Kiren Niki Sangra


Written by Jody Farrell
Photography by Kate Ediger

Niki Sangra

Niki Sangra in her studio

Niki Sangra leads me into her small studio in the basement of her family home, where, despite fairly confined quarters, she’s managed to store a most fascinating collection of, well, everything. One shelf houses a line of more than a dozen thick black spiral sketchbooks, documenting just some of the thousands of doodles and exquisite drawings she has made over the years. Makeshift boxes, shelves and countertops abound, housing a myriad of buttons and beads, baubles and wires, pipe cleaners and string, some of which teasingly poke out of their confines, hinting at the playful creation they will one day adorn. A right-angled metal device clamped onto a short track of counter, elbows its way into view exposing Niki’s jewellery-making corner, with all its requisite grinding and polishing gear. A tall bright orange filing cabinet resurrected from the old public library building is squished in among the lot, looking more cheerful in its repurposed role with its once-card-filled drawers now re-designated: Ribbon, Encaustic, Sewing, Felt, Paper Rolls, Glitter.

There are brushes and bottles and jars full of what Niki deems “bits and bobs”, a delightful but pure Niki expression, recalling childhood books and films including Mary Poppins, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and the like.
“I read a lot as a kid. I still do. Fairy tales were a big part of that,” she explains.

No surprise there. Her sketches feature doodles that evolve from simple, initial renderings into fully-realized storybook characters, mostly animal in nature. Her creation Reginald, is an elegant, grandfatherly-looking elephant who appears to have stepped out of a British period piece. He stands nattily dressed in striped pajamas and a dapper housecoat, drinking tea (with raised finger replacing the would-be toe-nailed foot) and donning a gold-handled cane.

Reginald, Niki Sangra

Reginald, Niki Sangra

Niki was making art even as a very young child, doodling on paper as her mom sat nearby. Her mother recalls occasionally dozing off and awakening to find her daughter still caught up in her drawings. Later, Niki spent happy hours making dolls and dressing and decorating them with fabric scraps and ornamental bits provided by an aunt, who, as luck would have it, was both her sitter and a seamstress.

“I’ve always loved costumes. At one point I thought about going into fashion or costume design. I research historical references if I have something in mind, or if the character looks like he or she might dress a certain way. Drawing animals instead of people allows for greater association [by viewers]. They are a stand-in for people and are dressed as such.”

Niki agrees that her East Indian culture, in all its splendour and adornment, plays its part in her work. “I don’t think of it as finished without [the decorative element]. It starts with me looking at something and slowly adding layers, until it feels right. There’ll be beads here, embroidery there, until I like its look and feel it will stand out.”

It was through her position as Creative Operations Coordinator with Grande Prairie’s Centre for Creative Arts (CFCA) that Niki initiated the now widely popular Wearable Arts Show included in the CFCA Alberta Arts and Culture Days festivities. The fall fashion performance and its innovative designs bring out hundreds of spectators and Niki’s own creations are favourites among the crowd. A bustle she fastened to the back of a dress for one show features an enchanted forest, replete with tiny mushrooms and moss. “Every time I see real moss out there, I have to pet it,” Niki laughs. “It reminds me of the smell of the forest, and is also very storybook…”

Journey, Niki Sangra

Journey, Niki Sangra

A graduate of Grande Prairie Regional College (Diploma of Visual Art, 2002), and The Alberta College of Art and Design (BFA in Jewellery and Metals, 2006), Niki uses her full given name, Kiren Niki Sangra, in her art. One of her works was awarded first place among entries including top area artists at the Art of the Peace Regional Juried Art Exhibition in 2009. Another, featured in the CFCA’s inaugural group exhibition in its then newly-renovated downtown location, included flying teacups hovering above a woodland scene. In her inimitably cheerful way, Niki titled that 2010 creation Oh Those Pesky Teacups. It garnered a People’s Choice Award in a later show.

Her solo exhibition, Flights of Fancy (2011), introduced watercolour illustrations of Niki’s many storybook characters in another wondrous setting. A guestbook accompanying the show was filled with praise, including one viewer’s heartfelt remarks: “You have processed my whims on paper and canvas. Your work makes me happy and shines light in my darkness. The pictures soothe my inner child.”

Her most recent solo show, Stargazer (2013), whose nighttime constellations are rendered in drawings and embroidery, was chosen by the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie and Alberta Foundation for the Arts TREX exhibition to travel to rural communities throughout the coming year. Todd Schaber, curator of the AGGP’s TREX program, writes of Kiren Niki Sangra’s work in the show’s introduction: “Her art is whimsical, playful and fun and always leaves you with a sense of wonder.”

Little Night Owl, Niki Sangra

Little Night Owl, Niki Sangra

It’s hard to guess, given her exceptional mind and exquisite talent, just where Niki’s art might head next. Many are waiting for The Book. One can hardly miss the mark of a burgeoning Beatrix Potter, but Niki is still working on that. She wants to write the stories and not just inject her well-constructed character illustrations into someone else’s tale.

Still, she keeps expanding her roster of creations. In the 2014 Art of the Peace group exhibition “Home is Where the Art Is,” one of Niki’s entries featured an animated self-portrait of the artist peering over her glasses, an elaborate and stylized illustration of herself being ‘funny and sassy,’ she says. An even funnier self-portrait has her re-imagined-as-puppet; bespectacled, google-eyed with a wide, laughing, muppet-style mouth.

Artist and colleague Janet Enfield is a great fan of Niki’s work. “Those puppets she makes. Such complex animation. And she makes it light, airy and recognizable.”

She marvels at the very breadth of Niki’s creativity. “She also does all those posters for the CFCA. And she’s somehow able to put [the exhibitor’s] personality into it and knows how to feature you in the best light possible.”

Niki says her own creations will most always lean toward the lighter side of life. “It’s who I am. I’m positive. I like to put things out there that make me, and others smile.”

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