Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we’ll explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
Ambreen Butt is a leader in revitalizing the centuries-old form of Islamic art known as miniature painting. Recently, she moved to North Texas. And she’s begun using her techniques to create giant installations. In this week’s Artist Spotlight, I learned how she confronts gargantuan issues, by starting small.
When you enter the Dallas Contemporary, the 40,000 square-foot space can make you feel tiny.
This is especially true standing next to Ambreen Butt’s grand installations. The works are six feet tall and twelve feet long. They feature lavish color and ornate designs that originate from Butt’s training in the seductive art of miniature painting.
“It’s miniature, but it’s not,” explains Butt. “I went from very very small to, you know, all these crazy scales. And in the process I kept redefining my relationship to miniature painting.”
Butt is new to North Texas. Her family moved from Boston to Southlake early this year for her husband’s job.
Originally, she was from Pakistan where she graduated from the National College of Art in Lahore. The school is one of the only institutions in the world to grant degrees in miniature painting.
“You know when I chose miniature painting as my major, there were hardly any students there,” Butt says.
The traditional miniature painting technique requires enormous patience. Artists paint one tiny stroke at a time with handmade brushes made from a few squirrel hairs. Paintings are as small as 3 inches square and can take weeks to complete.
“This whole kind of [feeling], you know, [like] ‘I need to see it finished’ kept you going,” Butt says. “There’s this element of surprise too, like what it’s going to look like when it’s finished? And I think it’s because of that, I am able to do what I do today.”
Miniature paintings were very popular in Southeast Asia during the 15th and 16th centuries. But then European colonization happened.
“Miniature painting kind of flourished during the Mughal era. And after the fall of Mughal Empire, basically it became a dead art form,” says Butt.
Today the school’s program is thriving. That’s in part due to Butt. She’s one of a group of contemporary artists rethinking the sophisticated genre.
“They’ve just expanded it in different directions,” says Pieranna Cavalchini. She’s the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. “That’s the case with Ambreen, you know, with different materials, with different size. Certainly with different stories, different ideas that are in the work.”
She’s known Butt, and watched her work evolve, for nearly 15 years. And earlier this year, Cavalchini and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum commissioned Butt for a large scale installation that hung on the exterior of the museum (Listen to story here).
“So certainly the initial miniature paintings are made with paper and they’re layered, and then [she] to moved into resin and then to huge digital projections – she’s gone far.”
Butt is still inspired by miniature painting. Her pieces are large now, but they still require lots of patience. The exhibit includes a large portrait of a 5 dollar bill. It’s made from thousands of pieces of torn cash that have been rolled and precisely placed. The work’s a commentary on money and politics.
Justin Ludwig – curator at the Dallas Contemporary – says Butt is creating a visual language.
“So this notion of small, little delicate paintings that are often figurative – that’s not what’s happening,” says Ludwig. “She’s creating large scale installation pieces that deal with aesthetic repetition.”
Ludwig points to three pieces that look like giant Persian rugs. They were created to hang in the US embassy in Islamabad.
Locks, keys and coat hooks decorate the pieces. They’re made out of resin and dyed bright colors. For Butt, they imply things like the US Travel Ban or some people’s fear of Middle Easterners since September 11, 2001. But she says the work doesn’t have to be read politically.
“Keys!” exclaims Butt. “You know the symbolism is just so positive. And there’re more keys here. There’s only a few locks, but keys are just like openings. It’s like when you say the word ‘open’ – so much imagery comes to mind.”
She says her art reacts to political issues like terrorism, violence and political oppression. But she wants audiences to find their own meaning.
“You know if people come in and they just take it at the surface – as it’s beautiful – that’s fine,” Butt says. “They don’t have to get at exactly what I’m thinking – as long as it makes them think of something and you know it will lead somewhere.”
Butt expects her work, large or small, to evolve. She knows beauty will always be integral. And she hopes her audience will grow with her and grasp the big ideas behind her work.
As an artist who is taking on a traditional form art – and trying to make it your own – how do you feel about breaking traditions?
Miniature painting kind of flourished during the Mughal era. And after the fall of the Mughal Empire, basically it became a dead art form. When I chose miniature painting as my major, there was a department of miniature painting at the National College of Art in Lahore, but there were hardly any students there. I graduated in 1993 and we had six students. That was the biggest batch there had been in years. Before it would only be one or two students per year. It was a good thing they didn’t close the department. They just left it open in the hopes that one day it would come back.
Anyway, people were mostly copying old masters and their techniques. They were tackling some objective themes like four seasons or wedding scenes. And they were beautiful. That’s how it was kept alive. But when I was graduating, I was thinking like this: If you are a writer, you go out and you pursue your passion and you see what’s happening in the world and you come back and write about it, then people know about it. That’s how I wanted to educate the society. I wanted to use my art to educate.
I don’t do this for pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, I get tremendous amounts of pleasure creating, but usually it’s something disturbing that gets me in the mood to create. Feminism and bringing a women’s point of view was what I thought miniature painting needed.
It sounds like your program at the National College of Art involved a lot of copying the masters. What was it like when you attended grad school in Boston? I’d imagine much less restrained.
In Lahore, I was learning a classical form of art through a classical form of instruction. But going to grad school was very different. I went from something that was very structured to something much more loose and open. In grad school, you have to have your own vocabulary. So it was very good for me that I had the training because it allowed me time to create my own language. I didn’t need to focus on learning how to paint or create. I knew that. I just needed to find out how I was going to use my voice. I was fascinated with the amount of materials that I suddenly had and I could use my traditional training to make miniature my own.
You’ve been making art since you started college. And when you’re not making art, you’re a wife and a mother. But have you ever had a day job? If so, when were you able to quit?
I used to teach. I would work for a semesters at universities and colleges. In fact, I still get offers. But I can’t create if I am teaching. And with being a mother, I have to separate myself from my family from time to time so that I can work. It’s easier when the kids are at school, but still I need time to work on my art.
As for my day job? This is it. I make art and I sell it. I’ve been lucky enough to live off of my artwork.
How to you maintain balance?
It’s a struggle every day. When you have kids and you plan something, it never happens the way you planned. So I think keeping – and not giving up – a regular schedule is key. I’ve always had studios where I lived. But since I had my first child, I’ve had to move my studio out of my house. The first place she wanted to go was my studio, so moving made sense.
When did you begin calling yourself an artist?
A lot of people have goals in their head about what they want to be. I didn’t. And interestingly in the Pakistani community most parents have a goal for their children. You’re either going to go to school to become a doctor or an engineer. These are the two fields. And especially when I was growing up, nobody was sending their children to school to be an artist. But that’s a whole different discussion (laughs). Parents want their children to be able to have stability. I get it.
But my parents were supportive. They were like, ‘Okay. Fine. She wants to go to school to be an artist.’ But that’s because no one was expecting that I would be a professional. They weren’t training me for a profession. So I didn’t have that mindset. Even after grad school, I didn’t know that I was a professional (laughs). I was just working. l loved it and you know I was living alone and paying for my life style, but it never occurred to me that I was a professional until journalists began writing about me.
But it’s important to me because I am the first member of my family to actually pursue a career.
Are you creatively satisfied?
I don’t like to be comfortable in what I do. I was trained to think in images. That’s always been how I think. That’s why painting was so easy. But when things become easy or people begin to expect what you’re going to do, then that’s dangerous. You have to keep pushing your ideas and your creative abilities. If you keep doing that, then you will have endless amounts of work to create.
That’s why I’ve created big paintings, small paintings, installations, I’ve worked with resin and now the figure has completely left my work. I am working now with text. I am hoping to see how far I can stretch my work in text and installations. But I don’t know if I am truly satisfied. Addicts are never satisfied, right?
What makes you different than other artists?
All artists want to be different. All human beings want to be different. But what makes me different? I think that if I am able to do all of the mundane things that need to be done to live and work and raise a family, then that’s a big achievement. It’s also different because not everyone’s doing it.
But you know if there’s something in the world that everyone else is doing . . . that’s not special. But if there’s something that only I can do – like my artwork – that makes me special and different.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.