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Meet the Houston-based Indian marine conservation artist, who’s created one of the largest aquariums inside an airport

"I feel ignorance is the biggest threat to marine life. My campaign is about education through artwork for the marine world," the artist told indianexpress.com

Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee, marine conservation artist, Aquarius Art Tunnel, art installation on marine life, Houston Airport, aquarium, marine life crisis, climate change, artwork, indian express newsJanavi said she gives art talks wherein she shows her paintings to people and talks about what the work entails. She admitted that when scientists talk about their work for hours, it can get "very dry and boring". (Photo: PR handout)

At just 35 years of age, Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee has managed to achieve an artistic feat. The Houston-based contemporary and marine conservation artist has become the only South Asian and Indian female artist to be included in the Houston Airport System art collection, extending over two international airports and a private airport, for her art installation on marine life. She was selected out of 347 artists and authorised to curate the largest art installation out of the 10 art commissions awarded by the Houston Airport System.

Titled ‘Aquarius Art Tunnel’, the 240-feet installation at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport has been endorsed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Sanctuary in Galveston. This project was commissioned on behalf of the Houston Airport System for Houston through the city’s Civic Art Program and Houston Arts Alliance.

Janavi said she has a special connection with water, which is reflected in her artworks, too. The title of her latest — an exhaustive venture spanning months — pays homage to the constellation ‘Aquarius’, which is the water-bearer. The word ‘Aquarius’, interestingly, can be broken down into ‘aqua’ meaning water, ‘ri’ derived from the Hindi word ‘humari‘ (ours), and finally ‘us’, which means a collective and united effort to save marine life that connects us all.

Born and raised in Mumbai, the artist got on an intercontinental call with indianexpress.com recently, during which she talked more about her life, how art happened to her, her journey from India, her love for water and scuba diving, and what she thinks is the biggest threat to marine life, among others.

“I was diagnosed with dyslexia in high school, so it was a challenge [learning] math and physics. Ironically, I am using more math, physics and science in my art now than I ever thought I would,” she laughed. Janavi added that her family was not very supportive of her becoming an artist initially, and that she had to fight for it.

Janavi said she has a special connection with water, which is reflected in her artworks, too. The title of her latest pays homage to the constellation ‘Aquarius’, which is the water-bearer. (Photo: PR handout)

She went to study art in Chicago and after graduating, moved back home. “I never had the intention to leave India, but I left because I fell in love, which is why I am in Houston of all places on the planet!” Janavi realised that the city is “diverse, full of culture and joy”. As her work started to grow in Houston, she became more and more involved in marine conservation art, working on the many ideas that came to her from time-to-time.

“There is something very enthralling about getting your artwork into the general public’s perspective, where it is not in a museum or a gallery setting. It is approachable by anyone and everyone,” she said about the tunnel and her other works of art. The artist has created large fine art murals throughout Houston, which can be found on Google Earth, too, and her public works also include an important commission from the Red Cross Society in Mumbai.

Falling in love with diving

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Janavi said she would always search for a space to belong to. “In India, with my reading and writing dyslexia, it was hard to find support in school, because it was so new at the time.”

Growing up, she would travel to Goa and Alibaug a lot, and almost all of her vacations were “sea oriented”. “I have always been drawn to water. I have this memory, growing up as a kid, of Lakshadweep, which I fell in love with. When I graduated from Chicago, my mother asked me what I would like to do. It was just [the two of us] and she wanted to do a little trip.”

They landed in Lakshadweep, spotted a “dive shop” and decided to go diving. “It was beautiful, not what I expected. I felt like I was one with my breath, all I could see was this world of pure beauty. I had never seen so many colours in natural form — so bright and brilliant — and colours like pink, brown and purple on a fish! As an artist, I felt like that was just insane,” she said, adding that her first diving experience was “calming”. She knew right then that she had to “recreate this experience” through her artwork.

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Titled ‘Aquarius Art Tunnel’, the 240-feet installation at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport has been endorsed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Sanctuary in Galveston. (Photo: PR handout)

For Janavi, her whole world changed that day, and she felt the transformation in herself, too. It helped her to break the artist’s block; she picked up her paintbrush and could not stop. That was more than a decade ago; she has completed as many 234 dives thus far.

‘Water connects us all’

Janavi believes the night sky, with all its constellations, and the sea connect us all. “Looking at the ocean always gave me clarity and peace… When I was in Chicago and felt lost, I would go and sit by the lake. I do believe that water connects us all.”

The artist talked about “ocean optimism”, stating that her work is all about that. “With positivity, you can achieve positive outcomes. Why would anyone want to see something really sad and not understand it? When the conversation starts to happen [about oceans and marine life], people get more educated and incentivised to care for something that looks so beautiful, because they didn’t see it before as they did not have opportunity to dive,” she stated.

How art raises awareness

Janavi said she gives art talks wherein she shows her paintings to people and talks about what the work entails. She admitted that when scientists talk about their work for hours, it can get “very dry and boring”. To help with that, beautiful works of art are used to captivate the attention of the viewers and to help them understand what is going on in the world.

“I feel ignorance is the biggest threat to marine life. My campaign is about education through artwork for the marine world. When I was in Lakshadweep, the dive guide was explaining to us how the coral reefs were not doing well, but that they are slowly coming back. One evening, I went snorkeling in the bay, and saw all the beautiful corals.”

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Interestingly, Janavi’s artwork is displayed at the tunnel that connects to the international terminal from where people fly out to India. (Photo: PR handout)

That same evening, as she sat on the shore and looked at the sunset, Janavi noticed a local fisherman “hacking up the corals”. “…and throwing it back, out of his net. When I say ignorance, I mean that. I don’t think that poor fisherman is educated enough to know that he shouldn’t do that. There are different ways to fish. If we kill the reef, there will be no fish; the fisherman won’t be able to feed his family. If you lose coral reefs, there will be global hunger,” she explained.

Working on the Aquarius Art Tunnel

As an Indian artist, this opportunity makes Janavi feel “humbled”. “I feel, why did it take so long? It has been a dream of mine to create an aquarium, an art tunnel actually — I am not even kidding. When I saw that space, I felt like it was an opportunity. I applied, knowing that I had to do this for myself as an artist. I had this vision for a long time,” she said, adding that she had as many as 50 people working with her as a team to execute the project.

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Interestingly, Janavi’s artwork is displayed at the tunnel that connects to the international terminal from where people fly out to India. “I actually applied for the project knowing the location. You could apply for three locations, but I didn’t apply for any other site — I just picked this site. I kept saying to the universe, ‘This tunnel is mine’. I really believe in the power of manifestation,” she concluded.

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First published on: 01-12-2022 at 12:00 IST
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