“Without art, we lose one of the most beautiful, admirable qualities that we have as a human being, an ability to imagine and wonder.”
Mashiul Chowdhury is a medical doctor whose specialty is infectious diseases. He was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He grew up and went to medical school in Bangladesh, and immigrated to the US in his late 20s. After a stint of research, he entered a residency program in Philadelphia and eventually began work as a medical doctor in the US. Mashiul started to attend alumni figure drawing session at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA) in 2002. He met very talented local artists during his long association with PAFA.
Mashiul’s work is inspired and shaped by Western art in the last century. Most but not all of these masters are Western. He is driven primarily by abstract art. He has been particularly attracted and inspired by the work of Joan Miro, Anton Tapies, Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, M.F. Husain, Jogen Choudhury and Rabindranath Tagore. In his drawings, he draws inspiration from older masters like Michelangelo, Paul Rubens and Edgar Degas.
Mashiul dabbled in art when he was in college. This was primarily commercial, derivative art like designing posters, book and magazine covers. While in college in Bangladesh, he was part of an exhibit of hand-drawn political posters of three artists that drew national acclaim.
After he moved to the US and honed his skills as an artist, he has participated in several exhibits. This includes participation at juried art exhibits at Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Sketch Club, Cerulean Art Gallery, Blink Art Gallery as well as solo exhibits at various commercial art galleries and art centers in Philadelphia and its suburb.
Mashiul’s work has won multiple awards including Best Landscape Award at the 151st Small Oil painting show in 2014 at the Philadelphia Sketch Club, honorable mention at the same show in the previous year. His work also won an honorable mention at the 2012 Absolutely Abstract exhibit hosted by the Philadelphia Sketch Club. This year he won second place at “In-Person” show for his figure drawing. His work is in the permanent collections of the Capital One Corporate Center in Wilmington, Del., Eastern Regional Medical Center of the Cancer Treatment Center of America and the New York Presbyterian Hospital.
The art of Mashiul tells us stories that in some way or another we have already heard. The difference is that Mashiul instills in us a great curiosity to want to know what else exists. Whether it is his abstract paintings, or his figure drawings, he gives us details that not only satisfy our need for beauty, but also incites us to see beyond and look within. His art offers us a view within a view, and a feeling within a feeling. There is a depth that is felt at an instant and one can almost feel it crumbling down only to expose another depth. It’s a never ending need to explore the reflection of such emotions that his art has woken in you.
Q. What role does the artist have in society?
A. I think the greatest role of an artist is to create a sense of wonder and curiosity, and an appreciation of beauty. Art is not photography (though photography is an art in its own right, but that’s a different story.) Art, in my view, does not copy, but tries to explore new ways of interpreting reality. It’s a way of looking at the world with imagination.
The greatest role of the artist is to create this sense of curiosity and wonder in the viewer and inspire them to continuously inquire, explore, enjoy and appreciate the world around us. Perhaps this sense of wonder will expand beyond the visual world and enrich the life of the viewer more broadly.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. Watching my father or elder brother draw. My father was an excellent amateur draughtsman.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. As a child I was too immature to have any particular thoughts about what I wanted to do. I took life as it came every day, filled with wonder and joy with each new experience. The thought of a career choice came later, when I was in high school. This was focused around how to make a secure living –being a professional artist was never a part of the consideration.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. I was in middle school and I drew a pair of shoes as homework assignment and next day I showed it to my painting teacher. He admired my talent but he rejected my piece because I titled it “A pair of shoes” (LOL). I learned a great lesson. Art has to speak for itself.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. I’d say the beginnings were in medical school, when I dabbled a fair bit in applied, commercial art at the request of friends. I designed posters, magazine jackets, stage sets. I also met a person a couple of years senior to me, Manzare Shamim, an excellent artist with a keen sensibility who opened my eyes to the meaning and possibilities of art.
However, it was after I moved to the US that I got really serious about art. I began to spend a lot of time at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where I made wonderful artist friends and began to practice drawing. I also went to countless art exhibits, viewing, learning and developing my own artistic sensibility. And needless to say, practice, practice and practice.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?
A. I think I draw mostly from my intimate experience with the urban landscape. Cities fascinate me. I grew up with a deep bond with my hometown Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. After several decades in the US, Philadelphia has taken its place, and continues to fascinate and charm me with its complex visual realities shaped by the diverse influence of its inhabitants.
For all its messiness, its bewildering mix of images, colors and overlap, cities convey to me a visual symphony.
Multiple layers, the process of continuous change and decay and rejuvenation, all of this creates a tapestry, a visual language that is unique and utterly fascinating. Just like the city that cannot tell you where change will lead it – I do not have a preconceived idea of my work of art.
I begin with a draft and sketch, and go from there, constantly painting, scratching, embellishing, and continuing until I reach a point where I am satisfied that the work has reached a point of closure.
Q. How do you visualize the textures of your work?
A. Again, it goes back to my fascination with urban landscapes. My favorite topic is landscape, and the process of changing and ageing is an integral part of the texture of my work. The use of colors not so much to copy reality but to spur the imagination, using a variety of techniques to bring about the signs of a layers and layers of change over time, that’s how I visualize the texture.
I never start with a preconceived idea of what I have. I begin my draft, and work my way through, going wherever my imagination and skill will take me.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. A sense of wonder and mystery. An invitation to the viewer not just to look at reality, but, like me, to explore the hidden patterns and designs that lurk within it.
Reality is reality - my art aims to go beyond that. I try to create a space for imagination with a fascinating interplay of reality and imagination which inspires the viewer, creates a sense of wonder and joy.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. An obsessive passion for art that threatens to take over everything else. That often encroaches on other responsibilities. Modern life compels us to wear many hats – I am a husband, father, a medical doctor. I have close ties with friends and family. Each of these roles bring its share of responsibilities. I have no doubt that the enormous amount of time has been hard especially on my immediate family. I take this opportunity to single out my partner Zinnat who has been absolutely wonderful in her support.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. I would say the cost has been mainly in terms of my career and social life. The medical profession is extraordinarily demanding. I could have progressed much further if I had given my profession undivided attention. At home, the cost has been largely social, especially in terms of time with family and friends.
Oddly enough, I am not sure I would call any of it a sacrifice. Everything in life is a tradeoff. My pleasure and achievement as an artist are such an essential part of my life that all tradeoffs are worthwhile.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. In my years in medical school, my eyes were opened by a remarkable artist who was a few years elder to me: Manzare Shamim. Later, my artistic sensibility was developed by a host of modern abstract painters like Joan Miro, Anton Tapies, Cy Twombly, Willem de Kooning, M.F. Husain, Jogen Choudhury and Rabindranath Tagore. In my drawings, I draw inspiration from older masters like Michelangelo, Paul Rubens and Edgar Degas.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. Yes and no. Of course, art is demanding. It takes considerable time to practice and perfect a work of art. Much, but not all of it, is done in solitude. So, in that sense, an artist spends a lot of time away from others.
But I am not sure I would call it loneliness, for two reasons. Firstly, at least part of my artistic life is spent in drawing sessions with fellow artists, and that creates a special bond that I treasure.
Secondly, even when I work alone, I am so immersed in the engrossing challenge of constantly perfecting my work, that I do not really feel the pain of loneliness. So yes, technically I do spend more time alone as an artist, but I do not suffer terribly from loneliness.
Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
A. I love to read, listen to traditional Bengali music, see films. I love to explore and compare expressions of abstraction in painting and Bengali poetry. In terms of films, I am a passionate fan of Satyajit Ray. I also love good food (my wife is an exquisite cook). I dabble in some cooking myself.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. An openness and flexibility towards appreciation, a respect for creativity. Art may not fill our bellies but it really matters. It is just as essential in a human being’s education as reading, writing and math. Art broadens the mind, teaches us to think in creative ways. Without art, we lose one of the most beautiful, admirable qualities that we have as a human being, an ability to imagine and wonder.
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. An artist’s creative success is a complex matter. I never feel any of my art works is really complete. As I engage in a creative struggle, I come to a point that my work has reached a level where it is ready. But there is still a feeling that perhaps I could make changes, embellish it more.
Having said that, the final mounting of the work of art is a special moment of success. It’s an indescribable feeling of pleasure, and achievement.
Of course, there are other matters in life where I strive to be successful: An artist recognized for his work, a valuable medical doctor, a loving husband and father, and most important, an engaged, curious and educated human being, aware and compassionate.
Q. Do you give lessons or workshop?
A. I work with children. I love their spontaneity and use of colors. I also offer workshops at local and international settings.
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. To persevere. To stick to my goals. And to be really patient. Anything worth achieving can take a long time and needs sustained hard work. I still practice and learn every day. I draw inspiration from what I have achieved, but I refuse to rest on my laurels.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. As a little child, Hashem Khan, a noted painter, came to visit my father. He looked at some of the work I had done. He was very kind and supportive. I was very little then, and drew every object with one flat color. He gently pointed out to me that if you look closely, you’ll find that pretty much no object is of one simple color. There are shades, nuances, interesting differences due to shape and light and shade.
This remark stayed with me. It opened up for me a new way to look at art and the world. It is not a stretch to say this was the beginning of my own sensibility of art, which is more attracted not so much to illustration of reality, than a playful, creative distance from it, creating a space for mystery and wonder.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. The most important realization in life is to recognize that man does not live by bread alone. Take a deep breath, and look at the world around you. By inquisitive, curious and appreciative. I know times are tough, far tougher than it was in our time. Stress and career pressures can be acute. That’s all the more reason to take a break, to appreciate the beauty and mystery of our existence, and the creative struggle we humans engage in to interpret and understand it.
As the poet W.H. Davies said: “What is this life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”