from THE GAZETTE
(Montgomery County, Maryland, USA)
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Pulse: Passage from India: Engineer transforms into artist
Pulse | Ellyn Wexler
Even a trained engineer would have difficulty putting a square peg into a round hole. And that's precisely what Anil CS Rao's cultural identity expected of him.
"Indians from India," explains the 44-year-old Bethesda artist-writer, "wish that their kids follow in their footsteps."
In Rao's case, not only were the footsteps quite large, but their shape was quite different from his own. His late father was a doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and his mom, a pathologist for the state of Maryland.
The family came here from Rao's birthplace in Hyderabad, India, in 1969, when "President Nixon was allowing foreign doctors and other professionals easy passage into the U.S. due to a critical shortage in these areas."
Rao had a close-up view of his parents' professions.
"The first 10 years in the U.S. were spent wandering about along with the 'rents as they pursued medical residencies and fellowships," he recalls. But his own interests did not match theirs.
"I always was fascinated by art, theater, literature, poetry, fashion, illustration, photography," Rao says. "This was rather irritating to the 'rents."
Still, Rao and "the 'rents" were able to agree on an intermediate path. "They compromised, and let me study engineering — ugh! — at Pratt Institute — yay!" he says.
All through his four years at Pratt, however much the art students and their artwork surrounded and tempted him, Rao remained stalwart. He earned the engineering degree and worked in the field for a dozen years.
In the evenings, after work, Rao pursued what he felt was his true calling, "taking courses in the arts and design, with the goal of someday changing hats for good."
The square peg is no longer being jammed into that round hole. Since resigning as a traffic signal system engineer for the City of Alexandria in 2003, Rao has followed his muse. The process of his art, what he has been "attempting to refine since 2004," consists of taking pictures, then "spending many hours on the computer manipulating the photo in Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter to make the image look as if it has been hand-painted. The manipulated photo is then printed on canvas or art paper and then once again retouched using standard paints."
Appropriately, Rao first showed his work in a gallery in his homeland in 2005, and has exhibited there several times since. For three months every winter, he and his wife Padmaja and their twin sons live in a small village within a few hours of the gallery space. Locally, they reside in his mother's Bethesda home, and he has exhibited in D.C.'s Touchstone Gallery and the Washington School of Photography's Capitol Arts Network Gallery in Bethesda.
Next up is a first exhibit in New York City, at the New Art Center, opening May 6 and running through June 30. The solo show, titled "Higher," will contain work based on photographs he shot in Tirupati, "a small temple town in my home state of Andhra in Southern India." The retouched photos, he says, were "printed on canvas and then once again retouched utilizing standard oil and acrylic paints."
He anticipates better results in terms of sales.
"Basically, the turnout was OK here in D.C. and in India, but I had very few people actually buying any of my stuff," he says. "New York offers a bigger, more art-savvy, crowd, and hopefully, something will sell there."
Meanwhile, Rao continues to study, working online toward a master of fine arts in creative writing through National University.
"My aspiration for the future is to publish poetry, a particular genre known as prose poetry," he says, noting that his thesis project will be presented as part of a graphic novel.
His family continues to have input on his new direction. On one hand, his wife is helpful.
"[She] corrects me all the time during computer retouching or when adding standard paints to the canvasses," he says.
The matriarch maintains her position.
"My mum is somewhat of a philistine when it comes to my artwork and writing. She's seen very little of it and read nothing I've written," he reports.
And Rao retains his, clearly delighted at having been released from an uncomfortable "clock watching" career into the one for which he has always known he was destined.
This column is intended as a place to tap the pulse of some of the multitude of creative people and organizations that constitute Montgomery County's professional arts community and celebrate their achievements.
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