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Sarangoulis photo


Nancy Sarangoulis always meditates early in the morning. On a recent trip to study art in rural India, she found her daily meditation interrupted by the sounds of the village waking up. Drumming, the clanking of cymbals and chanting voices made their way to the morning puja at the village shrine. As the pale orange sun rose, barking dogs, chirping birds and an occasional gentle moo from a cow added to the cacophony. Voices of adults greeting one another, children playing games and villagers
shooing away monkeys travelled through the tropical heat. Along a dusty road, women made their way to pump water at the wells, men tended to their animals and others moseyed along to the river to bathe.

An artist for more than 40 years, Sarangoulis, the collections manager and preparator for Albright's Freedman Gallery, possesses a strong sense of identity that fuels her love of art. "Art is my career and my career is my art," she says proudly.

As part of the Raghurajpur International Art/Craft Exchange (RIACE) artist residency program, Sarangoulis recently spent five weeks sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the hot and humid, book-sparse library in the village of Raghurajpur, located in the state of Odisha. Along with 15 other international artists from countries such as Germany, Ireland, Australia, Italy, Canada and the U.S., Sarangoulis was selected to exchange ideas and skills with the traditional craftspeople in the village. During RIACE, artists studied age-old traditional crafts in various workshops each week, all taught by village artisans.

Soft-spoken, with salt and pepper hair and glasses perched low on her nose, Sarangoulis, 64, has been interested in the arts of India since she was a teenager. Her long-time desire to live and learn in a place where art is a part of everyday living was realized in the town's close quarters. Raghurajpur is idyllic. Sitting on the southern bank of the Bhargavi River, the village is sheltered by primeval groves of mango, palm and coconut trees. Two neatly arranged rows of streets face each other; a series
of temples entwine the streets, the square and the community meeting place. Firewood, paper maché masks and painted sculptures are set out in the sun to dry. The outer walls of the concrete houses are decorated with colorful mural paintings of Hindu gods and various mythological scenes from the Sanskrit epics of ancient India.

Like a living museum of paintings, this tropical tree-shaded village is quite different from other villages. In 2000, the government
of India selected Raghurajpur to be part of a program to highlight the potential of village tourism. Known as the only village in India where each family, more than 100 households, contains artists – painters, sculptors, carvers, dancers and musicians – and every home is an art studio, Raghurajpur has become a bustling tourist destination, attracting thousands of domestic and foreign visitors each year.

"The villagers were always inviting us to come to their homes to see their work," she says. Besides recalling the friendly refrains of"hello… Namaste… helloo… hah-lo" from the villagers as she passed by, Sarangoulis chuckles at the thought of being referred to as "Takoma" (old grandmother) by the young children. "The people were wonderfully patient and loving, and since everyone knows one another, I embraced the title as a term of endearment," she says.

Many of her classes were held in courtyards on verandas or platforms that served as outdoor studios. Sitting on palm leaf mats with legs crossed and feet bare, often engrossed in intricate detailing, Sarangoulis learned patta chitra, a thousand year-old traditional folk art of storytelling. Done on cloth made from old saris, it is first coated with a mixture of chalk and gum, and then rubbed with tamarind resin and stones to give it a parchment-like texture. Sarangoulis even made pigments from crushed
stones to add the colorful borders and bright pictures of gods, goddesses, flowers and animals to the canvas.

She also learned how to make palm leaf engravings and circular playing cards known as ganjapa. "At first, I wanted to know how
to make cow dung toys. That thought quickly passed when I realized that it was fresh, wet dung that I would be handling," she laughs.

Besides art, Sarangoulis says she enjoyed India's music and the Odissi, a classical dance form that originated in the village. "While we were working on our projects, another class would be having instruction on singing, harmonium and sitar," she says. In the evenings after class, she would visit one of the village dance schools, located in homes, to watch the young boys practicing their dance routines. Other times the artists would present their individual work or a film would be shown. "A professor from the local college once came to lecture about erotica in Indian art," Sarangoulis notes.

Although she describes her experience in India as incredible, amazing and wonderful, it was also difficult and intense. "It was sort of like camping. We did not have any hot water for showers and the electricity would go off and on during the day and night. The temperature did not go below 90 degrees, even at night," she says. Although the personal connection to the craftsmen of Raghurajpur and to her fellow global artists enriched her life, she says it was not easy to see the poverty and how the animals
were treated in large urban areas nearby.

Sarangoulis has been at Albright for 20 years and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Kutztown University. She has an art studio on the third floor of an old factory building in downtown Reading, where she works on her semi-abstract series of bird paintings in watercolor. Exhibiting in many solo and group shows, her most recent work has been displayed at the Hammond Museum, New Salem, N.Y., the North Gallery, Harrisburg, Pa., and the Delaware Center for Horticulture, Wilmington, Del.

Her current art pieces are a menagerie of found objects – old discarded papers, books and paint-by-number works that she alters and embellishes with her own personal style of painting. Her love of recycling found objects and re-imagining the interplay between the natural surface and her contemporary design elements found its perfect match in the new and different painting surfaces she discovered while in India. For Sarangoulis, the traditional pattachitra canvas and palm leaf carvings will now become a ground for new art work. "My art is going to change again," she says.

While in Raghurajpur, Sarangoulis wanted to paint a mural on the wall of the welcome center. "Since I collaborate with artists at
home, I wanted to do a collaborative art project as part of my experience in the village. The mural, which took a week to paint, was my way of sharing my personal imagery with the imagery I saw in their traditional art," she says. A trellis background with leaves and her iconic flying birds now adorns the white-washed walls of the columned building.

For Sarangoulis, art is like oxygen. "One thing leads to another, everything's connected in its own small way. Art never lets me forget who I am," she says.

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