Graduate student Meera Lee Patel is an author and illustrator who encourages readers to “start where you are” and “create your own calm.” A self-taught artist, she has sold over a million copies of her books and journals. Patel could rest on her laurels, but instead she decided to explore a new interest: children’s literature.
“When I applied to grad school, I was three months postpartum with my daughter,” said Patel, an Olin Fellow. “I wanted to know how professional mentorship and education could enhance my career. I hope that with graduation, I’ll start making picture books and extending the philosophy of being able to find home within yourself in the work that I make for children.”
Patel gave birth to her second daughter shortly before graduating in May. She joined an early cohort of the master of fine arts in illustration and visual culture program at the Sam Fox School. She also will release her book “How It Feels to Find Yourself: Navigating Life’s Changes with Purpose, Clarity, and Heart” (Penguin Random House) May 23.
Here, Patel reflects on becoming a mom during the pandemic, her advocacy for mental health awareness and her time at WashU.
What was your experience like receiving the Olin Fellowship to pursue your MFA degree?
The MFA program was made for artists like me whose practice is rooted in combining writing and illustration. I had spent my whole self-built career feeling pressure to choose one: be a writer or be an illustrator.
The Olin Fellowship recognized my hard work and gave me the opportunity to attend WashU. I worked hard through all of my 20s to build a freelance career without any education that could support me. For somebody to recognize that and say we want to give you the opportunity to do more was validating and encouraging.
What moments stand out from your time at WashU?
My first year, I was anxious and insecure. I’m about a decade older than my classmates and the only parent. What I was looking to get out of the program was very different from my peers.
As I’ve been working on my thesis project and preparing for baby number two, I’ve fallen into this pocket of groundedness and confidence that the work I put into the program over the past two years is starting to come together. The program has helped me develop a discipline in a practice that I will carry with me. That confidence is irreplaceable.
Your books and journals address mental health. Why is this important to you?
As an artist, my philosophy is one of being of service and producing work that helps people connect to themselves so they can begin to connect with other people and the environment they live in. For everything I make to be genuine, it has to be through my lived experience.
I wrote this new book through the pandemic. Writing with a newborn and being completely isolated at home was really hard. Remembering what it took to get here, I feel proud that I was able to do that. It’s a time capsule of a moment in my life that connects me with everybody else on the planet. We all went through that time together.