s the banana’s self-portrait. She’s presenting herself, being open, sharing her story,” the artist explains. “I humanize the fruits or vegetables I’m painting. I think of them as ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Then when I finish a painting, the story is finished. There’s something very emotional about every painting I do.”
Phadke’s love of stories goes back to her childhood in a suburb north of Chicago, when her father would read as many as five stories to her every night. She became, and still is, an avid reader herself. She also loved to write, but as a little girl her storytelling was mostly visual. Constantly drawing, she filled book after book with colorful sketches of “simple, everyday kid things,” as she puts it—the tire swing at recess, or scenes from a family trip. A preschool teacher pulled Phadke’s mother aside at one point and declared that young Sangita would be a professional artist someday.
From her mother, Phadke received encouragement and artistic genes. Although her mother worked in a medical lab, she was a gifted part-time oil painter and skilled at interior design. Phadke’s father, an engineer, lent his daughter a methodical, analytical bent that later emerged in a painting style marked by symmetry, precision, and balance. Even as a young girl copying Disney characters, Sangita was determined to draw as meticulously as she could. “Something in me always wanted to get to that next level in detail and realism,” she says.
In high school, Phadke was fortunate to be enrolled in an excellent art program, with two art classes each day in her junior and senior years. All kinds of mediums were available for exploration, and Phadke gravitated to those whose application was most direct. Already familiar with colored pencil, she moved on to soft pastels, intent on continuing in a realistic style but on a larger scale. Plus, there was the richness of color with pastels. “I loved the vibrant colors,” she recounts. “I remember taking a yellow out of the box and thinking, my god, this is so vibrant!” To retain the intense, saturated colors that so powerfully attracted her, Phadke taught herself to apply pastels in multiple layers with minimal blending, leaving the final layer especially pure in hue. Focusing on portraiture, she honed her artistic skills throughout her teen years.
While encouragement was plentiful in Phadke’s childhood, she had no role model for a career in art. Her parents, who both emigrated from India for higher education in the 1970s, emphasized the value of schooling. Phadke loved math as well as art, so she earned a degree in finance from the University of Illinois and found a financial consulting job after moving to a small town in New Jersey with her husband. Less than a year later, she and her husband were talking about their careers one day. He was passionate about his work at his father’s software company and wouldn’t change a thing. Phadke’s consulting position was a good job as they go, but just a job. Her husband turned to her: In an ideal situation, he asked, what would she be doing? “Painting,” she immediately replied. “Why don’t you do it?” he asked.
It was the question that changed her world—though not right away. Although Phadke had been drawing all along and painting when she had time, she had never shown her art. “I’m one of those people who plans for the future. So even the thought of switching to art threw me,” she recalls. “With my personality, I thought about it for a long time before I made a decision.” When she did, she quit her job and threw herself into traveling to art shows, learning about the market, and selling her work. One juror’s comment early on gave the young artist the confidence she needed to move past her uncertainty. The juror wrote that her painting was “executed in such a masterful technique, and the design showed such originality, it could not be ignored.” Phadke saved the comment and would look at it from time to time. It offered confirmation that she had indeed made the right choice.
In looking to vegetables and fruits as subject matter, Phadke was initially drawn to color. She began frequenting farmers’ markets and making a point of painting local produce in whatever part of the country she visited. Eventually, flowers and eggs came into the mix as well. The artist notes that her aim is to present these foods in an eye-catching manner, glorifying them just as fast-food items are glorified in advertising. “I want to present natural things in a very tempting way,” she explains. “I love it when people see my work and then they say they want to go to the grocery store and get fruits and vegetables.”
For each new painting, Phadke begins by buying as many as 30 pieces of the same kind of produce, giving herself plenty of variety to choose from. In her studio she creates a variety of arrangements. She photographs each arrangement from different angles and downloads the photos to her computer. From there she decides on one arrangement. Selecting the most interesting and beautiful pieces of produce, she re-creates the arrangement and then paints it from life. As she works, her subject takes on a personality, and a narrative naturally evolves. For THE ONION FAMILY, she surrounded a large red onion in a circle of yellow onions. “It reminded me of a family portrait: This is the grandfather, this is the mother …,” she remembers, laughing.
A SUNFLOWER FOR FUKUSHIMA involves a more poignant story. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Phadke learned that people in the area around the stricken Fukushima nuclear power station were planting thousands of sunflowers. The aim of the sunflower fields was to potentially absorb and remove radiation from the soil and also to lift spirits. “This painting is a symbol of the people’s hope,” she says.
While Phadke has created striking “portraits” of many kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and eggs—and occasionally also paints portraits of people—she never worries about tiring of her subjects. “There are infinite possibilities. Even if it’s a pear, it’s never the same pear. I feel like I could keep going and going with this,” she reflects. “I’m also open to things changing, even within this series, but I love where it’s going, and I’m happy where I am right now.”
Featured in April 2012.