There are people whose life inspires art. There are people whose art inspires life. And then there are a select few like Meenakshi Dash, 51, whose life and art are joined at the hip, built into a symbiotic relationship where one cannot be imagined without the other. Born in Delhi but based in Chicago right now, Meenakshi is as creatively prolific as she is versatile. Ryan Roslansky, the CEO of LinkedIn, has 46 skills listed on his profile. Meenakshi, for her part, could run him close. Not that she would ever admit it. On her own LinkedIn, Meenakshi, who is a multi-faceted creator, calls herself a “connector” and “lifelong learner”. Her journey so far is testament to how she has been both and so much more.
The first thing that strikes My Kolkata about Meenakshi, at least over video call, is her voice. Apart from being crisp and clipped (the kind one can listen to for hours on podcasts), it is also difficult to place. Does she have an Indian accent? Or is it closer to the British? “It’s definitely not American!” she clarifies. Raised by an Odia father and a Maharashtrian mother, who were residing in Kolkata before her birth in Delhi, Meenakshi spent her formative days in Mumbai, with an interlude of three years in London. Since then, she has lived in Chicago, New York, London (again), Hong Kong and Jersey City, and is currently back in Chicago, where her focus these days is split between painting and working as senior associate director of employer relations at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
‘Being in Chicago was a liberating experience, a place where I learnt to be myself’
Meenakshi was a writer and entrepreneur in India before she went to the US for her college education
“My parents brought me up with the idea of being independent. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, they wanted me to have the same opportunities as my brother,” says Meenakshi, not one to shy away from expressing gratitude to the ones who matter in her life. “But maybe my parents could’ve pressured me into having a real job sooner?!” she quips, hinting at her unconventional career trajectory.
Having finished her schooling in India, Meenakshi went to the US to study painting and performance at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago when she was 19. “Being in Chicago was a liberating experience, a place where I learnt to be myself, unencumbered by expectations. Not only was I getting to learn art conceptually and from a multi-disciplinary perspective, but I was also going around Chicago in my thrifted baggy pants with suspenders. It was there that I first understood that I have so many different interests,” describes Meenakshi.
Even before Meenakshi had started exploring career avenues in the US, she had left India with the experience of running a T-shirt painting and textile business alongside writing monthly caricature columns for women’s magazines such as Society and Savvy. When in Mumbai, she would frequent art galleries and emporiums with her mother, immersing herself into a conglomerate of cultures.
Following her graduation, Meenakshi worked as a design consultant at Cintas, the largest uniform apparel vendor in the US, something she looks back on as an “incredible experience”. “That was the first time I got a proper taste of corporate America. Five years in, my manager said that I have a business and creative mind and should consider doing an MBA. Both my dad and brother agreed. I had two options: Booth and the Kellogg School of Management. I knew that I’d have to work besides studying to retain my H-1B visa. Eventually, I went with Booth because of its greater academic rigour. I wanted to do the heavy lifting.”
‘What I saw in London was the democratising power of street art’
‘Street art belongs boldly and shamelessly in the public eye,’ believes Meenakshi
While embarking on her MBA, Meenakshi met with an “inconvenient hurdle”. Her right kidney started failing. “A year into my MBA, I quit my job. It was impossible to manage everything. Plus, I had secured my Green Card by then,” she says. As part of an exchange programme at Booth, Meenakshi went to the London Business School (LBS), returning to the English capital, this time as an adult. It was there that she encountered the beauty of street art: “In Chicago, I had often found art to be elitist. But what I saw in London was the democratising power of street art, how it belongs boldly and shamelessly in the public eye.”
In the meantime, Meenakshi’s kidney had to be removed. Over in the US, Obamacare and its maker were yet to change America. Which is why Meenakshi chose to have her kidney removal in Mumbai. During the recovery phase, which was supposed to last anywhere between 12 and 18 months, Meenakshi found more creativity in the midst of adversity. Art became her refuge and release once more. “I was dealing with a cumbersome surgery, but it didn’t mean that I wanted to sit and do nothing. I started working with my hands and found that I could make jewellery.” Working closely with artisans from tribal Odisha, Meenakshi flourished as a designer and her work was featured in Bombay Electric, having impressed its founder and owner, Priya Kishore. Wallpaper magazine did an issue on the best of Indian design in which Meenakshi was profiled.
With her artistic life buzzing again, Meenakshi made another switch in 2009. This time to Hong Kong to work for Samsonite. “They wanted me to look at their product line and identify what people needed. As a result, I got to utilise both my creative and business skills,” narrates Meenakshi, who helped Samsonite launch a gender-neutral accessory line among other accomplishments. After a six-month project, she was presented with a long-term offer by Samsonite, but turned it down. Not for art or business, but for love.
Finding her life partner and spearheading Jersey City’s bid for recognition
Meenakshi with her husband, Richard Williams, whom she met during her MBA degree in Chicago
While at Booth, Meenakshi had met Richard Williams, a public high school teacher and football coach from the Midwest in the US. The two started dating and Richard delayed his graduation so that he could spend more time with Meenakshi. When Richard moved to New York, Meenakshi left Hong Kong to come back to the Big Apple. The couple got married in 2011, with Richard’s love for Meenakshi complementing his love for all things India. Even though Richard is vegetarian (nothing to do with his love for India!) and Meenakshi eats “anything that moves”, the secret to the pair’s relationship is giving each other the space to grow. “He (Richard) makes me laugh, supports me and wants me to live the life I choose to live,” adds Meenakshi.
Once in New York, Meenakshi began a fresh stint of her creative journey. In Brooklyn, she deep-dived into murals and street art, acknowledging their commercial value without compromising on her ambition to give artists a voice through the medium. In 2011-12, Meenakshi moved to Jersey City along with Richard. “My friends asked me why I’m moving to Jersey City, since it’s full of Indians.” Her answer: “That’s why!” In the seven years or so that Meenakshi spent in Jersey City, the most diverse US city ethnically and linguistically, she, along with her team, spearheaded the transformation of the Chilltown’s community life through art.
“I wrote to the mayor, having learnt that he also had an MBA. I told him about my background and qualifications and emphasised on how I figured that he wanted to attract residents from Manhattan and Queens (in NYC). He wrote back, connecting me with the director of the mural arts programme, who also led beautification projects across the city,” says Meenakshi. Before she knew it, Meenakshi was in charge of painting walls across a whole neighbourhood in Jersey City. She used the platform to identify and invite artists she felt would resonate most with the communities and space. This eventually led to her managing mural projects across the entire city as she became the deputy director of Jersey City’s Mural Arts Programme and creative director of Special Initiatives. Meenakshi’s team, ably supported by her, was one of the catalysts behind Time Out (New York) naming Jersey City as the “hippest neighbourhood” in its March-April issue of 2019. “It was a dream come true,” admits Meenakshi, whose mission to give Jersey City the recognition it deserved was complete. Inevitably, it was time to move on.
‘As an artist, I don’t seek validation, I want to be organically discovered’
Paintings from Meenakshi’s latest ‘2-Faced’ series
Or rather, move back, to Chicago. Assuming the role of a career coach at Booth — “it’s ironic that I get to advise people on careers after years of being uncertain of my own professional story!” — Meenakshi finally found the time to reignite her love for painting. Dedicating four hours on weekdays and more than double the time on weekends, Meenakshi has amassed a dazzling collection of art over the past four years. Many of her creations can be picked up on her website called Munubug, and several of them will be there to wow attendees at an upcoming exhibition in Chicago in September.
Last year, Meenakshi combined her entrepreneurial and artistic selves to come up with 12 paintings for which she sought no money herself. Instead, she asked buyers to hand over $150 to an American charity of their choice that is not politically affiliated. In an environment of increasing political polarisation in the US, Meenakshi’s endeavour was a “project of trust between artist and buyer”. Despite her initial self-doubt, all the paintings were sold out.
“As an artist, I don’t seek validation, I want to be organically discovered,” asserts Meenakshi. For those who happen to chance upon her work, it is difficult to look away. It is equally difficult to decide where to look. The vigorous interplay of designs, patterns and colours has an overwhelming, even hypnotic appeal. No wonder Meenakshi “loves details” and is “obsessive and compulsive” about her art, dedicating at least 120 hours to each painting.
“I’m calling my current series ‘2-Faced’. It’s an expression of how I grapple with my Indian identity and the choices I make. My husband says that I can be a chameleon,” laughs Meenakshi. For someone who has spent a lot of time thinking she is “a misfit and an outlier”, Meenakshi was recently told by Richard that, “on the contrary, you fit in everywhere”. “Why did you take so long to tell me that?” was Meenakshi’s response!
‘Contentment for me isn’t a happy or safe place’
Meenakshi with her mother and husband at an art museum in Miami
In the immediate future, Meenakshi has plans of travelling to India with her family and friends, not least because she is working on I Wish I Were a Tribal Women, a children’s book, her reward for winning a grant at Booth, which documents the story of the indigenous people of India through its women. Previously, Meenakshi has worked on multiple social impact projects, both as voice artist and documentarian, covering everything from human trafficking to the story of the Kutch-Pathan tribes. As much as her book is about generating awareness, it is also deeply personal. She wants to dedicate the book to her father, who had first introduced her to the work and culture of the tribals from Odisha.
When she is not painting or giving career advice, Meenakshi enjoys running, kayaking and cooking. Photography is another one of her avocations, but based on a strict principle that she has to click with the phone and must not edit anything. In March, she was in Bali, where she connected with a fourth generation wood carver interested in collaborating with and converting her paintings into masks and bringing them to three-dimensional life.
Meenakshi’s self-effacing nature and love for challenges mean that even if she is occasionally confused, she is never complacent. When acclimatising to a new setting, be it geographical or professional, she invariably understands more about herself in the process. “Contentment for me isn’t a happy or safe place. I want to keep knowing how to get out of my comfort zone, how to find equilibrium by doing new things,” says Meenakshi, whose refreshing approach to life is “always about opening more doors”. As of now, several doors stand open, waiting for Meenakshi to blaze through them and leave her trail.