Jag Nagra, a “Subway Sandwich ArtistTM turned “Artist” Artist,” is using her gift of art to spearhead community development initiatives and end the stigma against LGBTQ+ people within the South Asian community.
Art has a language of its own. With an unmatched power to evoke the most powerful emotions, art holds the ability to bring people together in its many forms. Following this mantra, Jag Nagra, a Subway Sandwich Artist™ turned “Artist” Artist, is using her gift of art to spearhead community development initiatives and end the stigma against LGBTQ+ people within the South Asian community.
As a freelancer, she has worked with high-profile clients such as Microsoft and Tumblr. This year, Nagra has been the powerhouse behind Vancouver Canucks’ custom icon for their Vaisakhi celebration game, in addition to being the feature artist of the 2021 Indian Summer Festival. She also wears the hat of Creative Director for the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective (PMRC), where she is the driving force behind the organization’s visual language; this includes art installations, illustrations, colour schemes, social media aesthetic, web design, merchandise, and collateral material.
Nagra stepped foot into the field of art after successfully attaining an Arts Diploma from what was then known as the University College of the Fraser Valley. She accounts that her parents were never the type to push their children into a specific career choice, but they would continually communicate that they were in Canada to give their children a better life. Nagra explains, “I don’t know if they fully understood what I was doing before. Now, with bigger jobs, it is easier to celebrate things with them. When the Canucks project happened, they told everyone that that’s my daughter.” At home, the budding artist would often observe her brother working on his graphics design course, which sparked her curiosity into the subject area as she was previously unaware of job prospects in graphic design. She considered this as an area she could be professionally interested in over time and applied to the Art Institute of Vancouver. Here, she fell in love with the journey and her career as an artist began.
However, Nagra was not flying solo just yet. “Once I graduated, I secured a job at a marketing company. A few years into it, it felt soul-sucking. My work would go through all these rounds of approvals. It just wasn’t me,” she recalls. That said, Nagra knew she would need something to fall back on if she quit. She began to teach herself how to illustrate and the rest is history.
When it comes to her involvement with Punjabi Market, Nagra traces back to a trip she went on with her wife, back in 2015. While travelling, she noticed how people from different communities wanted the couple to try out different things. She found herself questioning exactly what draws people to certain neighborhoods and cultures to celebrate. When she thought of what represented Vancouver, she thought of Punjabi Market, following which she drew the infamous street sign. Gulzar Nanda, the Chair of the PMRC, saw the art and reached out regarding his initiatives around revitalizing Punjabi Market. One image, drawn after a trip, kickstarted a series of fortunate events. Nagra greatly appreciates the ability to express her heritage through her art, “Since my involvement with Punjabi Market, I have felt connected to my Indian culture. My upbringing was quite western and there wasn’t much South Asian representation back then. The feeling of feeling represented matters. For the first time, as of the last few years, I’m starting to feel proud of who I am. That is powerful.”
Nagra’s individual journey doesn’t just concern her art. She is heavily involved with LGBTQ+ activism in the Lower Mainland, bringing in her personal experiences to raise awareness in the community. Nagra remembers feeling shocked when she first came across Sher Vancouver, a non-profit society for LGBTQ+ South Asians. For the first time, she felt she could connect to people, especially after seeing others who looked like her. This opened a whole new world for the graphic designer and eventually helped her come out to her own family. Her family, though they may have struggled internally, were supportive.
Her family now accepts Nagra’s wife as their own daughter and share a strong bond with Nagra’s children as well.
Mother to a three-year-old daughter and a nine-month-old son, Nagra is constantly learning what kind of parent she needs to be. Recollecting her childhood, the mother of two points out, “Our parents were always working and hardly saw us. In many ways, they did not necessarily know the psychology behind parenting. It is more than just providing. I want to raise my children with confidence, and I want them to feel protected.” Nagra admits that the reason she does not take on certain jobs is because she wants to prioritize spending time with the family. For the multi-talented artist, seeing her daughter yell with happiness when Nagra appears on TV is very fulfilling. Aside from her children, Nagra lightheartedly shares that her wife is always fast to critique, “If she is silent for two seconds, I know she is thinking about it. She will just say something and nonchalantly walk away. However, having a different perspective really helps.”
Reflecting on her career path thus far, Nagra acknowledges that artists do not always land the dream client right off the bat. Ever since she ventured into graphic designing in 2006, she has always worked on personal projects. Fortunately, every single personal project has later turned into paid work after a few years. “I once designed an imaginary hot sauce line, did a photoshoot, and put them on my portfolio. Because of that, I have been working with a client in the States. He owns High Noon Spice and I’ve developed four lines of hot sauces for them,” she says. Similarly, Nagra’s personal project of drawing cultural places across the nation is now associated with Punjabi Market, due to which her name is becoming more recognized in the community.
Nagra is thankful for the way her career has taken off over the past couple of years as she has been building more connections. For the future, she plans to continue doing art in the public realm. Her current works include the PMRC installation, “Marigolds in the Market”, containing over 200 marigold garlands adorning a tree to celebrate the vibrant history of the diverse Sunset neighbourhood. Additionally, through a collaboration with Indian Summer Arts Society, Nagra has designed two banners currently installed in Punjabi Market. Nagra’s three public art pieces on display at “Canvas Corridor” in Eihu Lane, presented by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association in collaboration with the Robson Street Business Association, are another one of her projects.
Nagra’s impact as an artist has given her a new way of expressing herself. She hopes to keep honing her skills and enhancing her craft, with the next pit-stop being murals. With her vibrant personality and passion, Jag Nagra’s art undoubtedly extends beyond the paintbrush. As a hardworking artist, fearless activist, loving wife, and doting mother, she is truly a role-model changemaker and community gem.
Photos: Jag Nagra, Agata Matyszczuk, Brian Dennehy, Navi Rai