Sikh Love Stories Artist: Rupy Cheema Tut

Rupy Cheema TutRupy Cheema Tut is a San Francisco-based artist producing work inspired by her Punjabi Sikh background and American upbringing. Through her work, she expresses her bi-cultural identity while continually weaving together traditional and contemporary elements. Rupy is the Sikh Love Stories Project visual artist, supporter, friend, and peer community creative

Rupy produces work in two distinct styles; the first influenced by the Indian Miniature tradition and the second inspired by the Bay area Figurative movement. Painting in each of these styles gives her the opportunity to work with a variety of mediums such as oil, gouache, and pens.

Whether it is the beauty of an old village door, the creases of a dastaar, or the patterns of a beautifully draped dupatta, Rupy paints to capture timelessness of such elements that induce nostalgia. Being a world traveler herself, Rupy’s work ranges from spotlighting history and heritage to commenting on the social environment in the world around her. Since her debut exhibit at Sikhlens 2011, Rupy’s work has captured interest of both Sikh and Non-Sikh audiences. After a series of successful art shows in California, she has launched her online gallery and shop at Believing that art should be enjoyed by the masses, she offers a variety of personalized artwork to her audience including commissioned pieces.

Rupy is currently working on a collection dedicated and inspired by Sikh women in her life as well as those whom she has met through books and poetry. The collection is scheduled to launch in Spring of 2014.

The Sikh Love Stories Project (SLS) had a chance to catch up with Rupy Cheema Tut, and talk to her more about art, Sikhism, and how she thrives in today’s world.

SLS: Okay, your favorite food?

I love chaat and Mom’s cooking but I love food in general.

SLS: Favorite drink?

I do love tea but that’s more of a ritual than a favorite drink. Let’s say water.

SLS: Who are your greatest influences in your life growing up and how did they play a role in you becoming an artist?

As I’ve grown up and I look back and think ‘What do I remember the most?’ ‘Who are the people I remember the most?’, ‘Who do I act like the most?’, ‘Who do I want to act like the most?’ When I hear my grandfather talk, my Nana Ji, or my mom speak, the lessons they taught me and how they taught me those lessons, both of them really stick out in my mind. My mother taught me to look at things in a specific way. So I learned to see things for more than they were to the naked eye. And my grandfather is a big influence indirectly in my work as well. He loves telling stories. So when he told his stories, they were about worlds I wasn’t aware of, some other place and time, he would always attach an Urdu couplet to the story or a lesson he was trying to derive at. I loved how he connected language and literature to daily life. When I came to the US and I studied literature that reflected the American way of life, I had enough knowledge to compare the two worlds. I learned to notice how culture was captured in books and in poetry. This understanding lets me display the differences in my work because I try to highlight my bi-cultural upbringing and how it shapes me as an artist.

SLS: What inspired you to become a visual artist?

Woman by the tree, by Rupy Cheema Tut.

The Fruit of Sacrifice, by Rupy Cheema Tut.

I think becoming a visual artist or how I finally said “I was a visual artist” has two components. The first is when I actually decided to pursue this as a career. And this came from all the encouragement I was getting from people whose opinions I really appreciated and valued. In life, there’s a point where you need to ask yourself what do you really enjoy doing all the time? If I took away all the subjects I have studied, which one would I want to keep? I never really asked myself this at a younger age. So when I grew up, I never thought that you go to school for art or become an expert in art. You go to school for math or science and you become an expert at that.
My senior year of high school I won this really great prize, I won first place in California for art. My teacher told me I have something to think about, “You’re going to UCLA and you can take some art classes,” Mrs. K said. She always nudged me toward an art degree. When I took the steps to become a visual artist professionally it was mainly the encouragement I received from my family, my husband, who were saying ‘You’ve got to’! In life in general we ought to talk about what’s important. One could get a job that pays the bills, but when you retire from that field, what then? Are you going to be working at it because you love it or because you’re getting a good paycheck? Do I crave stability or do I crave something that I want to pursue even if after I’m at the peak of my career in that area?

I ended up borrowing courage from people around me; people who loved me and told me to go into this professionally. I didn’t have courage at that time, I’ll be honest, so I took their courage and their encouragement and felt, “Okay, let’s start this with what they’ve given me and hopefully I’ll get more confidence.” It was initially a fight between stability and doing what I love. I don’t think this exists anymore because if you work hard at it, you’re going to become successful and stable. And what is stability? Who wants stability? You’d be so bored.

SLS: Beautiful, Rupy. And in some ways stability is an illusion.

I wish in school we’re taught this notion that what you love is what you should do and I wish this notion was more ingrained into our minds rather than achieving the best score at something. I could achieve a PhD in art and I wouldn’t be a better artist for myself. I need to practice and enjoy what I do to become a better artist.

SLS: What three traits serve you as a successful artist?

I just went through a spiel about going to school about something you’re passionate about, so I was really passionate about science. I still am. And its said an artist’s brain can also be a very good science brain. So I think the scientific training I had, the systematic thinking, doing that in practice is one of the best things I have, a plus point, that guarantees day to day success. I’m very organized about things; I have a system when I’m doing things. My studio is like a lab. The value of methodology and discipline that I learned from being in the sciences is something that I’ve taken into being an artist.

Another item is a self-reflection exercise that I do every day: I reflect on my entire day, the things that happened, the good conversations I had, like today I’m going to reflect on what I said in the interview. Reflect on how things made me feel, any questions that I want to answer to myself. I was taught this in 7th grade. We would write a journal about what we did today, what we would do differently, etc.

And the third routine: I have always set really high standards for myself but I tell myself that it’s not the end of the world if I don’t meet those standards. There’s always an “easy button” that you can push but I always say, “Rupy, you can do this to the best of your ability and not press that easy button.” Don’t work on standards others have for you, you have to work on standards you for yourself. If you’re meeting those, then you’re doing great and if you’re not then you need to work harder to achieve that.

SLS: What are your three greatest self-care routines? Every artist, writer, creative mind out there has a way to replenish or refuel, so how do you replenish after big assignment is complete?

Lifestyle has to be right; eat healthy food, drink lots of water, lots of exercising. Sleeping is very important to me; I have to sleep a certain amount of hours. Once in a while everyone should be a little selfish, I take that very seriously. You’ve got to take a piece of pie or cake for yourself and keep it aside for yourself. If you keep giving, you’re going to empty yourself out and eventually you’ll become frustrated and bitter. You think, “I am not getting things back?” It becomes petty and it grows and grows inside you. So being selfish is being very important. And, self-reflect, of course!

SLS: What is your greatest vision for your art as a Sikh woman and how do you utilize Sikhism as a tool in your life?

I do have a dream where I can create work and pieces that reflect the Sikh woman of today, of my present. It’s important to take ideas from the past but I need to inject them into what they mean to me as a Sikh woman today. I hope to accomplish that. I hope to depict the world I live in today. The story collection — Her Name Is Kaur — brings out these themes, who Sikh women are today. That’s something that I question and I want to create an image of a Sikh woman of today.

Soldier March, by Rupy Cheema Tut.

Marching with the Guru, by Rupy Cheema Tut.

Second question as to how I use Sikhism as a tool for life or to be a good artist: nothing in life is earned without a lot of hard work. It’s a lesson I take from Sikhism that I apply to my everyday. Sikhism grounds me as an artist and an individual. It encourages me to put in more, more, more before I expect to get a lot, lot, lot.

You always see people working hard, and being happy for them and still wishing them success is something healthy you can do in a creative field and wishing good for everyone is part of Sikhism. When you apply it to your career it’s very difficult. Sometimes I see their work and it pinches you and you’re like, ‘Well I just have to work hard,’ and you have to wish that person the best. You don’t put anything into practice until you say it and do it. You have to say that because you have to accept it as well so you don’t go down the destructive path of being competitive in the wrong way.

SLS: We can also derive inspiration. We can look at our peers and derive inspiration.

Yes. Exactly. I have to keep trying this.

SLS: What do you as a Sikh woman want to see for Sikh women and girls as a collective relation toward one another and toward a larger community?

If you asked me this question five years later or five years earlier the answer might be different, depending on my experiences. I don’t want us to get in a frame that other people have built for us. I want us to start thinking, “What frame do I want to build for myself.” I also want us to work hard on setting our own standards rather than meeting standards that are set for us.

It’s time for us to think of ourselves as valuable people, “What do I expect for myself?’ We use so much inner strength, love, sacrifice, courage for others than for ourselves. Imagine what would happen if we gave all that to ourselves also.

SLS: I really appreciate what you are saying about the frame and how we can step back and look at this frame and ask “Is this frame serving us?” and if it isn’t then we can collectively dismantle it and create a new frame and within that new frame we can carve out our own sub-frame and hopefully that leads to more peaceful coexistence and existence that’s more shoulder to shoulder than hierarchies and pyramids. More nurturing, more sustainable from generation to generation.

We’ll wrap up with one final question. From this answer, we can extrapolate, what would you like to experience in your relationships with other Sikh women/men? Or both.

I don’t really differentiate between a Sikh woman and a Sikh man. To me, they are just a Sikh so I’ll answer the question from that perspective. It’s sometimes easier to express what you don’t want to experience rather than what you do want to experience, but I think two things that kind of stick out in my mind. Fist, we just kind of need to let go of figuring out what does being more Sikh and being less Sikh mean? Like wondering ‘Is that person more Sikh than I am? Is that person less Sikh than I am?’

And I think another thing I want to experience is that I want us to realize that our roles as Sikh women and men have evolved. They’re going to keep evolving. There’s going to be one generation that does one thing, and another generation that does another thing. We need to look at ourselves as people. In generations before, sometimes there was a hierarchy that somehow the idea of Sikhi was higher than the Sikh, but current generations are so comfortable questioning what Sikhi is and engaging in dialogue and bringing it more to an equal level. There is less intimidation.

SLS: I want to reiterate that. It’s a different experience for each person and that’s where the conversation begins. Rupy, thank you for joining The Sikh Love Stories Project. We look forward to more art from you and we appreciate all the contributions you’ve made to date for the project.

Thank you so much for letting me express myself.

It’s been great to work with the Sikh Love Stories Project and the vision we’re trying to create, the space for women to express themselves and a way for people to understand and get to know what a Sikh woman is today. I feel really grateful to be a part of this so thank you for bringing me on board.

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