Artist Sunil Howlader

April 15, 2021

Bright colors and bold strokes suffuse Sunil Howlader’s energetic paintings with emotion and a deeply felt sense of place.

Text by Paula M. Bodah

Sunil Howlader can’t recall life before his compulsion to create art. He was barely past kindergarten age when he became fascinated with two photographs in one of his schoolbooks. The subjects of the photos, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, didn’t mean much to the little boy, but the idea of setting down a lifelike image on paper spoke to him, and he did his best to copy what he saw.

This was the early 1970s, shortly after Bangladesh had won independence from Pakistan, and resources were scarce, especially in Howlader’s rural village. If he wanted to make art, he would have to be resourceful. Pencils for drawing were available, but where was he to find the paints he needed?

He saw how his mother’s fingers turned yellow when she cooked with turmeric. With her permission, he mixed the spice with water to make a paste. He had also seen girls in his village using altha, a red dye, to color their feet and hands for special occasions. “I took it from my sister—I didn’t tell her,” he confesses. Green beans, when mashed, provided a green liquid suitable for painting, he discovered. “So for me, the primary colors were yellow, red, and green,” he says.

It was a long journey from the copying of textbook pictures to the Master of Fine Arts from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, to International Artist in Residence at the Griffis Art Center in New London, to his current life as a resident of Mystic and a critically acclaimed artist, but for Howlader, some things haven’t changed. Vibrant color is still at the center of his art, and his bold, expressive, semi-abstract work is rich with a sense of place, whether in reference to his native land or his adoptive country.

Some pieces, like his Festival series, recall his childhood and the Bengali New Year celebrations that brought brightly decorated elephants to his village. Others, such as his paintings of kayakers under the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, are a direct reflection of his life here. “I paint what I see,” Howlader says. But more than that, he adds, “I paint the essence of what I see.” Just as that little boy sought to do decades ago when he set about mixing his own paints.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sunil Howlader is represented by Geary Gallery, Darien, gearygallery.com, Chase Young Gallery, Boston, chaseyounggallery.com, and Art 3 Gallery, Manchester, N.H., art3gallery.com. To see more of his work, visit sunilhowlader.com.