Sketches: Anita Varadaraju

The Indian-born artist discusses her lifelong obsession with color.

By Peter Holley January 23, 2014

"Memories That Push Forward," by Anita Varadaraju

Anita Varadaraju: Form, Un-Form
Thru Jan 31
The Jung Center
5200 Montrose

Years ago, a friend asked Anita Varadaraju a question that has always stuck with her: How would you explain color to a blind person? For years she was stumped, but after more than a decade of dedicated painting—which has landed her work in private collections all over the world—the Houston artist has finally come up with an answer. 

"I would tell them take a little bit of red, mix it with a little bit of blue, mix it with water and feel that sensation," she says. "They feel different to me. Yes, it's all pasty, and it has the same natural feel to it, but when you feel it with the brush or you feel it with your fingertips there is a slight difference in how it flows onto a canvas."

"Beat and Flutter - Kaleidoscope," by Anita Varadaraju

You could be forgiven for wondering if Varadaraju suffers from synesthesia—that rare neurological condition in which two or more of the senses entwine (she does not, by the way). But to hear her discuss color is to realize that while most of us see color, Varadaraju experiences it and even has a relationship with it. That relationship can be traced to some of the artist's earliest memories growing up in India, where the monsoon season turned dusty streets into muddy pools of rich reds and soothing browns, capturing the burgeoning artist's imagination in the process. 

"My mother said don't play with the water, but she didn't say don't play with the mud," says Varadaraju, recalling an early memory at her grandmother's house. "So I cradled the mud in my dress because I loved the colors so much and carried it all the way to the second floor, where I received quite the spanking a short time later."

The mud, she says, is still alive in her paintings and may at least partly explain her affinity for warmer colors. Perhaps these early memories, many of them densely-packed and dripping with color, have a hand in paintings like "Memories That Push Forward" (top), a work about the mysterious formation of memory and, by extension, experience. Varadaraju explains:  

"If you asked me what I did six months ago on somebody's event or birthday I would be able to tell you very clearly because I've had all this time to process it," she says. "But if you asked me what I did yesterday I have to pause and ask myself because reality can feel temporary and somehow not as clear. The painting is about the process of memories forming."

For Varadaraju, that process starts with color. 

"Mystique IV," by Anita Varadaraju

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