Traditionally employed in making products of everyday use—like furniture, handbags, clothing, journals and so on—artificial leather as a medium is not commonly used by artists. While one may find old pots and decanters in leather with floral imagery in a collector’s home or old shops dealing in vintage leather items, contemporary artworks done in leather are not generally seen in galleries. But one visual artist is out to change this. 29-year-old Mehul Rathod uses leather as his primary medium. He has been doing so for the last five years now and has attained great skill and expertise with the material.
Rathod has made portraits of a number of artists—such as Van Gogh, Rene Magritte, Picasso —all using artificial leather. He usually picks a famous portrait by a well-known artist, and gives his own visual rendering to the original by using leather.
The artist spoke to Guardian 20 about the choice of his medium. “Traditional medium doesn’t interest me much. I like to create something different. Also, as Ahmedabad is rich in textiles, I easily get a lot of colourful artificial leather here. Though I started my practice with traditional medium, I observed that every other person is making works in that. I wanted to create something new. So I started making such works in coloured paper, moved on to metal and then finally settled with artificial leather,” Rathod said.
He believes that constant experimentation with mediums is what keeps him going. “My idea is to remain creative by making use of various mediums available around us. Artificial leather will always have strong presence in my work but if some time in the future I discover other mediums which would help me in displaying my creativity the way I would want to, I’ll bring that in the studio,” said Rathod.
His works appear like highly pixellated photographs. Looking at these pieces, one tries to guess the Photoshop tools used to create these. But as one moves closer, one sees the presence of variegated artificial leather utilised with great originality. “I visualise each leather strip as a pixel and give the artwork that kind of appearance,” he said. “I cut thin strips of artificial leather and fix them meticulously on the canvas to create the images. My work is full of imagination and fantasy. I choose the artists who have achieved respect all over the world by their work. I represent the artists who were not necessarily beautiful in a conventional sense but displayed a charm in their personality and work which often attracted a large number of people.”
“Traditional medium doesn’t interest me much. I like to create something different. Also, as Ahmedabad is rich in textiles, I easily get a lot of colourful artificial leather here.”
Rathod’s palette is rich in colour. He meticulously employs coloured material in accordance with the personality of the artist. “In the portrait of Van Gogh,” he said, “I have used red along with the original blue to add shades of his intense personality. Van Gogh was famous for using bold colours. His works are dramatic and highly expressive, and through the use of red, I wanted to reflect his strong personality. In the same artwork I have created crows which are borrowed from his last painting, Wheat Field with Crows, to convey the extreme sadness he felt during his lifetime which led him to create the aforementioned painting.”
Rathod was born and brought up in Ahmedabad, and enjoys working there. A certain lack in terms of public awareness of art, as compared to other big cities, doesn’t cause inconvenience to the artist. He said, “There is little doubt in the fact that cities like Delhi and Mumbai provide a lot of opportunities to young artists to sell their works and even network in the fraternity, but I believe that for me a small town works better for the practice.”
He further added: “The infrastructure available here suffices my requirements as an artist. I have completed my studies in fine arts in this city. There are a few good centres here which provide a platform for young artists like me to exchange their ideas and experiment with new techniques. I detest crowds and noise when I am in the process of making an artwork, which you can’t avoid in metros like New Delhi or Mumbai. I have been to these cities but I don’t think I can work there due to the fast pace of life one is subjected to there.”
Like most young artists, Rathod too has faced difficulties in getting his work noticed, but he has never thought of giving up. He was also supported by his family who time and again boosted his confidence. “I always wanted to be an artist,” he said. “My father, who also paints during the spare time he gets after his job, understood my talent and encouraged me to pursue a career in art. When I graduated, I couldn’t fully grasp the way one can earn a living as an artist. I was not aware whom to approach to pitch the work and how to grow more in my chosen field. Despite all such challenges I never stopped making art and eventually the situation got better.”