There’s multi-hyphenates and then there’s Vivek Shraya. She’s a best-selling author, model, musician, visual artist, photographer, playwright, performer and founder of publishing house, VS Books—not to mention a brand ambassador for MAC Cosmetics, Aēsop and Pantene. Shraya has been featured everywhere from Vogue India to ELLE to Bustle and won many awards for her boundary-breaking work. Oh, and did we mention she’s also a university professor? The 41-year-old Edmonton, Alberta, native teaches creative writing at the University of Calgary on top of everything else. Even with a demanding day job, Shraya makes sure to carve out time for what she loves most: creating artistic work that challenges notions of gender and celebrates her ever-evolving identity as a trans woman of color.
But growing up in Edmonton had its challenges. “I encountered a lot of homophobia from grade 7 to grade 12, and around that time, I started exploring the arts more. I was just drawn to creativity. Artistic classes gave me a place for self-expression which was so necessary for me,” says Shraya. She wrote her first song when she was 13, and with the encouragement of her friends and family, she moved to Toronto to pursue music. “One of the things I have found challenging is making enough money from creative work to fully pay for rent and life, so I’ve always needed a day job of some sort,” says Shraya, who has been working in the academic world for 20 years.
We called her one afternoon to find out how she finds the balance between academic work and creative work, what advice she’d give young, aspiring artists and what she’s working on next (spoiler alert: it’s a nuanced children’s book about raccoons).
How do you find time to be an artist and a professor in one day?
“It’s really about treating [your art] like work. That sounds kind of ‘blah,’ but there’s no perfect time to make art. Your calendar generally doesn’t just clear up for months and months.” Shraya recommends blocking time off in your calendar, so you can hold yourself accountable.”
When you’re feeling drained, what do you do to spark creativity?
“I don’t usually feel ‘creatively drained,’ I feel ‘life drained’ sometimes. But creativity is something that keeps my engine going, and working on multiple projects and being inspired are my juice. One of the things I’ve been finding very inspiring is going to check out other art.”
How did you define success growing up versus what does it mean to you now?
“Success when I was younger was very much about making as big of an impact as possible. I really wanted to be a pop star, I wanted to be known by masses and masses of people. Now, as an adult, success is actually about having time: having time to make work, having time to not make work, having time to tour, having time to think about ideas. That to me feels like the greatest form of success because time ends up being the thing that gets eaten up the most, and often not in the ways you want it to be.”
What would you tell your younger self?
“You are going to be forced to bet on yourself a lot, especially in industries that are sexist, racist and homophobic. And things aren’t always going to work out the way that you want, but you will somehow build a life where you get to be a professional artist. Ultimately, the risks you take are going to pay off.”
What advice would you give young, aspiring artists?
“We continue to move more and more into a world of instants: instant response, instant gratification, instant connection, instant success. Everyone’s dream is to go viral on TikTok, and that’s a fine ambition to have, but what has served me has been thinking about the big picture. Don’t just think about what you want to be doing six months from now; a year from now. Make choices that are about a long-term path. Also, try not to compare yourself to other people. Invest your time and energy in things that matter like, ‘Are you making good work? Are you making art that you’re proud of? Are you making art that you can stand behind?’”
Anything you’re working on you could share with us?
“In the fall, I have a children’s picture book coming out called Revenge of the Racoons which is inspired by my time in Toronto and being terrified by those trash pandas. Then, my play, How to Fail as a Popstar will be touring all across Ontario in the fall. I’m also just wrapping up a new record. It’s my first full-length record since 2009. I’m really, really, really proud of it. I’m hoping it’ll be out in the fall as well.”
Photo Credit: Vanessa Heins
And now onto the Rapid Fire… Who are you inspired by right now?
“Kehlani. I really, really love her new album [Blue Water Road] and I can’t stop listening to it.”
How many unread work emails do you have right now?
“I don’t understand what you mean by ‘unread work emails.’ This girlboss is on top of it. All jokes aside, that’s the thing that keeps me up at night. I’m one of those people that tends to respond really fast—like 5 minutes later. So, no unread emails in the inbox right now.”
How do you unwind at the end of a long day?
“Pizza. Just a big cheese pizza. The best pizza I’ve ever had—I called it ‘The Beyoncé of Pizzas’ on Twitter last week—is in New York at Highline Pizzeria. It was just incredible.”
What do you look for in an employee/collaborator?
“I’m a Type A personality and I find it difficult to work with people who aren’t Type A personalities. When you work with someone, you have to work with them. Their work traits almost trump whatever else they can bring to the table. I do kind of want them to be just like me.”
Best piece of advice?
“‘You need to make the bad art to make the good art.’ It can be really hard when you’re in a rut and you’re making work that you’re not excited about, but creativity is a muscle and the only way to get to greatness is by just doing it, and doing it over and over and over again.”
Worst piece of advice?
“When I was newly single, I got so much advice that was like, ‘You just need to go out there and have sex.’ No judgment—I know that that works for a lot of people, but for me, I was like, 'I am grieving.' I cannot imagine taking my clothes off in front of someone else. That just seemed like the worst scenario possible.”
What does the term 'girlboss' mean to you?
“It’s someone who never has a full inbox, so… basically me. No, I’m joking. Somebody who is willing to take risks, to think outside the box, to push the envelope. Someone who’s interested in changing the culture around them, who’s doing things slightly differently, who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, who bets on themselves and who is also invested in supporting other people.”
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