Brooklyn-based artist and architect Sourabh Gupta created an exquisitely crafted paper camellia for our Constance Spry exhibition. He explains how he created the piece, and the inspirations behind his work:
I grew up and lived most of my life in India in Jammu and Kashmir. It’s a very special place. My design practice is hugely influenced by my experience there which has a unique world view.
Since I was a small child, I’ve always had an immense drive to create, experiment, and build. I cannot remember a time nor a day when I was not drawing or building something. If I could not find time during the day, I would work during late nights.
Ideas were abundant and the resources were scarce. So even as a child I learnt how to imagine a wide array of ideas and manifest them using the materials that were available in that little town. Almost like alchemy, I would transform and reimagine the existing waste materials or leftovers into objects of beauty and art. Now that I have my studio in Brooklyn, I am still doing the same but on a larger stage…
The concept is called Jugaad — a literal translation is difficult but the Oxford dictionary defines it as a flexible approach to problem solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way.
As I sometimes say: in India I had to repurpose because of ‘scarcity’. In the United States I repurpose because of ‘excess’.
I have always resorted to nature, gardens, and gardening whenever I seek respite and a place to think. Being a designer, most often I have a very clear vision of what I imagined and how I would like to create it. In the process I often find that I exert immense control.
Thus gardening was my way to learn to let go – I would grow plants and gardens and watch them grow and dance. I believe in this: “Gardens are artworks that escape the control of their maker.”—Abderrazak Benchaâbane.
When I came to New York, I was far away from any prospect of gardening and nature. I would actively imagine my time that was spent in the forests, and I had a deep desire to be in nature. As I would sit and remember those times I could see the flowers in my imagination as if it were a dance, poetry of wind and gentle breeze. I began to hold on to that in my imagination and give it a form with materials in my studio.
My education in architecture fuels my very passionate side of investigating the right materials and form to achieve what I imagine.
What’s amazing is that I was only introduced to Constance Spry’s work last year during the pandemic through a comment from a dear friend. I made a small arrangement for his kitchen table using all the weeds from his garden without thinking that it was anything different. That’s how I would have done it in India as there are no flower shops miles away from my town. He commented that it is very Spry like. And that’s where I first learnt about her. In fact, he had a whole library in his house on Constance Spry, her work and life. I have been reading about her ever since.
It was fortuitous that I was then contacted earlier this year by Shane Connolly asking me for a piece for the Garden Museum for the Constance Spry Show, because living plants and flowers are not possible inside a museum exhibition for reasons of conservation and insurance. I created multiple studies of different flowers — rhododendron, datura, and camellia studies.
I chose to develop a camellia as I felt Spry would also have enjoyed it. I have not yet seen a camellia in real life—so it was a good challenge that I was up to try to create one sight unseen, so to speak. Also when I showed it to Shane and Robin Lucas (exhibition designer) — we collectively knew that we wanted to do it.
For making the piece, when I first started experimenting and studying, I began with the usual traditional pink color for the flower studies. I made multiple drawings for the scale and the composition and then began dyeing the paper in two tones of white and red as the Japanese Camellia.
The piece was composed in two parts that slide into one another — otherwise it would have been much more expensive to ship. It was a whole study on its own as how to build the components that can be later arranged seamlessly and effortlessly.
And to package the piece, I built a custom box at the studio. I personally find great joy in opening a package and so for me after the piece is done, it is sometimes as much work designing and building the packaging as the piece. I find it very satisfying. It uses my very hands-on design side. I love creating an experience for the recipient.
Most of the pieces that I make are one-offs and are unique and thus I design a very individual way of packaging each. This one was even more interesting as it was to be constructed in two parts for shipping reasons. I made the drawing with the instructions in the box explaining how to compose it together.
For those who do not know what and where Auroville is (an experimental township in the state of Tamil Nadu, India), I highly recommend to go see it once or at the very least read about it online. It is a very unique community of people from very different and interesting backgrounds working together on collective missions.
The Focus is sustainability in very real terms, this includes The Auroville Earth Institute for UNESCO Chair Earthen Architecture. I worked there for a year on a few projects, including a bamboo and earth house which was demountable so that it could be relocated if needed. I also participated in learning and helping teach others too – how to build with sustainable materials and techniques at the institute.
Amongst many things, I’m currently working on a collaboration with Bergdorf Goodman in New York. I’m also constantly working in developing a large functional studio, studying, and experimenting with more materials and scale of work. At the moment, I am working on a floral lighting piece for a private commission. I am also preparing for an upcoming exhibition that I plan to have in the beginning of the next year.