Janani Nathan is a Chicago-based multimedia artist, CPS art teacher, and tattoo artist. Her art is colorful, organic, and full of vivid dream-scenes and fantastical imagery. Janani’s experiences span a wide swath of the art world, from being a practicing artist, going to art school, becoming a high school art teacher, to providing gorgeous handpoked tattoos!
In this interview, Janani discusses how these identities intersect and inform each other. She speaks to her path as a creative, and how she approaches teaching art to high school students. She also delves into her experiences teaching virtually, struggling to find an authentic way to speak to students in such a harrowing year, and fighting for CPS to protect her and her co-workers.
As a nonprofit serving teachers, students, and public schools, we want to prioritize the voices of folks working in the public school system, and fighting for equity from the inside. IPaintMyMind wants to recognize the sacrifice and obstacles that so many educators faced this past year, and to celebrate their persistence and commitment to robust and equitable education. Over the next year, we plan to publish and feature further conversations with teachers and educators, to give a platform to these unique and critical accounts of teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic.
When I was younger, I lived with my grandparents in India for 3 months every year. My grandmother spent nearly all her time making – food, paintings, clothing, and scarves. And because I wasn’t in India for long enough to make many friends my age, I would stay home and learn to make art along with her. She was supremely patient with my impatience when we were working through more intricate art making, like embroidery, rangoli, and tanjore painting. Art was the first and most meaningful way I formed a close bond with a family member beyond language, cultural, and generational barriers, and it stuck with me as a vessel for community building.
I don’t remember being genuinely good at art, but I do remember meeting the most influential people in my life through art. I applied to study art in college because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else in my life and still being at peace with my decisions. I’ve since tried to find ways to express creativity that also guide me to meeting new people through teaching, and recently, also tattooing! I’m very new to both, but four years into teaching in Whitney Young High School, my relationship with teaching and art have evolved so much along with the politics of teaching in Chicago public schools.
The artists who have most affected my relationship with making art are people who have integrated much of their identity and experience into their work. Anwar Mahdi, who reimagines mythological stories to center himself as Venus and gods and goddesses as brown, queer people defeating those in power. Yvette Mayorga, who crafts sculptures sharing stories of immigrancy, and the joy and fears under anti-immigrant legislation. William Estrada, who wheels printmaking supplies and photo booths to make art in collaboration with neighborhoods that have been underserved by our government to offer them both a creative outlet and a way to connect with their neighbors through art.
I think as a young person, I used to expect artworks’ meaning to come from the finished, framed piece that hangs on a museum wall, but I’ve felt so much more engagement with art that I can listen to and see stories behind – and that doesn’t always rely on the finished product. It lives in William Estrada talking a mother and child through screenprinting a design onto a shirt for the first time and talking about the joys of their home environment.
This year, I naively had such high expectations for public officials to consider the inequitable challenges of access during the pandemic and use it as an opportunity to structurally alter the state of public schools. It really hurts to know that my employers don’t take my job seriously. The fact that the summer before school began in Fall 2020, CPS offered no guidance on how to teach through a screen highlights just a small action that proves their disinterest in providing equitable education this year. Everything I learned about Google Meet and Google Classroom came from fellow teachers trying to understand this new technology, but without them, I may have been a much worse educator for my students.
CPS instead funneled much of their time and resources into planning for reopening, which made it clear that leadership was willing to put teachers’ lives on the line to avoid planning for a strong educational experience this year. CPS also did this knowing many teachers cared enough about their job and their students that they would return.
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