A fly on the walls of Vancouver’s cafes, bars, cinemas and metro-stations, the Sneaky Artist (a name he coined for himself) innocuously positions himself on bar stools, street corners, park benches, and wherever else life is unraveling. Taking out his fountain pen and sketch book from his coat pockets, he begins to sketch, surreptitiously, not drawing attention to himself. He tags himself as the ‘seen but unseen’ artist, for he sees art everywhere he goes. His sights are presently set on Vancouver.
Meet Nishant Jain, a new immigrant of Indian origin who moved recently from Chicago to Vancouver, where he and his dentist wife came seeking wider horizons. Passersby will hardly give him a second glance as he seems engrossed in his book. But the denizens of this bustling, green, seaport city of Vancouver may not be aware he has sketched them on the pages of his journals. Although some curious Vancouverites passing by have approached him and examined his work.
Thirty-four-year old Jain is an ‘urban sketcher.’ Urban sketching is a form of artistic reportage, a visual reporting of location in the cities, towns, or villages lived in or traveled to.
The Urban Sketchers’ movement and the movers involved describe this art as capturing a moment in time in a unique, artistic way, telling stories with drawings based on observation.
“I like being a fly on the wall … observing life as it happens,” Jain told NCM.
Sitting at Blenz Coffee shop at the intersection of Granville and Davie streets a few months back, this low key artist completed 73 drawings of pedestrians waiting at the crosswalk. The cityscape of Vancouver is slowly building up on his pages.
An obsession became reality
Jain drew himself a future. His academic journey began in Calcutta, India. He earned a mechanical engineering degree in Manipal, a suburb near Udupi, in Karnataka. His next move was to Delft in the province of South Holland, the Netherlands, to do his master’s in engineering. He was two and half years into his PhD when he closed his academic chapter and picked up his pen and pad to indulge in his magnificent obsession: drawing.
“It was a yearning, deep and strong,” he said. “Believe me I could not draw. I could only do stick figures, straight lines for two arms, a body and two legs. I was ashamed of my inability to draw. I was sneaking around, felt the need to hide what I was doing on a scrap book, pretending, sheepish, but determined to make it.”
The figures he drew soon became popular, and his articles, comments, cartoons and blurbs caught global attention as he used the internet to promote his art. By the time he moved to the town of Eau Claire, Wisconsin near Chicago, he was being commissioned to draw.
Growing his following
Jain took to freelancing with The Quint, The Telegraph and The Indian Express besides posting on Facebook, Instagram and Reddit. His Sneaky Art post always highlighted his latest drawings featuring the town and lessons he learnt on his journey of self-education. Thousands of admirers sent him small sums as gifts, and followed him through his newsletters, Instagrams, and visual story-telling.
Many individual patrons, clients, café owners, small outfits, and poster writers contacted him with requests for his scribbles—an artist’s eye running over architectural facades or browsing cityscapes.
Jain’s first line drawing capturing an old man seated on a stool while in a café elicited a few chuckles. “I could only see his back, and folds behind his neck, in a checked shirt, suspenders, engrossed in three newspapers spread before him…,” he said. “It was a feel good factor to see an old timer pore over newspapers, when in today’s world, it is news from contraptions affixed to the ears”.
Thus began his journey into becoming the sneaky artist, catching everyone on the sly, peering into their lives, and turning out extraordinary pieces.
“Straightforward” move to Canada
Jain said that coming to Canada was a pleasant experience for him and his wife, who easily qualified for immigration with their respective degrees. Jain is a qualified mechanical engineer while his wife is a practicing dentist. He says his friends joked that their move from the U.S. was merely changing flavors from StarBucks, to Tim Hortons, to customized cafe lattes in small joints.
However, despite his degrees, Jain filed his application as a self-employed artist and writer.
“I do not know Canada’s policies of immigration about artists,” he said. “I was probably already qualified because of my engineering degree.”
For Jain, the process of Canadian immigration was “pretty straightforward,” taking six months.” He arrived in Canada on January 21, 2021.
“A quick turn of events and here I am in Vancouver settling down and moving furniture…learning to belong,” he said.
Aspiring artists welcome
According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Canada “is home to a vibrant and lucrative arts and culture sector… [and] immigrants play an important role in helping this sector grow and flourish.”
More than 80,000 immigrants are working in professional and technical occupations in arts and culture across the country, an encouraging fact for aspiring immigrant artists. Statistics record that one in four people employed as an artisan or craftsperson in Canada is an immigrant. And 29 per cent of independent artists, writers and performers are immigrants.
Before arriving in Canada, Jain had shown enterprise that won him brownie points. He got into the “creator economy,” which meant selling and marketing.
And he took his art to a global audience, an enterprise that was sustainable with further prospects.
His drawings are now imprinted on mugs, cards, blogs,journals, and Twitter. He regularly posts his drawings on Instagram, is a prolific writer and much-heard podcaster.
Versatile and multifaceted, Jain has pitched his tent in Vancouver as the first step to explore Canada. True to his genre, this fly on the wall has a 360 degree angled vision and an antenna tuned towards affixing himself to a country he wants to belong to.
Gita Abraham is a journalist of 45-year standing and has worked in national dallies and magazines in New Delhi including Hindustan Times and India Today. For 15 years she was the Feature Editor of The City TAB in Bangalore. She was also a Professor of Journalism, at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Treading the thin line between fact and fiction, Gita has launched her debut novel “Daughter of the Blue Hills” early this year. She and her husband are snowbirds shuffling between Chennai and Ottawa. She has two daughters and two frisky grandsons who inhabit her world.