Local Boston icons come in many forms—Brady, the CITGO sign, Big Papi, the Zakim Bridge, Keytar Bear, the cream pie—some more left-field than others, every one forever embedded in the unique fabric of city. With a little help from the harmony of the Boston universe, full iconic status will soon belong to a young woman from Nepal with sunburst hair, mad "calligraffiti" skills (calligraphy meets graffiti) and an unshakable belief in the transformative power of art. Sneha “IMAGINE” Shrestha is the perfect embodiment of today’s multifaceted, inventive and inspiring Boston.
Born and raised in Kathmandu she followed what in hindsight looks like a predestined path to Harvard Graduate School of Education, after college in Pennsylvania and a job with Boston-based non-profit, Artists for Humanity. In 2014, IMAGINE established Nepal’s first Children’s Art Museum. She’s currently a Boston Artist in Residence and has an upcoming residency at the Museum of Fine Arts. Her first solo show is set for the Distillery Gallery in South Boston this October, but her work can be found on walls in New England, South Asia and many points in between. We caught up with her while she was working on the Zone 3 wall in Allston, a Harvard-Sparked initiative.
How did you get your start in street art?
I was introduced to graffiti by my friend and mentor Rob “Problak” Gibbs, one of the pioneers of graffiti in Boston. I’d follow him around taking pictures of whatever he was painting: I studied his process from start to finish. I was hooked. This art form fascinated me. The fact that you’re creating art that’s so much larger than you; and the fact that this art form is based on letters. The letters are the art.
How did your style evolve?
I learned how to write in Nepali before I learned English: It comes more natural to me and I feel I can get more creative with it. Over time, I felt it made more sense to merge the current graffiti with Nepali. Once I figured that out, there was no going back.
Tell us about your first wall.
It was in Central Square—the graffiti alley there—and I never thought anyone would want to paint with me. So one day I just gathered all my courage, went to the wall at 5 am on a Saturday to make sure no one was around and painted my first piece. I took a picture and sent it to Rob and he called me immediately, and he was so ecstatic. That made me realize that what I did might have been out of the ordinary. People see a girl or a woman and automatically assume that you can’t do a lot of things—but when you know your stuff, nobody can stop you.
Do people ever ask you to translate your Nepali words?
Sometimes it’s not about the meaning of my words—I want you to look at my culture. I’m starting conversations about what it means and that gives me a platform. We all live in a globalizing world. What does it mean to be Nepali? I don’t know. Our culture is so diverse. But I can tell you my story. I found something that I can definitely say, “This is Nepalthi: this Nepali lettering.” It’s kind of empowering to write my letters.
What do you love about Boston?
Boston has a little bit of everything. I love that there’s people from all different backgrounds and that art is appreciated. My favorite place to go is probably the MFA. I love that it’s accessible. I’m starting my residency with them in August and I’m super excited about that.
Where in Boston would you take a first-time visitor?
The Esplanade, because I love the water. I would also say Harvard Square: I fell in love with Harvard Square the first day I visited. It has this charm. Somerville has a bunch of tiny cafes for smoothies or sandwiches.
How would you like people to react to your work?
I would love people to see my work as something that has made the place beautiful. I love transforming a space into something else. When I paint, I emit a lot of positive energy and I would love for people to feel the same. I enjoy creating art for art’s sake. But my work also has a social justice element to it. If even one Nepali girl somewhere in the world sees it and sets out to do better than me, I will be so happy.