There’s a quality of the tumbleweed in each of Indian American multimedia artist Satpreet Kahlon’s pieces: They start from a concept, a wish, and start tumbling and gathering in fistfuls of crinkled cloth scraps, burnt up matches, yarn, egg shells, splashes of ink, twigs, hunks of cardboard, splattered paint, pages torn from a childhood journal, porcelain shards, cotton gone wispy, clear plastic sheets, and many other objects often forgotten or overlooked, but now newfound and recycled. Kahlon brings the disparate and inchoate to a kind of stillness; she weaves hard industrial elements with the soft and delicate, with a texture one longs to reach out and touch. Her body of art is fragile, intimate, and most human in its detail, never without the sense that these objects, this life, are transitory.
Kahlon’s latest exhibit, What’s Left Behind, just finished showing at the Ethnic Heritage Art Gallery in the Seattle Municipal Tower. For her, the whole experience proved to be powerful and healing as she created pieces that spoke to her experience as a person of color and a survivor of sexual abuse. Her piece Burning, Still (2016) from the exhibit shows Kahlon at her finest, how she achieves a balance, intensity, and space for contemplation and conversation in the delicate clouded wreath of burnt edged paper scraps centered around sharam, the Punjabi word for shame. Indeed, much of Kahlon’s work strives to create a space, voice, and community for people of color and their stories.
Growing up in Chicago in an immigrant family, Kahlon found her start as an artist very young. With her parents, three siblings, and a house constantly full of relatives and friends staying over, Kahlon had to make space for herself by finding a quiet spot in the house and creating. Fascinated by David Macauley’s The Way Things Work, which showed the inside of payphones, submarines, and so on, she reconstructed these machines with whatever materials she could get her hands on.
Kahlon earned two B.F.A.s in Studio Art and Art Education from Michigan State University where she first formally studied art. “It was a weird awakening when I started taking art classes,” she said. “It was very visceral to be working with my hands and connecting with my body. I was discovering tools for finding my place in the world, which I think everyone should have to be a better person.”
The time that truly solidified Kahlon’s drive as an artist, when she discovered herself and her place in the world as a person of color, was her solo trip to India three years ago. Having grown up in a predominantly white American environment, Kahlon faced a lot of stress, embarrassment, and shame trying to fit in at school. Yet, in India, she felt the absence of such stress: “Since I had hit puberty, I had been slowly distancing myself from the parts of me that I got ridiculed for, which were the most Indian parts of me. Going to India brought me back to those things. It was like having this heavy weight lifted from me, and suddenly I couldn’t ignore that I was Indian, and I have this heritage, culture, and all these stories I need to process.”
Having moved to Seattle two years ago, Kahlon now calls the Bemis Building in SoDo home, finding much inspiration and creating new art everyday. “I go on a walk everyday, and I often pass dumpsters that are overflowing with industrial garbage,” she said. “If I see something that I like, I will pull it out of the dumpster. It is usually something that is hanging out at least a little bit, but once I am at the dumpster, I will see what else is inside. The great thing about industrial garbage is that there are usually multiples of all the objects, so then I get to take a few home and experiment without pressure.”
Kahlon draws much influence from fashion and surface design, and always finds herself returning to fibers. She said she loves working with cloth, testing its resilience and trying to see what happens when cloth is destroyed.
Currently, Kahlon is at work on a variety of projects in different mediums. The first, which will feature at The Alice’s Project Diana, opened on May 28, is a performance art piece involving Kahlon herself and other women of color. The piece hopes to open the conversation on colorblind racism and other issues.
Kahlon is also working on a multidimensional oral history project built on stories from women of color to be showcased at METHOD Gallery, opening on July 8. In response to the pressures of globalization and Westernization, Kahlon will ask and encourage women of color to come and tell stories that they believe should not be forgotten. She will put the audio recordings in a repository online, and for some of the stories, they will take physical form as fragile nest-like porcelain bowls of writing to be scattered across the gallery floor. In the performative aspect of this piece, Kahlon will walk through the space and step on some of the bowls, breaking the stories into smithereens: “I mean for these bowls to represent ‘insufficient vessels,’ in that we are ‘insufficient vessels’ for preserving our own history and knowledge. It’s a process that I’m still learning; we have to let go of our expectations that we can hold everything.”
Kahlon currently teaches at the Design Your Neighborhood Program, a partnership between the Seattle Art Museum and Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. She reaches out to teens who would not otherwise have access to art and helps facilitate that connection as well as teaches how design and art can work towards positive social change.
Although Kahlon still feels like she is early in her career as an artist, she is finding a place and home here in Seattle doing what she loves: “Sometimes you have the feeling that everything is going right at the right time. Seattle feels like that for me.”
Kahlon’s art will feature at The Alice’s Project Diana, opening on May 28, and METHOD Gallery, opening on July 8. To find more information on Kahlon, visit www.satpreetkahlon.com.