Meera Lee Patel: “Creativity comes from curiosity”

We met at The Blue Stove off of the Graham Avenue stop in Brooklyn. It was only us at the coffee shop for the most part, but the intrusive sounds of coffee grinding in the kitchen forced us to switch seats after about thirty seconds in conversation. The meeting had been rescheduled a few times before due to Meera’s busy schedule, and I knew going into it that she would be pressed for time when meeting with me. And yet, I was five minutes late, as usual. Meera was unfazed. Immediately, I was struck by her aura of kindness. Somehow, within the first few moments of meeting her, I already felt like we were best friends. 

Something unmistakable when meeting Meera is that she embodies her art: colorful, delicate, welcoming. I was reminded of the warm, pastel colors of her work while in her company. Her paintings embody her; she embodies them. It’s symbiotic. I can hear the phrases and quotes she pairs with her doodles in her honeyed voice. The thoughtfulness and precision of her word choice when speaking is replicated in her careful selection of what to write with certain images.

She speaks from the heart and works from the heart. Perhaps that's why her favorite emoji is the sparkle; she even texts from the heart. 

Natalia: I did a lot of research on you before meeting.

Meera: Oh, yeah, there’s too much about me on the Internet.

Natalia: I saw that you went to Rutgers. What did you study there?

Meera: I studied English and Journalism.

Natalia: Cool. And then you started working on art more consistently after graduating?

Meera: I got a job in technical publishing and after about a year I knew I couldn’t be happy just doing what I was doing. So, I started drawing as a way to feel good about myself at some point in my week. I ended up creating an Etsy shop and joining the craft fair circuit and I saw there were a lot of people doing this for a living. So I thought, “If they’re doing it, why can’t I do it?” And that’s when it became a very real dream and since then I’ve been working on making it happen.

Natalia: Yeah, so tell me everything - when did you decide to quit your job?

Meera: I still have a job actually.

Natalia: No wonder you’re so busy! Are you still at the same place?

Meera: Yeah.

Natalia: How do you balance that?

Meera: I don’t know. I don’t, I mean, people ask me this all the time and I don’t know what to say because I feel overwhelmed consistently and stressed all the time. I guess I have the same fear that everyone has about making the leap, which is: I don’t want to do it at the wrong time and I don’t want to have a Plan B. I want to be smart about it and do something that’s good for me, because I’ve been balancing both for such a long time that I don’t want to take the leap and regret it.

Natalia: Do you think, financially, you’d be fine living off of your artwork, or do you need to be working your day job right now?

Meera: I don’t think I need to be doing anything. Sometimes I feel really conflicted about how I can do it all - so why not? Which is probably not healthy.

Natalia: Also, it’d probably stress you out if you didn’t do it all. Right? For me, I don’t like saying no to opportunities ever. I would rather give up sleep and my sanity to make it work.

Meera: Exactly.

Natalia: How do you spend your time on the weekend when you aren’t on the clock?

Meera: I used to be really adamant about working on the weekend all the time. I was like, “I need to do it. I need to do it. It’s the only way I’ll be able to go full-time.” After a few years of doing that, I felt really burnt out and my social life had taken a major hit. And, I wasn’t happy. I’m happy when I am making art but one thing cannot fulfill the other; it has to be a balancing act. In the last year, I’ve been making adjustments and making other things a priority. I think it’s frustrating because my journey is going slower, but it’s a lot healthier and I am a lot happier, so I think it is a nice trade-off. If I go more than two days without making art, it doesn’t feel good in a different personal way, so I just listen to myself and what I need.

Natalia: How long do certain pieces take? Does it depend on the size, I guess?

Meera: No. Depends on the content. A sketchbook piece might take 2-3 hours, and that’s just something I do for me - it’s not going to a client or in my portfolio, but I still want it to look a certain way. Client work can take, I don’t know, 20 hours sometimes. It’s not consistent, which is probably not good, but I spend whatever time it takes.

Natalia: I think it’s pretty cool that you dedicate time to pieces that no one else will see.

Meera: I mean, the sketchbook pieces are the most meaningful work I make right now - besides from book work. I am currently working on two new book proposals. Those are meaningful and for other people, too, which I love. The sketchbook pieces are just for me with obscure thoughts that I find beauty in. 

I had the chance to look at Meera’s books prior to meeting. There’s a total of four books, all published between April 2014 and August 2015. Good for One Mediocre Shoulder Rub: Considerate Coupons for Couples is a collection of coupons for couples to gift each other, such as “one evening of complete control of the remote.” You're Cute: Cards to Break the Ice is a compilation of what I consider to be pickup lines, but Barnes and Noble describes as “dating cards designed to cleverly capture the attention of someone new.” Either way, they’re cute and funny and probably helped a lot of people break the ice. Daily Zen spans over a year and encourages drawing doodles in order to gain inner peace. It’s filled with inspiring quotes and illustrations by Meera. In similar vein, Meera’s most recent book, Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration, is a self-help journal that also includes enlightening quotes and pictorial prompts.

Natalia: I saw that you’ve published books, most recently: Daily Zen and Start Where You Are. What was the process behind working on these and getting them published?

Meera: I was approached by the publishing company for Daily Zen after doing some smaller projects for them beforehand (Good for One Mediocre Shoulder Rub: Considerate Coupons for Couples and You're Cute: Cards to Break the Ice). They had the idea for the concept of the book and thought that I would be a good person to do it. It’s a daily journal with 365 drawing prompts and quotes on mindfulness. That was fun to do. It was fun to read so much literature to pick out what I thought would be beneficial for so many people.

Natalia: And then what about Start Where You Are?

Meera: Start Where You Are was my conception, and my idea, and my proposal. I wrote it and illustrated it. It feels like my kid.

Natalia: And you said you are working on two new book proposals?

Meera: Yes, so I haven’t sent them yet so I don’t know how much I can talk about them, but one is a children’s book and the other one is going to be another self-help nonfiction book for adults based on fear.

Natalia: A children’s book would be a new extension of work for you, right? What inspired that?

Meera: The children’s book proposal is inspired by my nephew because he’s a technology-freak and he isn’t even three, which scares me. So I’m working on a book that will be just as engaging, interesting, and interactive for him without being a sparkle of an iPad.

Natalia: Yeah, I see kids everywhere with their faces glued to screens and they all seem to have their own iPhones and iPads. Meanwhile, I just got an iPad and I think I use it once a week to watch Netflix in the background as I work. Technology has definitely come a long way since when we were younger.

Meera: For myself, I feel like it’s negatively influenced me in terms of comprehension, because I read so much stuff on the Internet now. And I feel like I don’t absorb it as well and I read things in a quantitative fashion as opposed to a qualitative fashion now. I used to read so many more books than I do now and I used to be able to recite them and tell you what was going on, and now I’ve lost that.

Natalia: Well, the nice thing about what you do is that it is so separate from technology.

Meera: That’s why I insist on working with paint. I got the iPad so I could do some stuff digitally, but I only used it once or twice because I don’t want to be on the computer - I want to paint. There are some things I’ve changed because of timing and efficiency, but I don’t think I am going to ever stop being a mostly traditional artist. 

Natalia: What about those shoes that you designed through Bucketfeet? I think it’s pretty cool that you are basically a shoe designer. Tell me about those.

Meera: So Bucketfeet... I’ve done two pairs for them - one is very simple, it’s just a bunch of brightly colored petals and then they just released my map shoes. They just came out a few weeks ago and I am so happy, they totally sold out. I’m actually doing an event with them at Facebook’s office painting custom shoes and talking about my work.

Natalia: So do people purchase the shoes and then you paint them?

Meera: I’ve done custom shoes for Bucketfeet before so I do a few designs that I think will work and then people will say “I love these” and I’ll recreate them. So every pair is a one-off.

Natalia: I can’t say this enough - you are really busy. You even teach an art class, right?

Meera: Right, through Brit & Co. They reached out to me in September of last year and I flew out to San Francisco in December to film the class. That was really scary for me.

Natalia: Really, why?

Meera: I feel very shy in general and everyone who meets me says I’m not but it’s taken me a while to be able to sit down, like with you, and open up and not feel self-conscious about it. My natural default stage is like a hermit. I like being alone and in my space. Some people like being surrounded by people all the time and that’s how they communicate, but I find that I communicate best through my work. That’s how I express myself best.

Natalia: Where do you get your inspiration? Any of the experiences in your life?

Meera: All of the experiences in my life. All of the people I meet. My friends and family, a lot. I try to make work that I think is meaningful and would help somebody else feel something. And I feel like the only way I can make that work is by feeling something myself. I like to make work that shows people that we are all the same and that we are all different and that there is something important inside of everyone, and that we should look for that.

Natalia: Your sister is a writer. Are your parents artistic at all?

Meera: My mom is super creative. She is a social worker. But she is a very good seamstress, knitter, crocheter, and she does embroidery. She’s always encouraged me. My dad isn’t artistic, but he is creative in so many other ways. He is very compassionate and empathetic. I think that has influenced a lot of my work, who I am, and who I am trying to become.

Natalia: I like how you described your dad as creative, but not artistically. How would you define “creativity”?

Meera: I think creativity comes from curiosity and the ability to see outside the way you thought things were. I think it can be applicable to any situation and any type of person. I think it’s such a worshipped trait in our world today and - not that I feel it shouldn’t be - but I don’t think it’s that rare. I think that everybody has it. Everybody has everything, right? You just have to cultivate it and nourish it if you want to. I don’t think creativity is something I’ve earned; everybody has it. I think what holds people back from being creative is fear and the inability to see past themselves. My dad is totally creative, he just doesn’t express it in the same way I express it.

Natalia: Is there anyone you’ve been reunited with through your work? Anyone from high school or another part of your past?

Meera: That’s a fun question. Yeah, tons of people. Tons of people from high school have reached out to tell me that they think it’s great what I’m doing or they love my work; or some people have reached out and said, “hey, I really like the person you’ve become and I want to be friends and catch up.” So, I’ve had a few friendships rekindled and it’s really sweet and it’s cool to see who people have grown up to be. And usually they’ve grown up to be somebody great. I think I feel strange in a lot of ways that my work is so exposed on the Internet. Sometimes I feel more uncomfortable when friends that I grew up with but are no longer in my life or family members I am not close to are looking at it. I feel more awkward about those people than people I’ve never met. I think that fear comes from being judged; like, this person knew me when I was 8, or 15, or 25 and what do they think about me now? I think it’s ok to feel those things as long as I don’t let it stop me from making my work. I think about it sometimes and I feel it sometimes, but as long as I don’t let it stop me, I’m ok with it.

Natalia: I feel like political correctness is essential for people in the spotlight now. I get the sense that a lot of people censor their feelings. Has that ever affected your work?

Meera: I had an internship in January with Today in Tabs, which is a liberal daily newsletter that is politically driven. I drew a comic everyday based on the news and at first I felt uncomfortable because I was all of a sudden taking a stance on things. I was letting people know my opinion on feminism or abortion or the presidential candidates. I mean, in general it’s hard to be offended by my work. It’s very feminine, affectionate, and open. The worst anybody could say is that it’s really cheesy or stupid. With these comics, I had a position and it was evident. Initially, I felt that I worked so hard to have an aesthetic and an identity with my work, and am I throwing that off? But, I got over it because I am a multi-faceted person and the ideas I express through comics are another part of me and I think they are just as important as the open and accepting and empathetic part of me. 

Natalia: As you and your opinion and perspectives mature, does your artwork mature with you? Are you able to see an evolution in your work aligning to your life?

Meera: Yes, when I was in high school, like 15 or 16, I made some dark, depressing, weird stuff. It was a lot of themes about death and hurt and pain. Those things interest me less now, which is why I don’t focus on them. I think life is really interesting; I think having the ability to feel so many emotions and not become ruined by them is interesting; I think realizing the importance of being able to feel the whole spectrum of an emotion is interesting. So I try to focus on that. I don’t think I only make happy work, but I don’t think I made destructive work. I went through some things that I thought were difficult for me, but I learned from them and I grew from them, and I made changes within myself from them. People have patterns, right? Everybody has patterns. And people will have the same experience over and over again, and I think the worst thing you can do is not learn from them. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to respond instead of react. I used to be angsty and resentful and I closed down a lot; now, whenever I want to close down, I stay open.

Natalia: Some people consider art to be lonely; how do you feel about that?

Meera: Yeah, I think art can be lonely. I think I learned that when I worked so much that I got burnt out and wasn’t paying attention to anything going on. Making art can be isolating; it depends on the type of art. What I do is very solitary and fleeting. It doesn’t feel good all of the time. I think that’s the trade-off. I think that life is pretty lonely, so I don’t know if art specifically is lonely, but I guess it’s one of the parts of my life where I face it the most. Some people face it at their work, or in their relationship, or at school - so I think loneliness is something that shows itself over and over again in different ways. On the flipside of art being lonely, is that it’s not. It’s connected me with so many people that I’ve never met and am never going to meet. I get emails from people all around the world and I’ll never get sick of people telling me that a piece that I made is helping them through a tough period of their life or makes them feel good. So that is very not lonely.

Natalia: Do you consistently set your personal bar higher every time you reach a goal, or do you feel satisfied with everything you’ve done?

Meera: There’s so much more that I want to do. I think it is easy to lose perspective and forget all of the things you’ve already done. I can be better at maintaining a better sense of perspective. It’s very easy for me to think, “I haven’t done anything,” or “this could be better,” or “this is taking too long.” If you ask me flat-out, most of the time I’ll tell you I’ve done nothing. Not because I don’t feel fulfilled - because I do - but it’s because I want to do so many things. And I want to say so many things with my work. I wonder if that ever goes away? I feel like everybody I know wants to do so much, so I don’t know if it goes away. There are a lot of different facets of illustration that I haven’t even touched yet. I want to do huge murals. I want to make street art. I want to write a novel. I want to write poems. I want to do paper products. And, you know, more than I’ve done. I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling that way, because that’s why I make stuff. I don’t think that’s going to go away. 

You can find more about Meera’s work on her website, Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

You can purchase her work on Etsy and books on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.