When I’m on the train, I draw a lot. I have absolutely no time for meditation. But when I’m painting, that’s…my meditation.”
Wattie Kalicharan paints goddesses in her spare time. She doesn’t have to go far–along Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, dozens of religious shops await her services. Her favorite, Shakti Saree Store, where Wattie paints late into the evening, is chock-full of murtis. At 22, the New York City College of Technology student juggles her graphic design courses, a gig at Lens Crafters in Manhattan, volunteering at her temple, and if she’s lucky, time with her boyfriend.
Painting came to Kalicharan in the form of dreams. When she was 16, she started seeing visions of the Hindu goddess Kali. Her family wasn’t so keen on Kali worship—the destruction often associated with the deity didn’t suit their beliefs.
Her father discovered she was “born under Kali,” which Wattie explained means (in astrological terms) that her October birthday aligns with Kali’s planet, Venus. Even her last name, “Kalicharan,” means “at the feet of Kali.”
Despite her family’s uncertainty, Wattie’s dreams persisted, and she began painting scenes from Hindu scripture. An administrative snafu with her Jamaica High School transcript delayed her admission to college, so she focused full-time on her painting business and eventually garnered a steady income. Four years later, her business has led her to pursue graphic design. She sees this as a way to use her love of drawing to help people, like her friends, many of whom are entrepreneurial creatives in the Guyanese community.
Open City interviewed Wattie about painting and her hustle in Richmond Hill.
When did you shift from painting for fun to painting for business?
When my parents saw how well it was going, it was making me happier. I started showing my other friends and family. Other people wanted to buy art from me. It’s something I personalized for myself, but also for a way that they’re feeling. I started the business, thinking this is good not only for myself, but for other people.
The murtis were in need of some help. That’s how I started painting there. Because I’d be there so late…he said, “You take care of us, you take care of the temple. You can have a set of keys.”
If there’s more than one god in the painting, I price it that way. I only price it by size and by picture. [For a 2’X3’ painting, Wattie charges $100.] I learned this stuff by doing it. I had no knowledge of how to do shipping…as I was growing into it, I was learning more and more.
Are your friends also religious?
Most of my friends are not that into religion. Our Hinduism is split into categories. We all believe in something different. It becomes a challenge to understand what all the rituals mean. They often feel it’s mandatory so they’d rather not do it. A lot of them who were religious, tend to fall apart from it. And the ones who haven’t really been in it are more attracted to it.
What’s a typical day at the temple like? How did you get started there?
My boyfriend’s uncle owns the temple. [When I first went there], the murtis were burnt from the smoke. Dark, gray, no life to them. The murtis were in need of some help. That’s how I started painting there. Because I’d be there so late, [painting], he said, “You take care of us, you take care of the temple. You can have a set of keys.’”
The community of my temple, the Adishakti Mahakali Temple on the border of Richmond Hill/Jamaica —they’re very friendly people, very helpful. They make you feel at home. You feel safe and comfortable. You just want to be in that environment when you’re there. I’ve been there from 1 in the afternoon until 3 in the morning. It’s just so peaceful. When I’m there I usually take care of the murtis, I bathe them, clothe them, redress them. I clean the temple itself. I paint the walls when no one’s there. So by Sunday morning it’s a surprise for everyone. It’s pretty much remodeling that room to make all these people feel wonderful and welcome. When I’m on the train, I draw a lot. I have absolutely no time for meditation. But when I’m painting, that’s…my meditation.”
Do other people your age have this entrepreneurial spirit?
I feel like teenagers have that mindset, but don’t know how to go about doing it. Some people don’t know how to start up from nowhere. My boyfriend buys and sells cars, Snakes Customs. He creates what the person buying the car wants. I’ll help painting the car, fixing little things here and there. I’ll promote his business by making his logo and setting up his website. Whenever I have to do a big painting at a mandir, he’s always lending a helping hand.
What are some of the trends you notice among your friends and their work lives?
It is very difficult to find a job now. It’s who you know, it’s no longer what you know. They try, and it’s very difficult, so they try to find their own thing, becoming entrepreneurs. You have to have that thing on the side to help boost you up. We have Guyanese friends who make t-shirts, clothing lines, graphic design, working on cars, photographers, buying and selling…supplies, car parts. Things of that sort. It’s definitely different from their parents. Their parents have regular, everyday jobs. Not really much of the hustle. Because of the day and age we live in now, you want a name for yourself. A lot of us think that by doing this now, becoming entrepreneurs, by putting your own ideas out there, rather than living by someone else’s idea.