Bhavna Mehta liked being an engineer. The work was challenging and exciting, and the required research allowed her to learn new things almost every day. In fact, if Nokia hadn't laid her off, she'd still be an engineer, not the accomplished artist she's become since she left the field forever in 2008.
Natural light from a skylight pours down onto Mehta and the bright red piece of paper on the desk in front of her. Inside a small studio behind her house, the 40-year-old cuts away tiny triangles that fall to the ground surrounding her wheelchair, leaving behind an intricate composition depicting a woman in a mix of nature, fantasy and other objects, symbols and patterns.
Pinned on Mehta's studio wall—low so she can turn from her work table to see it from her seated position—is a quote by Kurt Vonnegut.
"Go into the arts," it begins. "I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. " And framed on a shelf mounted on another wall in her studio is a short piece by literary icon Susan Sontag.
"Do stuff," it reads. "Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead."
Those are a few of the sentiments that've kept Mehta headed toward her new career in art. In the beginning, though, she wasn't sure about her switch from engineering. Tucked away, alone, in her studio for large swaths of time, she felt isolated. When art became her interest, most of her engineering friends couldn't relate. At first too timid to share her work with anyone, she had trouble connecting to the local arts community and was slow to make new friends and find her place.
"For a few years, I was just, like, What am I doing?" she recalls. "I'm not happy."
Mehta resolved to stick with it, though, and was eventually accepted to the local Art Pulse Mentor Program, a personal- and professional-development program that ultimately convinced her to settle on cut paper as her medium, introduced her to fellow artists she still calls friends and helped build her confidence in showing her work.
She also figured out that her No. 1 objective with her art is storytelling. With each piece, the India-born artist strives to share narratives about what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. And, although she shies away from claiming it herself, the tales are often distinctly feminist, almost always depicting women as heroic and stoic—something that's perhaps a product of her upbringing. Mehta was stricken with polio and wheelchair-bound at a young age, which meant that arranged marriage was not an option. To make sure she'd be OK on her own, Mehta's parents brought her up to be fiercely independent and self-reliant.
And she didn't realize it at first, but her art has become a tool for reconnecting with her cultural roots. Almost unconsciously, recognizable Indian imagery and patterns began popping up in her work.
"Art is part of everyday life in India," she explains. "Well, you don't call it art, but there's old temples everywhere and just the way women dress and the colors and patterns . I was feeling a lot of loss of language and cultural ritual and just visual-art things that I really took for granted when I was growing up in India. I wanted to connect back to that."
Mehta's distinct style emerged and she began building bodies of work focused on different subjects, like Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who was shot by a Taliban member for attending school and survived to become an activist for education for young women around the world.
In 2012, Mehta entered a piece from her "Modern Woman Stories" into the annual Dia de la Mujer juried exhibition at The Front gallery in San Ysidro. The series pictures women as Hindu gods that use extra arms to juggle their many responsibilities. She was shocked when she showed up to the opening and discovered her piece had won first prize. One of the jurors, Larry Baza, an arts advocate and one of the two gallerists behind Noel-Baza Fine Art in Little Italy, was so moved by her work that he ended up representing her and giving her a solo exhibition.
"I was like, Whoa," Mehta says. "I really was very surprised. Yes, very surprised and very happy. I felt accepted, you know?"
The experience pushed her to continue entering juried exhibitions and showing her work. She's since become well-known in the local art world, and her switch from engineer to artist can be labeled a success. She was recently nominated in the "emerging" category for the 2014 San Diego Art Prize, and her work was accepted into the 10th Annual Drawing Invitational exhibition opening at the Art Gallery at the New Central Library in mid-April.
And at The Front a few weeks ago, this year's jurors for the annual Dia de la Mujer exhibition were noticeably impressed by Mehta's submission, a circular red paper-cut piece depicting a woman in her garden.
Jurors April Game, Susan Myrland, Alessandra Moctezuma and Illya Haro agreed that Mehta's work was one of the most compelling in the emerging category of the show, which, this year is themed around the concept of sanctuary. While the piece reminded Game, executive director of Art Pulse, of a contemporary take on a traditional Hindu mandala, Haro, exhibition manager at Centro Cultural Tijuana, couldn't shake her associations with the folksy papel picado flags commonly found hanging at Mexican celebrations. Moctezuma, meanwhile, was reminded of the circular rosette windows found in Catholic churches, and Myrland, an independent curator and occasional contributor to San Diego CityBeat, immediately saw connections to Mehta's background in engineering.
"What I like about it is the meticulousness and precision needed to do a piece like this and how that feels like sanctuary for her—she can just get into that meditative state and take the time needed to do this," Myrland said as the jurors stood around Mehta's piece. "I also like the fact that it represents moving forward of where she is in her life. She's had this precision being in software and having to work in that very binary world, and now she's taking that into a world where almost anything can go, and, yet, she's still able to keep that precision—which is safe for her— and bring that into her new world."
One of Bhavna Mehta's pieces is on view in Dia de la Mujer, opening from 4 to 10 p.m. Friday, March 7, at The Front (147 W. San Ysidro Blvd. in San Ysidro). The show's on view through April 24.