Sandeep Johal, a former nonprofit teacher turned artist shares her thoughts on breaking through cultural barriers, the impact of becoming a parent on your career, why connecting with people & community is critical, and how to become your own #1 fan. I also share some thoughts on the importance of believing in your own work.
Key Career Insights
- Even when you know your career passions don’t align with the work you’re currently doing, cultural barriers can have a significant impact on your willingness to make a change.
- Connecting with community that can support you in your career endeavors can make an enormous difference to the progress you can make.
- Believing in yourself is one of the first steps toward convincing others to believe in you.
- You have to be willing to invest in yourself to create the life you want.
Tweetables to Share
- Sandeep referred to her former role at Immigrant Services Society of BC, based in Vancouver, which helps immigrants and refugees acclimate to life in Canada.
- Sandeep talked about how Thrive Art Studio, a community of female artists for female artists founded by Jamie Smith and run with Tara Galuska, and how the art consultant Pennylane Shen, helped her get her art career off the ground.
- Driving with Selvi is the documentary Sandeep mentioned about the first female taxi cab driver in South India.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of becoming your own #1 fan, a concept Sandeep shared during our conversation.
My challenge to you was to pick one element of your work where you’re constantly critiquing yourself, and spend the next week being a little LESS critical. What’s one aspect of your work where you’ve been your own worst critic, where it’s about time you gave yourself a bit more credit? Leave a comment below with the change you’ve decided to make!
About Sandeep Johal, artist
Sandeep Johal is an artist, educator, and workshop facilitator who recently made the jump from a stable full-time teaching career at a not-for-profit to a career in the arts. The birth of her son prompted her to re-revaluate her life and push through the fear to create the life she wanted. Her days are now spent taking care of her son and her nights spent making art.
She’s currently working on two gender justice series, very close to her heart:
- Rest In Power is inspired by the fictional goddess, Anamika Devi, from Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel, The Selector of Souls. This body of work consists of ten drawings, each dedicated to a woman’s murder that has deeply impacted her, as well as four paintings in progress.
- HARD KAUR-not your starlet, not your victim aims to shatter stereotypes by highlighting women from India’s past and present who have achieved remarkable things despite having the odds stacked against them.
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Thanks to General Assembly for Supporting this Podcast
Thanks to General Assembly for sponsoring this episode of Career Relaunch. General Assembly is a pioneer in education and career transformation, specializing in today’s most in-demand skills. Visit GA.co to lean how to boost your career. Use Promo code ‘RELAUNCH‘ for 20% off your 1st class or workshop.
Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): Once you start stepping into doing what you’re meant to do and you’re actually producing things, I don’t know what happened, but one day, I just stopped being my own worst critic, and I started becoming my number one fan.
Joseph: Sandeep, good morning and thanks so much for joining me here on Career Relaunch. I’m very excited to talk to you, and I’m also excited because you’re calling in from one of my favorite cities in the world, which is Vancouver. Thanks so much for taking time to speak with us today.
Sandeep: Thanks so much for having me. Vancouver has been raining for two months straight.
Joseph: Oh no. It’s also raining over here, so that makes two of us. There’s so much I want to cover with you today, Sandeep, and I’d love to just start off by talking through some of the work that you do right now. Can you start off by telling us about the art that you’re doing and you’re focused on right now in your life?
Sandeep: It’s basically an extension of a series I did in 2006. That series was called ‘When Honor Kills,’ and it was based on honor killings in my culture. I’m South Asian. It highlighted two specific women whose deaths had really impacted me.
After I’d done that series, I kind of stepped away from that type of work, but it was always on my mind. Now, I’ve returned back to work around gender justice. I’m working on two series right now with working titles. The first one’s called ‘Anamika Devi’ and the second one is called ‘Hard Kaur.’ I’m really heavily influenced by Indian textiles that you’ll find a lot in my work. I do a lot of geometric abstractions, so a lot of my work is very symmetrical, very geometric, really heavily pattern-based and shape-based.
Joseph: I understand that you were working in the teaching profession before at a non-profit. Can you take us back in time and explain the type of your work you were doing before you got involved with the current art you were doing right now?
Sandeep: I went to art school when I turned 30 for two years. After that, I was like, ‘I’m going to be an artist!’ and I spent basically eight months being broke and depressed. It was really a tough time.
Joseph: What makes that depressing? Because I know that breaking into art must be very difficult. What’s the hardest thing about that?
Sandeep: I think it’s that expectation that you’re just going to have all of these ideas, and you’re going to be able to execute them, and you’re going to get yourself out there, when really, you’re so exhausted from having been doing art 40 to 60 hours a week for two years, and then you finish, and you’re by yourself, and you’re trying to figure this all out. They don’t teach you business courses in art school, and so you really don’t know how to run a business either.
I just think I wasn’t ready. I think timing is everything, and that time was not the right time for me to be pursuing it. Obviously, I had to hustle to pay my rent, and then I got the job that I previously left about eight months later, and it was that Immigrant Services Society, which is an organization that’s been around for 40 years in Vancouver, and its specific goal is to help immigrants and refugees acclimatize to life in Canada and give them the resources they need and support they need to build their lives here.
Joseph: How did you go from doing that line of work to making the leap into the art world? Can you walk us through a little bit of that sequence of events for us?
Sandeep: It got to the point where I just felt really unhappy, and I felt kind of embarrassed telling people what I did for a living because it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. My colleagues were amazing. The organization is a wonderful organization. I love teaching to the students. I met so many incredible people from all over the world, and I learned about these stories of their lives. It made me really realize how lucky we are living in Canada, because all things considered, some of my students have really, really hard experiences in their countries. It was such an awakening for me to be around different types of people and to be able to connect with them.
I really love that aspect of my job. I love connecting with people, but I just wasn’t happy. I just felt like there was something else out there for me. It really has always been art, but I think there’s just been so much fear around pursuing it.
In 2013, my husband told me to start a website. He said he wasn’t going to help me make it, so I had to figure it out on my own. Of course, I’m like cursing him as I’m trying to figure all this out because I’m still a real analogue person. I’m not totally into the digital world yet.
Joseph: Was he in a position to be able to help you with that?
Sandeep: For sure.
Joseph: Just out of curiosity, why was it that he wanted you to take the lead and to own that?
Sandeep: Tough love. He just wanted me to really figure it out on my own. It was good that he did that because I did figure it out, and I was like, ‘Great.’ He just wanted me to understand how to do these things because I really was so opposed to digital things.
I made the website. It was a huge undertaking. It took me about probably three months. Then I put it out there in the world, and my friends and people I’ve known for a long time were all like, ‘Finally.’ People had been waiting for me to do this for so long, and so I was finally stepping into it, but I didn’t know what to do in terms of art.
I went back to mandalas because I’ve been doing them for so long. I posted them online, and people were really interested in them. I had a few people asking, are you going to make these into prints? So I chose 20, and I made them into prints, and I sold a bunch at the end of the year. That was great, and then the next year, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to make more.’
Then I got pregnant, and so I was obviously tired, and I had other things on my mind, so I didn’t really do much art until my son was born in 2015.
Joseph: What do you think held you back from moving toward doing this work that you’re so passionate about? What do you think held you back from doing that sooner?
Sandeep: I think when I was growing up, I didn’t see any Indian role models that I can look up to in terms of art, people who were doing what I wanted to do, so I didn’t really have a reference point. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and so I ended up doing a biology degree because that’s just what you do. I wasn’t happy doing my biology degree, but during the degree, I would make like glow-in-the-dark T-shirts, and I’d run into my anatomy class and be like, ‘Hey, stop,’ to my teacher, ‘Turn off the lights. Look at the shirt I made.’ He’s going to shake his head and be like, ‘Why are you in this faculty?’ My professors tell me that I was in the wrong faculty, and I should be in arts faculty.
Going back to my culture, there’s only a few options that people seem to think Indians or people should have doctors, dentists, lawyers, engineers, pharmacists, those types of jobs, and so there’s not really an emphasis on the arts or I think support towards the arts. I have to think about where my parents are coming from. They came from India as immigrants, so they didn’t have that luxury of being like, ‘I think I’m just going to pursue art.’ They had to basically survive and support their children, so they took jobs that they had to take because they needed money, and they needed to survive.
I think the idea of having a career in the arts is so foreign, and it’s kind of self-indulgent too that it’s hard to put it into context for them. Even though they understand that I love art, it’s hard for them to understand what that looks like as a career.
Joseph: How much do you think that influenced your decision to not pursue it initially? Was that the primary factor that you think kept you from pursuing it?
Sandeep: I don’t want to put any blame on my family, because obviously, you make the choices you make, but I think I was scared to step out in that direction because I was scared of failing. If I was going to do it, I wanted to show my family that I was going to succeed at it.
When I turned 30, that’s when I decided to go and study art. When I told my parents—I didn’t even want to tell them—my mom was like, ‘Why can’t you just get a job and stick to it?’ Even then, they were kind of like, ‘What are you doing?’ So at the end of my two years, when they saw the response to my work, and they were at my grad show, I could see the pride swell up in them. They could kind of see what I was doing, but I think still not totally understand what I was doing. It’s been a long journey to get here for sure.
Joseph: How did you manage that, the fact that they were not completely on board with this, and they didn’t quite get it while you were still making it in that industry?
Sandeep: Everyone wants their parents’ approval. Everyone wants to make their parents proud. I want to make my parents proud, but I want to do it on my terms, and I want to do it with my art. I think there’s a lot of struggle and a lot of soul-searching and thinking about what I really wanted in life. It’s my life and I should be the one that makes the decisions and decides what I’m going to do. I think they’re understanding more what I’m doing now for sure.
Joseph: I can relate to that for sure. I’m Asian-American, and as you may know, I wanted to go to medical school, and then I went to medical school, and then I actually dropped out after two weeks just because it was just not for me. That phone call to my parents was not an easy one to make. Literally, I think I kind of just disappeared for a while. I think I had to kind of disappear for a few months or it might even be like a year just to sort stuff out for myself. So I see what you mean about needing to reconnect with yourself and figure out what you want.
Was there anything else tough about making that transition into the art world? I know you mentioned before, it was a bit of a slow start.
Sandeep: Basically, I had my son in April 2015. I don’t know what happened. Like a switch went off, and I was like, ‘What am I doing? I need to really reevaluate and prioritize my life.’ I really thought about what kind of mother I want to be and what kind of life I want to have. I realized that I couldn’t tell my son to dream big or to go after his dreams if I wasn’t doing it myself, and I realized that I had to just push through all the fear about doing this and just do it because I want to be the best role model I can for my son. Having him actually got me on track.
After my maternity leave, I took an additional six months leave of absence, which just ended in October. That was when I made the complete decision to leave the job and pursue the art full-time.
Joseph: What ultimately tipped the scales?
Sandeep: In May, I joined a studio run by women for women, and it’s female art is for female artists. It’s called THRIVE Art Studio. It’s also just been open for about just over a year.
Joseph: Is that in Vancouver?
Sandeep: It’s in Vancouver, yeah. The founder, Jamie Smith, had reached out to me to come and join this art studio. I met with her, and she just had such great energy. I joined this female art studio, and within six months, I can’t even tell you how much my confidence has grown, how much better my art is getting, how much community I have now, how many resources I have access to. That, I think, has played a huge factor in it.
I also, through THRIVE Art Studio, have an art consultant, Pennylane Shen. I’ve had two consults with her, and she basically has helped me redefine my vision and cut away all the fluff and move in the direction that I want to move but in a more clarified way.
I guess I realize that you need to connect with people. I didn’t know how to get out there and connect with the arts community. I didn’t know what to do. The studio just came along at the right time, and it’s all about collaboration over competition. It’s a really supportive environment.
I realized too that you have to invest in yourself financially as well and reach out to people to help and find mentors. Find people who have more experience than you that can direct you in ways that you can’t direct yourself.
Joseph: What do you think kept you from trying to create a community around the work that you’re doing or find a community? I know one of the things you mentioned was you weren’t aware of it, but was there anything else that kept you from wanting to surround yourself with other people?
Sandeep: Just struggling with all those feelings of being a mom and having this little child that’s yours. You have to try and figure them out, and you’re exhausted. My son didn’t start sleeping through the night until about two months ago, so I felt like I was living in a fog, and I was exhausted all the time. That definitely had an impact.
I think was just a bit shy too. I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I guess at that point, I didn’t have that sensibility of like I could just email someone to reach out to them. Now it’s a thought for me all the time: if I want to talk to someone, I reach out to them. If I want to do a studio visit, I reach out to them. People are kind, and they will give you their time, and they will just be so gracious about it. I’ve been really lucky with the people I found.
Joseph: Reaching out and connecting with other people is such a great way to catalyze the changes that you want to make. When you started spending time at the THRIVE Art Studio, what was the most surprising part of being part of that community and the impact that it had on your work?
Sandeep: Just the level of support. There are people who are emerging artists, artists that are mid-career, established artists. There’s a whole gamut when it comes to where people are in their careers. It’s just been so positive and so supportive. We have a Facebook group where we can ask questions about anything. I think the thing I like is that it’s a studio run by female artists for female artists, and so it’s really focused on the female artists.
Joseph: Going a little bit deeper into the world of art, what do you think is the hardest part of making it in the world of art?
Sandeep: There really is room for everyone because there are so many artists out there and so many different kinds of artists. You find them on social media, and you’re like, ‘Wow, there’s a ton of artists out there.’ Then you also are like, ‘Oh man, there are so many artists out there that we’re all just trying to find our little piece and get our art out there and get known.’
I think sometimes it’s falling down that comparison hole when you’re on Instagram or social media, and you’re looking at other people’s work, and then you’re like, ‘Oh man.’ I’ve been really conscious of that just to make sure I don’t start spiraling when I’m like, ‘How are they doing this? Their work is so amazing. Oh my god, I’m such an impostor.’ That’s been challenging for me.
I think I sometimes do feel pretty isolated even though I’m working on the art and I’m doing what I want to do because I have to physically be at home, working on it to get it done. I can’t just be out and about. My old job was really social. My colleagues were really good friends. When you go from that, and then it’s just you, solitary in your home, working on your art, it can get lonely for sure.
Joseph: You’d mentioned something about comparison and the impostor syndrome. Do you have any tips on how to stop being critical of yourself? Because I think that’s something that I do a lot. I’m quite self-critical. I can’t help but compare my progress with somebody else’s progress in the same shoes. Any thoughts on how you deal with that or how you have dealt with that that’s worked for you?
Sandeep: My best friend, he’s always telling me, ‘This is your journey. You cannot compare yours to someone else’s because their journey is different.’ I think keeping that in mind, we’re all here doing different things. We have different lives, we have different experiences, and honestly, you can’t compare yourself to other people because they’re coming from a totally different place than you are, and you all have different things to learn.
What happened with me was I didn’t ever want to call myself an artist because I felt like I didn’t have any art to show. If someone’s like, ‘What do you do?’ I’m like, ‘I’m an artist.’ ‘Where can I see your work?’ ‘Nowhere.’ I feel like such a loser because I didn’t have anything to show people. I didn’t have anything going on, so I never said I was an artist. I’ve only just started saying it probably in the last six months, and it feels better because I’ve actually been doing things, and I have things to show, and I things on my website, and I have things on the pipeline for next year coming up. I think once you start stepping into doing what you’re meant to do, and you’re actually producing things, I think you start to lose a bit of that critic.
Also, I don’t know what happened, but one day, I just stopped being my own worst critic, and I started becoming my number one fan, and everything changed. I think it’s because I started doing art every day. Instead of just sitting there, worrying about, ‘Oh, what should I draw? What should I paint? What should I do?’ I just started creating art every single day. Then I saw how one project would lead into the next project, which would lead into the next project and how my art would slowly evolve and change the more I made it.
I started really enjoying the art that I was making, and I was like, ‘You know what? I like this. I’m really proud of myself. I think I’m doing good work, and I’m working really, really hard to produce this work.’ I think I just kind of switched it around.
Joseph: I love that. That is such a great mindset to have, to be your own number one fan, because if you can believe in it yourself, then I would imagine it’s so much easier to convince others that there’s also value there. We can oftentimes be our own worst enemies with that stuff, so I’m going to write that down and remember that.
Sandeep: It’s like if you don’t believe in yourself, then who is going to believe in you? I’m very fortunate that I have the most amazing husband. I didn’t make this decision on my own. He basically helped me work through all of this. When it was time for me to decide whether I should leave my job or not, I had told him I’ll go back to work. I will do whatever we need to do. He basically said, ‘Look, I would feel better if you were at home with our son, and I think you should pursue your art full-time.’
I even had to go like, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re okay being the only provider? Because that’s a lot of pressure,’ and he was like, ‘Just do it.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ I asked him like, ‘If I totally sucked, would you tell me?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’ I was like, ‘You believe I can do this,’ and he was like, ‘Yes.’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’ He’s been also just my biggest cheerleader, and I feel so fortunate that he believes in me enough to support me in this career change that I’ve started.
Joseph: When you look back on your career change, Sandeep, what’s something that you wish you had known that you now know?
Sandeep: If there’s something that you are passionate about and something that fulfills you, just go for it because I’ve spent so much time not doing what I wanted to do, and I felt so unhappy at so many points in my life because I wasn’t doing it. Just go for it, because if you don’t do it, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Since I set my mind to doing this, all good things have been happening. It’s like I’m on the right path because doors are just opening for me. I feel like if you have a passion, you have to follow it.
Also, you have to create your own opportunities. That’s another thing I didn’t really realize, because I was like, ‘How do all these people do all these things?’ It’s because you actually have to find the opportunities and reach out to people and create them. Now, I’ve been doing that, and I’m getting a better understanding of what’s required to move forward in your career, which has been really awesome.
I think also investing in yourself financially. I have the art consultant. I pay her to come and help me manage what I’m doing. I’m part of the art studio. I take professional development workshops. I do all sorts of things now that I never did before. Invest in yourself. If you don’t have the money, save up for it or just do it anyway and money will come later.
Honestly, now that I’m thinking about it, I think you just have to trust, and you have to trust in the universe and trust that you’re doing the right thing and just be open to it. As long as you’re making the strides to create this life, I think you’ll be supported.
Joseph: That’s another great mindset. I think that when you open yourself up to the opportunities, they do come your way, especially if you’re doing the work you’re meant to be doing.
I want to talk a little bit more about the work that you’re currently doing. I know you alluded to this at the very beginning. Can you describe to us in a little bit more detail the work you’re doing on those two gender justice series?
Sandeep: The first one, I read a book a few years that’s called The Selector of Souls by Shauna Singh Baldwin. I love Indian writers. They just express the grimmest situations in the most beautiful ways. In the book, there’s a goddess called Anamika Devi. Her form is a clay pot, and so this woman has this divine intervention, and she’s been told that they have to give Anamika Devi a bodily form now. She and some of the women from the village sneaked off into the cave where the clay pot is, and they have this conversation where they’re trying to decide what she should look like.
I always had this idea of what I would interpret her bodily form as. I did a 12-inch by 12-inch painting for a show recently, and I did my own take on it. Then I decided to do some drawing studies because I was going to do five more of those tiny paintings.
As I was doing my drawing studies, the first one that I did was around the time that an international student from Japan was missing and then found murdered in Vancouver. It really hit me close to home because I worked in that industry for so long, and I’ve had a lot of students from Japan. It could’ve been one of my students. It was really heartbreaking.
So while I was drawing this first study, I dedicated it to her. I posted it on Instagram and said, ‘In dedication to her name,’ and, ‘Rest in power.’ I decided for each drawing that I was going to do, I would dedicate it to a woman whose murder has impacted my really deeply. Now, I’m actually going to be doing a solo show next year based on them, which is amazing. That’s one of them.
The other one is the flipside of that, it’s called ‘Hard Kaur.’ The Kaur is a traditional Sikh woman middle name. I am basically highlighting women from India that I think have achieved really remarkable things despite all of the obstacles that are in place for women in India. There’s one woman who was the first Indian female amputee to climb Mount Everest. There are some rebels and some vigilantes and some scholars and activists and all types of women.
One of the women, there’s a documentary about her right now called ‘Driving with Selvi.’ She is the first woman in South India to become a taxi driver. I drew her, and then I take them in it, and I asked the filmmaker if I can send Selvi a copy of the drawing, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I showed it to her, and she’d be so happy to receive one.’
I love that idea of connecting with the real women who I’m drawing and sending them a copy of the art. I just have nothing but respect for all of these women. If I can give them a piece of art to reflect that, then I’m so happy to do that.
Joseph: Wow, very cool. That is so interesting to hear about, Sandeep. I think it’s amazing that you’re doing this art that is just very empowering and capturing the extraordinary and the ordinary in these women. I think that’s so cool.
Thank you so much for taking the time to walk us through your career and to explain the culture barriers that you broke through and the impact of becoming a parent on your career and the importance of connecting with people and also that idea of making sure that you believe in yourself, and when you’re your number one fan, how much of a positive impact that can have on your own career. Thank you for your time today, and congratulations on your upcoming art series too.
Sandeep: Thank you. I just want my parents to know, I love you mom and dad. I don’t want them to think that they did anything to prevent me from doing my art. They’re great.
Joseph: Always good to give a shout-out to the parents. Finally, if our listeners want to check out your art or if they want to follow you, where’s the best place they can go to find you?
Sandeep: You can go to my website. It’s www.SandeepJohal.com. I’m also on Instagram. I post a lot of stuff on Instagram, process shots, finished pieces, things like that. On Instagram, I’m SandeepJohalArt. Also on Facebook, I’m Sandeep Johal Art.
Joseph: Thank you so much for your time today, Sandeep. I really appreciate you sharing your story with us.
Sandeep: Thank you so much, Joseph.