“Art was not considered to be of much practical use in India when I was growing up,” says Pragya Agarwal. But inspired by her creative mother and arts-focused private school, she pursued a career as an architect and printmaker. She has three daughters (including one-year-old twins)…
Pragya Agarwal lives in Formby, north of Liverpool, with her husband and their 16-month-old twins. She also has a daughter who turns 20 this year and is studying at Cambridge University.
Do you remember your first piece of artwork, as a child?
I don’t actually remember very clearly but my earliest memory is linked to a newspaper cutting that my parents still have of me participating in an art competition at a very young age. I must have been three or four years old, but look very self-assured and happy. I cannot remember what I drew, but I do remember that I used to love drawing little landscape drawings with hills and rivers, and a little boat. There was always a little boat and some fluffy clouds!
What inspired creativity in you when you were growing up?
My mum was a huge source of inspiration. She was very creative and we always had a project during the long summer break – from crochet to knitting to embroidery. We were also sent to music and dance classes from a very early age, as well as art classes.
Were your parents artists?
My Mum is very artistic. She is a homemaker but her artistic and creative streak shone through everything that she did, from cooking new recipes, interior decoration to making our clothes from her own patterns all through our childhood. She could just pick anything up and be absolutely brilliant at it, and people came to her to seek her help with their creative projects. She never used patterns for any creative projects, and knitted gorgeous jumpers as well as made beautiful home furnishings. I have only just started to value what enormous natural talent she has.
My dad wasn’t quite so artistic. I remember being asked to draw a bird at nursery when I must have been around four. My dad tried to help me, and I remember very clearly being very disappointed by his efforts. It still makes me laugh.
What was your childhood home like?
We didn’t have much while we were growing up and our house was tiny, but it was always impeccable. I have no idea how my mum managed it all on her own, without any help, and three girls. It was functional and practical, but always had cushion covers and home furnishings that had been made by my mum, and we were always encouraged to create things for the home during our summer projects.
Did school nurture you, artistically?
Art was not considered to be of much practical use in India when I was growing up so although we had art as a subject, it was only until Year 8, and then the focus shifted towards more academic subjects. However, I was sent to a very exclusive private school where dramatic arts was high on the agenda and we had numerous plays and musicals through the year. Also, I remember that when I was growing up, there were always Saturday clubs for unusual things like Ikebana, and movie clubs that we could take part in.
What piece of artwork do you remember feeling particularly proud of as a child/ teenager?
I opted for Art as an extra subject in Year 10 (equivalent of GCSE here in the UK), and our art teacher was lovely and encouraged us to participate in local art competitions, where we were given a topic on the spot and had to create an artwork within a couple of hours there. I made a watercolour painting of an Indian temple in Khajuraho with its grey sandstone and intricate carvings at one of these, and was absolutely astounded when I won the second prize overall. It was the first time that I realised that perhaps I was quite good at it besides just enjoying it a lot. That painting meant a lot to me and perhaps also inspired a love of architectural sketching and drawing.
Did you go on to study art?
After studying Science and Maths at my Highers, I studied Architecture instead which is just the perfect combination of art and science. It gave me the space to explore creativity in a completely different context.
When did you begin focusing on art as a career?
After studying Architecture and a postgraduate in Architectural Conservation, I completed a PhD and then moved into a purely academic career working in some of the top UK Universities and teaching at global institutions.
Art stayed with me as an important part of my life, and I always took an opportunity to make some architectural and urban sketches on my many travels. I loved designing all the stationery for my wedding, and for my daughter’s birthdays, and everyone was continuously telling me how I should consider selling my artwork.
I started printmaking at the end of 2015, primarily for a Christmas present for my husband, was completely hooked, and quickly taught myself all the different techniques by experimenting.
Can you describe your work?
My work is quite eclectic but the thread that runs through at the moment is seeing the beauty in the mundane, celebrating seasons, and things that bring me joy. I do a lot of urban and architectural sketching, which is a little limited right now because of my one-year-old twins.
I also paint in acrylics and create multi-media work which take a hyper-realist dimension. Of course linocut printmaking features hugely and I love the graphical aspect of lino carving and how mark-making can create textural quality and change the quality of the final piece. Much of my linocut prints are monochrome and they are all made from my own original sketches, celebrating British landscapes.
I have been experimenting with illustrations that are based in local British slangs because I love language and how it unites us all while also creating a unique sense of place. I love working on commissions, such as one recently for someone who wanted a series of drawings depicting Indian rickshaw, truck, etc. and another who wanted a watercolour drawing of the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge for a wedding gift for a friend. These are really my favourite kinds, where the artwork is so much more personal.
For me, it is very important that the materials I use are eco-friendly, so I use a lot of handmade and recycled paper, and environmentally-friendly inks. I am launching a new social enterprise ‘The Art Tiffin’ that will bring eco-friendly, sustainable and vegan art boxes and art for the eco-conscious artists and art lovers, and tackle mental health and well-being through creativity (http://the-art-tiffin.launchrock.com/).
Is it difficult to make a living as an artist?
Yes, I think so. It requires a huge commitment and is a full-time job like any other. I run a creative studio Hedge and Hog Prints and I sell online through my website and a few other platforms. It is tough to stand out with so many creative businesses, and the economic situation, pertaining to Brexit, also means that people are less likely to invest in art. Saying that, there are always art lovers across the world who will seek out what they love and I’ve had some lovely clients
When did children come along, and how has this impacted your practice?
I had my eldest when I was very young and still completing my studies. My twins were born last year, and I’ve had to cut down on my work in the last year because they’ve been colicky and had severe reflux issues as well many long stays in the hospitals due to ill-health. Also, very young babies and inks and paints do not mix, so I have been doing a lot of digital illustration while I’ve been focussing on them, as it’s easy to fit around their needs and schedule.
I’ve also started taking on more freelance work in writing for other small creative businesses that I really love doing as I have more than 15 years academic experience of writing, editing and reviewing.
In what ways do you encourage creativity with your children?
It is really very important to me that my children are creative. I believe that it fosters thinking skills, confidence and helps with focus. With my eldest, who is now studying at Cambridge University, I always took her with me to museums and art galleries from a very young age, talked about artists and art history. I surrounded her with books and art materials.
We had a little quiet art corner in her room where she could sit and make anything that she wanted from all the craft materials that she had. It really calmed her down. We created stories together, and I encouraged her to write. She drew comics and set designs and wrote little plays and stories, and still writes for University newspaper, science publications and magazines.
She was also introduced to music and dance from a very young age, and she decided to pursue it at a specialist music school. I feel that it is important to give children the tools and space to explore without pressure to conform, and also try and glean what they are really interested in. With my 15-month-old twins, it is too early to say, and we shall see what they are interested in (fingers crossed!).
What is your home like now?
Messy. It looks like a demolition site right now, unfortunately. I do like the lived-in feel, where things are comfortable and cosy, but with twins, and a dog and a cat, it has recently been impossible to maintain any kinds of standards. We bought this house a year or so ago from a lady who had lived there for 50 years or so, and it needs a lot of work and attention. I love the big windows bringing in so much light into all the rooms, and the wooden floors. There is a nice big garden, which has so much potential. It is about 10 mins walk from the beach, and within five mins, we are in pine-covered woods, which is great for dog walks.
When do you spend time on your artwork?
Usually late at night or in the middle of the afternoon when the babies have a nap. I like the feeling of solitude late at night although I am so completely exhausted, when I finally have the time to be alone with my thoughts, and I can just be myself, without any demands.
Can you describe your workspace?
I converted part of the garage into my studio when we moved here. It has a press, lots of storage and desk space, with an area for inking and carving, as well as packaging orders. It has big windows with plenty of light streaming in, and white floorboards. But, right now, frankly it is anywhere and everywhere in the house. Hopefully with the twins going to nursery from September, I will have a better routine, and I am really looking forward to moving into my studio and organising it again.
Any tips for other creative parents looking to make a living from their work?
I’m still trying to figure it all out myself! I think for me the ‘why’ is really important. Why do you want to create for a living? There will be tough days, and when we have creative slumps, but it is about recognising these signs, and finding other things to do and then looking for inspiration.
Also, what surprised me most about running my creative business is how much there is to do besides creating. There is a whole lot of administrative things, taxation, balance sheets, social media, marketing that I hadn’t really thought of before I started. This can be quite demoralising at times because there is so little time to create when other more mundane, but equally important, things about running a business take over.
So, my advice would be to look at some short business courses, or have a short-term, medium and long term business strategy too. And be realistic. There will be times when sales will be slow, and there will be times when we are not happy with what we are creating. But these times do not always last.