Creator Spotlight–Arooj Chaudhry

By Alivia Stiles

Arooj Chaudhry is the recipient of The Sadequain Pride of Performance Award in Fine Arts and a visual artist currently working out of Corvallis, Oregon.

Instagram: @art.by.arooj

Finding Inspiration in Nature & Culture

Alivia
So how long have you been in the Willamette Valley? Are you a native here? If not, what brought you here?

Arooj
I’m actually not a native. I moved here in the winter of 2016, so this year it’ll have been five years. I came here via the Midwest and originally grew up in Pakistan, and at one point I was on the East Coast in New Jersey. So yeah, I’ve lived in many different places and have been to a lot of different types of communities. This is my, well I don’t want to say my final place but I would say, for now, this is home. And I love it.

Alivia
It sounds like you’re well-traveled. So I assume that must have an influence on your art; having seen so many beautiful and unique places.

Arooj
Oh, absolutely. I was born in Pakistan and grew up there until I was 14 and then moved to the US. So I’m a first-generation immigrant. It’s something that goes with me wherever I go. And it’s been a huge influence on me; knowing where I’m from. Art is something that helps me stay connected to my roots.

Alivia
How much would you say your culture has influenced your art, and have you seen a merge between multiple cultures, or changes as you have moved around?

Arooj
I feel like my creative style is on a spectrum where on one end, I have my South Asian influences. For example, some of the paintings that I’ve done are very inspired by some of the indigenous tribes of the desert areas in Pakistan and India as well as Sufi Islam, influenced by the teachers and followers of Rumi. The whirling dervish is something I paint a lot. So we go through, geographically speaking, Turkey and the Middle East. In my journey to the West, I’ve experienced a lot of artistic influence through nature, when I paint the valleys, the mountains, the beautiful trees and animals. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with horses. I’ve gotten very interested in the beautiful wild-west culture that’s here and in places such as Montana and Colorado. The wild horses and the scenery behind that culture is just extremely beautiful to me. Going back to my artistic style, I feel like much of my work moves through these things and I see it as a spectrum.

Alivia
I love our native horses here. Do you ride?

Arooj
Yeah, I’m not extremely good, but I can ride.

Alivia
Have you grown up riding? Or is it a newer thing for you?

Arooj
I did ride horses as a kid, but it was very occasionally, like if we would go to a touristy spot and go on trail rides. But not regularly, I wasn’t trained. This is something that I’ve picked up here since I moved here. And I just love it. It’s the most freeing feeling that you get on the back of a horse. You have to let go of control completely.

Winning The Sadequain Pride of Performance Award in Fine Arts and Advice for Artists

Alivia
So you won the 2021 Sadequain Pride of Performance Award in Fine Arts, all the way from the Governor’s House in Punjab, this October. Has that been something you’ve worked toward and had your eyes set on, or was it more of a sweet surprise?

Arooj
Oh my gosh, it totally took me by surprise. I never considered myself good enough to ever win an award and never even consciously thought about awards or applying for them. This award is something you don’t ever apply for, you get chosen or recommended to the committee by someone who is a well-established artist themselves or very experienced. So I never even thought about it, let alone the part about winning an award in Pakistan, because I don’t even live there anymore. I don’t hold shows there or anything like that. Getting an award of this stature from my home country, I was like “ Is this even real?”. I had to ask my mom to pinch me.

There’s a funny story behind it all. I feel like sometimes there are certain works you can create that are very true to you, but you don’t think that they’re very palatable to others. Or they’re something just extremely unique and personal to you. I created a piece that was monochromatic, very influenced by the Sufi dancers. It was actually inspired by a dream I had, and this dream had this window or opening, so I wanted to incorporate that. One day I just impulsively created this painting. Usually I use very bold and bright colors, but with this piece I felt like I wanted to use grays, whites, and gold, just here and there.

So, I put the painting out on my social media last year, and I’m not big on social media, I just recently created a dedicated page for my art. I was just sharing it randomly on my personal account. An old, old professor of mine from undergrad, because I did go back to Pakistan for four years to do my undergrad in psychology, saw the painting of mine and loved it so much. She didn’t even know that it was my painting, she thought it was a painting I had bought from somewhere and was using to decorate my house. She loved that painting so much that she took a screenshot, took it to a professional artist, and had it copied for her own home. After realizing I was the creator she later confessed that to me, but it was this professor that recommended me to the selection committee for this award. So then it was a waiting game, I was like, “Not like I’m ever gonna win”. Then just out of nowhere, “You’re going to be a recipient of this award” and I go, “This can’t be happening”.

The point I want to make is that it’s so interesting that I never even showed that winning painting in my first solo exhibit because I felt like it didn’t go with my overall vibe. It didn’t go with the bright colors, and I thought I’d have to hang it by itself, which there wasn’t any space for. So I just left it at home. It’s pretty incredible.

Alivia
It’s so interesting to me that as artists it’s always the thing you randomly create and don’t expect to do anything with that just happens to be the piece that does incredibly well.

Arooj
Exactly. And that’s why artists should just create and put it out there. Don’t judge it, don’t hide it, just put it out there. The energy that you put in or the vision you create, whatever form of art, it can touch somebody or travel where it’s meant to be and resonate with whoever it needs to. It has a purpose, that’s why you created it, why you felt that impulse to create it. It’s very pure, you didn’t plan it. You just created it through your intuition or, I would say, your true source of creativity.

Spirituality and Art Philosophy

Alivia
You said in a recent Instagram reel that “the artist’s way is a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage to one’s self”. What does this quote mean to you? Is it your quote or someone else’s?

Arooj
It’s actually a quote from one of my favorite books, “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. I read this book because I had a 10-year artist’s block. I did not pick up a brush for 10 years, not since I was in high school. And then a lot of life happened, a lot of ups and downs. Someone recommended this book to me, I think a colleague did. I didn’t even finish the whole book, but I read this quote and it just stuck with me. Finding your true artistic voice and answering your calling, it’s like acknowledging that you have this gift inside you and you have this special source of energy. I refer to energy because that’s something that I’ve learned a lot about in my creative work. I just feel like when you flow with that, you will find yourself, you will know who you are. Growing up as someone like me, who came to the US at a very young age, I immediately had to face pressures to assimilate, to let go of or pack away my Muslim identity. Not necessarily hide it, but put up more of an assimilated front. I began to speak more in English than my native language and learn, read, and watch mostly American things. In the process, I became really lost and confused. I didn’t really know where I was identity-wise. I felt like I didn’t have a connection to my roots anymore, because I was so far from them. So it was important for me to know who my real self was in my own healing journey. You can have a lot of ups and downs, and some things can really make you feel like, “Wow, it’s just me now, and I have to figure my way out”. That was what made me first ask “Okay, who am I?”.

Alivia
Wow, that’s beautiful. I myself have recently been learning about Middle Eastern and East Asian ideas regarding energy and vitality. I find it extremely fascinating and it sounds like you have a lot of wisdom there. Talk to me about that. Is it something you’ve had to entirely rediscover? And to do this discovery do you use purely art or do you have things you read or teachers you follow?

Arooj
So, you go to school, you acquire these ideas, you acquire pieces of paper that you call a degree. Those things can help you earn a living. They can maybe temporarily give you meaning and a sense of identity, but they don’t give you a sense of being. Who exactly are you and what is your essence? When you ask those questions to yourself and you feel like you don’t have any answers, it can be very distressing. Some people seek validation from joining groups or movements, you know, finding a purpose. All those things temporarily fill your need, but then they waver off and you’re again left by yourself. I had to connect with my spirituality, learn who I was.

The culture around me growing up in Pakistan was very strict, you know, a very conservative Muslim society. Boys and girls had very different expectations and gender roles. Girls are encouraged to do certain things and certain things they’re encouraged not to do. I was never encouraged to go to art school. I was told “You need a real profession, you need a real degree.” These are the things that broke my spirit in the beginning. But I feel like when you have these things so innate in you, given to you by the Creator, you can run from them but after very long, they’re gonna eventually ask to come out. You’re going to be bursting at the seams with this creativity.

I started to read all the teachings of Rumi and was learning about the actual needs of the soul. Why do we need God? Why do we need these answers? Why don’t we feel happy when we have everything you can have? I have a great job. I have a beautiful home, I have beautiful relationships. Somehow you still feel like something’s missing. That’s when I think we need that higher connection. We need to know there’s something greater out there, that this just isn’t it. I started reading a lot of Eastern philosophy. The poetry of Rumi had had a huge influence on me.

My formal training is in psychology, and then in social work. I work in public mental health, typically with very marginalized folk, amazingly interesting people that have had very intense life experiences. It’s taught me that a lot of our lives are similar, we’re just on different levels of understanding, but we’re not very different from one another. We can have differences in language or culture, but our needs are the same. At the end of the day, I think that’s what makes us human.

Career As an Artist and Therapist

Alivia
Would you say that your profession, in changing the way you see people and the world, has influenced your art?

Arooj
Yes and no. During the day I am focused outward, there to listen to others, but I need to balance that by feeling grounded within myself. In our field, burnout is real. Burnout and compassion fatigue can hit us so hard, because as human beings we can’t do it all. We can’t just be outward focused or inward-focused. If someone is inward-focused all the time they become lonely. When someone is outward-focused all the time, they feel hollow. They feel like there’s something missing inside them because they’re giving it all to others. Art gave me a little world for myself, to balance that focus. It was overwhelming to be a crisis counselor in the pandemic, overcoming some of my own fears while also serving my community. So I needed an escape of some sort, but a meaningful escape. Art gave me that.

So, my work has influenced my art in the sense that it has motivated me to do more of it. And then art has helped me be a better clinician, be more present and in a healthy state of mind.

Alivia
Have you ever thought about the therapeutic art retreats people do, doing one yourself? It sounds like you would be an amazing teacher.

Arooj
Let’s speak it into existence. Why not? If there are people who would love to honor me with that, to be the guide as they explore this creative journey within themselves, why wouldn’t I? And being amongst nature, I think that would be my own dream come true. So let’s speak it into existence.

Alivia
Horses too, maybe?

Arooj
Yeah! And along a river, people just sharing what’s on their hearts.

Alivia
Count me in. On the topic, what does your future with art look like? What do you want to see happen in this realm for you?

Arooj
I’m going to keep on creating. This year, I experienced a huge breakthrough in my own creative journey. I was able to have my first solo exhibit and sold out. I’ve been selling out on almost all of my artwork so far, except for a few pieces. It’s just amazing because I never thought of it like a business, which I still don’t and I honestly don’t even want to. I want to think of it like an experience. Then I share that experience with others and let that piece of artwork do whatever it’s supposed to do. Let that piece become a visual alchemist. Alchemy is a process of transformation. I have an idea or an intuition or an instant download, I create on a blank canvas, then that canvas becomes full of color and energy. I also infuse prayer and intention in that canvas before I start, and then it starts to resonate. I put it out into the universe by either sharing it on social media or putting it up in a cafe like Bombs Away in Corvallis. Then it’s meant to attract who it’s meant to attract. I’ve had people come to my show and they see something and start crying because of the way it emotionally resonates. People want to have that painting because that’s a very personal experience they want to keep close to them. When they buy they’re putting their money behind beauty, something that unfolds. Maybe this unfolding happens inside themselves, an emotion was really blocked but the art gave it a release. That’s what I’m thinking about, but I don’t know where this is going to go. It’s still very early in my career, but I do know I want to go somewhere with it. I don’t want to just stop. I don’t see myself ever stopping now.

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