Sneha Shrestha (also known as IMAGINE in the art world) transcends easy categorization. As a calligraffiti artist, arts educator, curator and social entrepreneur, her day to day – much like her art – is never predictable.
Sneha completed her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) in 2017. While at Harvard, she served as Arts Manager for SAI. She proved to be an integral member of the community and a valuable voice for the arts at SAI, curating a show with visiting artists from Nepal and India. She also received an Arts Fund Grant that allowed her to do research in Nepal as part of her Project Zero Artist in Residency. The SAI Grant allowed Sneha to fly to Nepal for 10 days to facilitate her workshop with students in Kathmandu. She currently runs one of SAI’s internship sites, The Children’s Art Museum of Nepal (CAM), which she founded in 2013.
SAI recently spoke to Sneha about art, business, and life after graduation.
What have you have been working on recently?
I am one of this year’s Boston Artists in Residence (AIR). AIR is a yearlong residency project and this year’s theme is resilience and racial equity. AIR allows the city, government, residents of Boston and artists to work together through the arts. I am particularly interested in the Boston Creates Initiative, whose mission is to make art accessible for all people in Boston. Public art is an amazing form of art; murals have the capacity to get everyone from the community involved. Plans are in the works for me to paint a mural for the Harvard-sparked initiative Zone 3 on Western Avenue.
Additionally, I have been working as a Curriculum Designer and Business Strategist for the Learning Labs education technology camps at CAM. I started designing the program while I was at HGSE in Professor Fernando Reimers’ Social Enterprise class. In Reimer’s class, students have the opportunity to learn how to start their own venture. The class was both fun and practical.
Tell me about your paintings.
My paintings are my way of carrying my culture and my experiences with me. They are mindful mantras based on Sanskrit Scriptures, married with contemporary graffiti. Graffiti is something I learned about when I moved to Boston. Blending the two art forms is my way of creating a home away from home.
What was the process of establishing the Children’s Museum?
In 2009, while I was still in college, I had the idea to build CAM. I started by building a library in Nepal for a struggling public school. The goal was to encourage kids to read. As a child, I had limited exposure to art experiences. However, I found it baffling that many children at that public school had never seen paintbrushes. Because of this, I decided to integrate art-making into the library.
When I graduated from college, I worked as a mentor at Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit after-school studio arts program in South Boston. This program helps teens understand entrepreneurship and they get paid to learn in creative studios through painting, silk-screen and photography from mentors. Before this program, I never saw myself as an arts educator.
Many Nepali children do not have the opportunity at school or at home to be creative and to think for themselves. I kept thinking about how my brother was the same age as the teens in the program. I began to wonder, if my brother had the opportunities to make art and express himself in Nepal, would things be different. Would he get into less trouble, be more positive and have more opportunities?
This drove me to create a space for kids in Nepal, space where they would have the opportunity to express themselves through the arts. It was risky, but I was dedicated to my mission. I did what my heart told me: I applied for a grant, quit my job and flew to Nepal.
Fortunately, I received the Advancing Leaders Fellowship from World Learning Projects for Peace grant for $10,000 to design a space dedicated to art and learning for kids in Nepal. They flew me to San Francisco to pitch my project and in June 2013, I flew back to Nepal and started the project. I gathered together a small team to help me crowdfund and put together an official board for what would become CAM. Our goal was to build a permanent place and a sustainable project that makes art accessible and provides 21st-century skills through project-based arts learning.
What is your vision for the future?
CAM has worked with more than 9,000 kids over the past four years. The plan is for us to keep making the museum sustainable and scale up in terms of the curriculum that we are developing. We also want to make CAM’s curriculum available to schools outside of Kathmandu.
Another goal is for us to collaborate with more international partners so there is an exchange of learning and opportunities we provide for children. This February, we are excited to collaborate with the Creativity Museum in San Francisco for a staff and volunteer training. For the past two years, we have had summer interns from Gettysburg College, and this year we opened up the opportunity to Harvard and MIT students.
Could you tell me more about CAM, and what kinds of experiences a student intern could expect?
The CAM internship is a unique opportunity to be a part of a young organization that is the first of its kind in the country. The internship provides students with the opportunity to get insight into how creative nonprofits work in the developing world and learn about education systems from a global perspective. Students also get hands-on opportunities to work with children through the arts. Depending on the student’s background and interests, there are opportunities to design tech-forward museum experiences, such as the learning labs.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.