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Collaging Religion, Quitting Day Jobs, and Outfoxing Conceptual Art — Interview with NFN Kalyan


NFN Kalyan’s artistic journey is a testament to courage and authenticity. At 27, with a young family to support, he took a decisive leap, transitioning from a stable job in jewelry design to a full-time artist. 

His initial creations, a self-portrait in ballpoint pen and a conceptual blend of Vishnu and Jesus, marked the inception of his unique artistic path. This bold move was the beginning of a career that would see him navigate challenges with ingenuity and determination, particularly in the competitive Miami art scene where he made his first significant strides.

Kalyan’s work is deeply influenced by his diverse cultural background, encompassing Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and atheist perspectives. This rich tapestry of influences is reflected in his art, which often merges various cultural and philosophical elements. 

His process, combining meticulous technique with intuitive creation, exemplifies his approach to art as a holistic and deeply human endeavor. As he navigates the intersections of traditional and digital art worlds, Kalyan continues to evolve, bringing a unique and resonant voice to contemporary art.

Brady Walker: Let’s jump right into it. I’m eager to discuss your biography and body of work. It’s said that at 27, with a one-year-old child, you quit your job to become a full-time artist. That’s quite a leap. What was the first picture you drew after making that decision?

NFN Kalyan: The first thing I drew was a self-portrait with a ballpoint pen. It was more about getting my hand moving again and seeing how far I could technically push the pen. The second piece was more conceptual, a blend of Vishnu and Jesus on the cross, which really foreshadows the work I do now. It wasn’t planned as a definitive path, but it naturally evolved into one.

BW: What was the conversation like with your family and loved ones when you decided to do this?

NFK: It had always been clear that I was going to do something with art. It took me some time to realize that you just have to say what’s inside you and be honest. As you get older, you can become a better artist through introspection. My wife at the time accepted my decision. I didn’t discuss it beforehand; I just left my job. I had some money saved, and I wasn’t leaving a poverty-stricken situation since I was working in jewelry design. But there was a sense of urgency to make something happen.

The Good Dinosaur by NFN Kalyan

BW: Did you have a plan for earning an income at that point?

NFK: I had no plan other than knowing I had to create work that was instantly recognizable as interesting. I couldn’t afford to be too abstract or conceptual because I lacked credentials. I was just a guy who had to produce work that stood out immediately. The ballpoint pen drawings were a start, but I quickly moved on to layered glass sculptures, which brought my first recognition.

BW: Your ballpoint pen pieces are quite interesting—they look like drawings of collages, with a multi-panel, Mobius vibe. I really enjoy those pieces, but I see what you mean; the glass sculptures definitely grab more attention. Where did you live when you started?

NFK: I was in Miami. I’d moved here when I was 23, so it had been about four years. Miami’s good for art, but not great, especially for local artists. Collectors here, even the big ones, prefer to buy art represented by New York galleries. Once, I asked a Miami gallery for advice as I was struggling, and they told me that even if they showed my work, it wouldn’t make my name—I needed to make my mark elsewhere. I had a family, so uprooting everything wasn’t an option.

Nelson by NFN Kalyan

BW: So, you approached it differently?

NFK: It was pure grit. Many artists here have significant Instagram followings but still live with their parents. I didn’t want that. I had to improvise, so I asked someone at an art fair if he would represent my work. He knew nothing about art, but he was interested. He agreed, and that got me into the fair where I met Vincent, the owner of IV Gallery. He represents me now in NFT and physical spaces. Our long-standing relationship has been a major factor in my success today.

BW: Let’s rewind to your college days. You didn’t graduate because the department had issues with your thesis, right? What happened there?

NFK: My current work is technical and high concept, but back in college, it was pure concept, no technique. I always did whatever I wanted. For example, in an installation class, we were to alter a room’s environment. Everyone worked hard, but I procrastinated. The night before, I had a random nosebleed during sit-ups. At the ER, they cauterized my nose, and I returned home exhausted at 5 a.m. With no project, I wrote about beans, had a classmate distribute them, and went to sleep. They were to come to my room, knock, then enter. When they did, I was out of it, covered in blood. I then smashed beans into underwear I found and returned to bed. They gave me an A for changing the environment.

For my senior show, I continued to procrastinate. With a week left, while others prepared, I did nothing. I brought a stolen bike and a moved statue into my space, sticking postcards on the wall, making others laugh. My teacher found it interesting, but the department head disagreed. After issues with campus security and the department head, they decided I wouldn’t graduate. They offered me another chance with a video project, but I defied the instructions and chose not to graduate out of stubbornness.

Pope Francis by NFN Kalyan

BW: With everything that happened in college, what did you actually take away from the experience? Did it contribute anything to your current life or open your eyes to anything?

NFK: It taught me life lessons rather than art. I realized you must carve your own path. Back then, I was just doing what seemed expected, but my heart wasn’t in it. My grades were mediocre—B’s and C’s—and my family didn’t get why I couldn’t match my sister’s straight A’s. 

The pivotal lesson was finding and staying true to what’s within you, then navigating the world from there. The college offered no support; the administration didn’t appreciate my actions. You’d think a liberal arts school would be more accepting, but it wasn’t. This narrow-mindedness started showing up more around then. Like when Condoleezza Rice or a Republican was scheduled to speak, there would be protests. That’s not my style; I say let them speak. The same school later had an uproar over “Trump 2024” written in chalk—no obscenities, just a name and year, but it unsettled the school. 

That environment, which didn’t take well to even the harmless things I was doing, taught me that not fitting their mold was frowned upon. From that, I learned about maturity. Now, being 41, I’d do things differently—I’d follow their rules but within my own interests. Back then, though, I wasn’t capable of that.

Coda (Rotation) by NFN Kalyan

BW: Let’s fast forward to the topic of your career earnings after you quit your job. Did you have any early successes?

NFK: I have an unreasonable amount of confidence, which has always been with me. I feel grateful for every success, yet I also feel it’s deserved because I’ve worked for it. I have something to say, and I don’t doubt that. What I question is whether my current work is good and if I can continue to grow. Successes are just markers; the confidence was never in question. When people aren’t interested, I find it strange because it’s always seemed obvious to me that they would be. I’ve earned my confidence through hard work and technical proficiency, and by thinking deeply about life to find meaningful things to say.

The Kali Yuga by NFN Kalyan

BW: For me, choosing to become a professional was a practical decision rather than retreating to a cabin in the woods. I’m curious about how you engage with the world and translate that into your art. Could you advise an artist who feels they have nothing to say?

NFK: The most compelling artists speak honestly from the heart. Art that stands the test of time may not always achieve commercial success, but if it resonates honestly with the human experience, it’s successful. That doesn’t require any specific technique; when you see it, you know it’s special. 

Art should come from the universal human experiences of joy, pain, and loss. We can build philosophical ideas on that foundation. Some artists start with a philosophical idea or a quick emotional response to politics, which can be powerful, but it needs to come from a deeper place. 

Take the German expressionist Käthe Kollwitz’s painting of a woman holding her dead child—it’s about political issues but grounded in human experience that’s still palpable today. It’s not a generic protest; it holds its meaning perpetually. Artists must find that truth within themselves. If you’re authentic, your voice will be unique and universally resonant. People will recognize there’s something substantial there, even if they can’t relate to the specific art piece.

Duality by NFN Kalyan

BW: You mentioned earlier about your drawings of Vishnu and Jesus, combining Hindu and Christian elements. Can you expand on how your background influenced this?

NFK: I grew up with a Hindu perspective, which is more of a worldview than a religion. It’s become more dogmatic recently, but traditionally, Hinduism embraced various beliefs, even atheism or the belief in Jesus. This dharmic worldview underpinned our culture, with figures like Baba fitting seamlessly into it. In India, Christians and Muslims were initially integrated, though there have been clashes.

My background is diverse: my grandparents were atheist, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu, and all these influences are in me. My work reflects this integration, throwing together everything from pop culture to religion. It embodies the Hindu worldview of total acceptance, yet each piece has its own message. I’m doing social commentary from an Eastern perspective, while many Western artists incorporate Eastern elements from a Western viewpoint. Though I grew up in the West, my upbringing was so insulated that I see things from an Eastern lens.

My view is that as a species, we are destructive, but it’s part of our nature. Unlike the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck, who isolated himself, I chose to engage with the world through art. Our society’s logistics, from getting milk to the store to the roads trucks drive on, are inherently destructive. Some might seek solace in organic living, but it’s not truly in sync with nature.

In the West, there’s anger towards our impact on the planet, like Greta Thunberg’s protests. But every species has shaped the Earth, and it seems we’re meant to transform it, even if it means polluting. While I sometimes desire a simpler life on a farm, my art suggests that we find peace with our role in the world. This might allow us to resolve the conflict with our nature and perhaps find a way out.

BW: Your thoughts on AI and its role in the artistic process resonate with me, especially considering our societal trajectory. You’ve mentioned we live in a simulation; could you elaborate on that?

NFK: We’ve built an incredible society over our species’ history by continually building upon our previous achievements. This has created an acceleration, starting with language, which defined things within parameters. Now we’re in an era of unbelievable acceleration, from the industrial to the electronic age, and everything has changed drastically just in the past 20 years. AI is the latest layer, and while I can speculate, it’s hard to grasp its full impact. It’s another step in this acceleration, and I’ve dabbled in generative art, but I’m almost blank when considering the enormity of AI.

I don’t necessarily want to be part of all these advancements. At 41, I wonder if people my age felt the world passing them by as I do now. My kids are growing up in a world that will be unrecognizable compared to mine. My grandmother saw the introduction of cars, but the changes I’ve witnessed in 40 years seem just as drastic. Regarding AI in art, I don’t fear it; it will likely be accepted just as NFTs have been, driven by interest and money. It won’t replace traditional art forms, but it will integrate, just like video art didn’t replace painting. Anything can become art; a toilet seat was art in 1917, and that mindset persists.

son of alotta by NFN Kalyan

BW: Even Refik Anadol’s AI installation at MoMA shows acceptance, even if Jerry Saltz hated it.

NFK: I make fun of Jerry a lot. I like him, but I think he’s a failed artist because he stopped. Now he’s telling others how to be artists. His book, How to Be an Artist — there’s no universal method, Jerry. Being true can be summed up in a few words; you don’t need a book for it.

BW: I haven’t read How to Be an Artist, but I have his recent essay collection, which I’ve found helpful in catching me up on anything I’ve missed over the years in contemporary art.

NFK: Jerry has things to say, but I take issue with that angle of his. Some might find his book helpful though, like realizing they need to work harder or stop procrastinating. There’s value in that, sure. From Jerry’s perspective.

BW: Considering your large-scale, detailed paintings and glass etching, your process must be pretty involved. Could you walk me through both the technical and the thought process as your work evolves into a statement?

NFK: I used to start a piece and just work through it. Once it took 19 months to finish a painting, which was not financially practical. Now, I compose entirely in Photoshop before painting; the painting part has become more of a rote process, almost like complex paint by numbers. The real work is in the composition, the combination of elements. This approach is akin to music sampling—I cut up and splice elements from various sources to create something new. As a musician, I translate that process to my paintings. Each element in the paintings is part of a vocabulary that the viewer already has a relationship with, which helps to tell a broader story.

In Hindu art tradition, it’s all figurative, and I adhere to that, too. Artists like Ravi Varma and MF Hussain revolutionized Hindu figurative art, even at the expense of controversy. Varma painted traditional figures in a Western style, which was initially rejected but is now accepted. Hussain faced exile for his depictions. My work has received similar backlash, leading to threats and criticism, particularly when combining figures like Jesus and Vishnu. There’s no intention to insult—my goal is to create beautiful work that comments on the world.

When I create, I start with one element and respond to that intuitively. It’s an improvisational process, culminating in compositions that might include a mix of Krishna, Thanos, Pokémon, and Jesus. I don’t fully explain my pieces because doing so narrows their meaning and the viewer’s interpretation. The only time I intervene is to clarify that no insult was intended. My work is about speaking to the human condition and our societal continuum, even looking towards the future.

The Revenge by NFN Kalyan

BW: You shared with me a recent piece on Nifty, a photo of your father’s coffin. It’s not the usual artful piece and is quite stark. Why did you choose to make that?

NFK: That photo came from a part of me that just had to do it. When my father died, I was in shock. Within 24 hours, I was standing next to his body, having just seen him alive two weeks before. I took the photo without any thought of minting it. Maybe it was the artist in me, capturing the last image of my father. Months later, the idea to mint it and delete it from my phone emerged. It was about the nature of these moments we keep on our phones, which is odd. Selling it means I pass on its ownership. Once on the blockchain, it’s there indefinitely. It struck me in a strange way that I can’t fully explain.

This act fits into the larger body of my work. I’m an artist who will do anything, shifting from sculptures to NFTs once I discovered them. Despite the technical aspects of my work, intuition guides me, and this was one of those intuitive decisions. Some say it’s in bad taste, but my love for my father is profound. It’s about the continuum of love—I see it in my children, and I know it’s how my father loved his father. My relationship with my father was good, and my children express the same sentiments about me. It’s part of a larger thing, this thread of love that exists in that photo. My son says he got the best dad, which is a reflection of this. I was lucky to be born into this loving continuum. I don’t think it was in bad taste. I believe my father would understand. It’s tough to put into words what these things mean.

IMG_6181.HEIC (My Father’s Body) by NFN Kalyvan

BW: I was actually quite shocked by the picture of your father’s body, considering your usual work. It felt so personal, and I appreciate how you balance technical skill with intuition in your art.

NFK: Artists shouldn’t really appraise their own work, but in my view, that piece is my finest. It’s not because it’s a good photo or because it’s my dad. There’s just something about the act of minting it, the whole process, that works for me.

BW: It’s very vulnerable and feels like you’re letting people into your personal loss and memories.

NFK: Yeah.

BW: If you could advise your 27-year-old self, just as you were quitting your job to pursue art, what would you say?

NFK: It’s tough. I tend to accept everything as it happened, but the advice I’d give to artists, which I think I followed, is to be true and honest, to do what’s in your heart. Once it’s done, view your art as a commodity—it’s not you anymore. Sell it. Artists often undervalue their work. Understand it’s about survival; sell your work and recognize the game of networking. I’ve been lucky, but successful artists are those who know people. Early in my career, I should’ve pushed more to meet people. It’s not just about your work being good; you need to know people, be kind, and not be taken advantage of. Eventually, the work needs to stand up, and that comes from being honest and working hard. Young artists who make it might think they’ve made it, but at 41, I still don’t know everything. Keep striving to be truer, infusing that into your work.

Victory by NFN Kalyan

BW: Diving deeper into why humans create art, if process is this indelible aspect of art, doesn’t it go beyond simply another form of communication?

NFK: It’s not just communication; art is a byproduct of the ability to think abstractly. Dolphins and chimps exhibit creative behavior, but not at our level. Abstract concepts like money and language arise from creative impulses, some linked to survival. However, there’s a human desire to create that’s unrelated to survival. It’s a byproduct of the mind imagining what isn’t there, coupled with an emotional component. Other species also show unnecessary behaviors, suggesting it’s an intrinsic aspect of intelligent life.

AI and generative art are part of this process. Life is process, and we often miss that, becoming alienated by our removed, microwave society, leading to unhappiness. People who find happiness in activities like painting or gardening engage in a process. The love for a tree or the daily care for children is all about the process. Generative art, even though it’s different from traditional art-making, involves a process of creation and reaction. It’s about engaging with life, which is essentially a series of processes. We shouldn’t distance ourselves too much from this, as it’s at the core of being human. Success often reflects back to the process, not the endpoint. It’s about the journey, the climb. Those who’ve reached the top often realize that the process of getting there was the best part. In the end, the process may be the essence of life itself.

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