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Pullman campus glows under starry night

PULLMAN, Wash. – Think Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” meets WSU’s Bryan Hall and you’ll have a mental image of Avimanyu Datta’s most recent painting.
When Datta, a recent WSU graduate, posted a photo of his painting on Facebook, the responses were immediate:
“Superb stuff”
“Can I get a copy?”
Palouse inspiration

In a blog post from 2009, Datta describes how he had been buried in his studies for weeks, preparing for his preliminary exams:
“It’s been a while since I stared at the stars at night,” he wrote. “I happen to stay in a place that is quite far from the pollution that impedes us from seeing what is out there… Having said that, I don’t remember the last time in Pullman I actually looked up.”
He used to star gaze as a small boy in Calcutta, he wrote, but eventually the sky became too polluted with dust. That wasn’t the case in Pullman.
“It’s the mind that has been dusty,” he wrote, and he chided himself for not stopping to look up “and enjoy the beauty of the vastness, where every twinkle is like a drop of breath.”

Others counseled him to quit his job as an assistant professor of business at Illinois State University and devote himself to art.

“Beautiful, Avi,” wrote Debmalya Mukherjee. “You should quit doing mundane business research and pursue this as your career.”
But Datta has a response: “You know those stories about starving artists? They’re true. Artists do starve.”
Datta, who started painting when he was 3, has gone long stretches without picking up a paint brush, including the nearly four years he was in Pullman earning his Ph.D. in business administration. Now, even while settling into his work as a junior faculty member at ISU, he is finding time to paint.
“Painting is a nice escape,” he said. “You create the world you want to create and you can stay in it as long as you are painting.”
In Datta’s academic world, he concentrates on the commercialization of innovation. While his sketch of a youthful Woody Allen would seem far removed from that world, Datta said there are connections between his research and his artwork.
When he was a teenager, he said, he was given copies of paintings by Salvador Dali, Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh and he instantly saw patterns. He didn’t have to work to figure out the underlying structure of the compositions – he just saw them.
“It takes a long time for a Picasso painting to be decoded,” he said, “but not for me.”
He’s had that same experience with his research, he said. For his dissertation, he was working with a data set with more than 190,000 patents. But, he said, when he looked at the data, he could see patterns and relationships emerging, even before he started crunching the numbers.
His graduate advisor, former WSU business professor Len Jessup, became a believer.
“He can not only see the big picture and conceptualize important relationships among constructs,” Jessup said, “but he also has the tenacity and analytic capabilities to secure, scrub and sift through massive amounts of data to see patterns.”

Jessup, dean of the Eller College of Business at the University of Arizona, said he and Datta continue to collaborate on research questions related to his dissertation.
While Datta had to put painting on hold for the past few years, he did make time to sketch. The last sketch he completed in Pullman was a pencil drawing of Jessup, which he gave to his mentor after graduation.

“I joked with him that his attention to detail was perhaps a little too keen,” Jessup said.
The last time Datta was able to devote significant time to painting and drawing was as a school boy in Calcutta. He studied math and science, he said, but on his own time he would draw and paint.
On his website, he has posted several paintings from that period, including Three Men on a Bull, completed in 1993 when he was 15 years old, and Satyajit Ray, the Calcutta-born  Indian filmmaker who received an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1992, the same year he died. Datta completed the painting of Ray in 1997.

Since leaving high school, Datta said, he has had very little time to paint. In addition to his Ph.D. from WSU, his academic vita includes an undergraduate degree in computer science from the University of London and a master’s degree in information systems management from the University of Hawaii. At the same time he was earning his Ph.D. at WSU, his wife, Priyanka Aich was earning her master’s degree from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

Datta and Aich
Then, this August, Aich, nudged him back to painting with a birthday gift of art supplies.
The first thing he painted was Pullman.

“I missed it,” he said, simply. 

Aich said she is excited to see her husband painting again.
“Now that he gets a little bit of free time,” she said, “he loves to just stay in his studio and do his artwork.”
Creating art, she said, is how he relaxes.
If art were his business, Datta said, he would no longer enjoy it in the same way and might even become bored with it, just as he became bored working as a business consultant.
As a faculty member, he can pursue his research interests wherever they take him. And, as long as art is an avocation, he has freedom there as well. Not only can he paint whatever he pleases, but he can give it away.
While the original 36 x 24-inch painting of WSU under a starry night is resting above the mantel in Datta’s home in Bloomington, Ill., he is considering making prints. In the meantime, he has made a file of the image available to set as a screen saver.
“It’s for people to see and enjoy,” he said. “If people want to download the art, I don’t have any problem with that.”

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