Pleasanton artist Usha Shukla finds inspiration for her vivid abstract paintings from nature.
"In nature I feel this breath of fresh air that takes me back to my childhood," she said, recalling her grandparents' home in rural India. "It's like my past and present become one. I feel grounded when I go outside."
She moved to the United States in 1996 when her husband, Manu, started a new job, and at first she felt out of place and disoriented, she recalled.
"That is when I took sanctuary in nature," she said. "My interaction with nature gave me confidence and a sense of belonging."
They first lived in Fremont, and four years later moved to Pleasanton with their sons, Vyom and Viral.
Shukla had a graduate degree in English literature and a diploma in fashion design but a 2005 trip to Paris inspired her artistically.
"We went to the Louvre Museum and my head was spinning," she said. "Then I saw people by the river painting and I had in my mind that I wanted to be an artist or express myself through art."
When Vyom was about to graduate from Amador Valley High in 2010, Shukla threw herself into researching colleges, sharing her findings incessantly until Vyom finally said, "Why don't you go to college?" she recalled with a laugh.
She liked the idea and enrolled at Las Positas College. Among her courses was a watercolor class with a professor who encouraged her to continue her art studies.
Shukla went on to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where she completed a graduate program, focusing on painting. Her art is now featured in exhibits, public places and private collections.
"Recently Children's Hospital in Boston bought a painting, and six were bought for the courthouse in Dublin," she said.
Shukla is also active in art groups global, regional and local, including Pleasanton Art League and Livermore Art Association. Next week the Board of Supervisors is honoring her with a 2020 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award for her work, including as chairwoman of the PAL Art Circuit, which presents local artists' works at businesses.
She also is treasurer of the National League of American Pen Women, Diablo/Alameda Branch, and for the last two years has served as a juror for the national Congressional High School Art Competition for District 15.
These community activities complement the private hours she spends in her home studio creating her abstract pieces, some as large as 5 feet by 7 feet, using a unique process.
Inspired by the feeling of an outdoor breath of fresh air, Shukla invented a process for applying oil paint to canvas using a blower. She first diluted oil paint with solvent, then looked about for a blast of air to move the paint into the shapes she wanted.
"My husband was at work and I used his big leaf blower -- he was kind of shocked," she remembered. "He went to Walmart and bought me a can of air."
After experimenting with a variety of blowers, large and small, she found a handheld one that works best.
"With air I can get organic shapes," Shukla explained. "I start with a color palate I choose before I start because when I am working I go into this meditative zone, and I don't want everything random. That is why my paintings are so harmonious."
"My head, heart and hand become one when I paint," she added. "My technical, emotional and physical side are in balance, so magic happens."
She states on her website, www.ushashuklaart.com: "The final visual is pure, ethereal, and cosmic with no physical references. My intention is to portray harmony, composition, color, and design found in nature."
In the spring, Shukla was about to go to India for a month-long art residency and was packed and ready to fly out March 6.
"Then the pandemic happened," she said. "I canceled my flight just 24 hours before, but I did not unpack my suitcases for two weeks."
"It was difficult for me because I was used to working alone, and then three people starting working from my home," Shukla recalled. "Initially I was gardening, cooking, baking, but after like two months I said, 'This is the new normal. I need to get back to work.'"
She began her latest series, "Silver Linings," which is inspired by sheltering in place and shows that even dull and depressing situations can provide emotional and physical balance.
"The limited color palette emphasizes the value of using limited resources to fill our lives with colors," Shukla said. "As an artist and very sensitive person, my emotions changed with time. Since I am not able to go out that often, I look through my window. All we need is some limited resources, not a lot of stuff, to be happy."
"We need to find a silver lining in everything," she added.