Peace in the Unknown

By Syeda Raji | January 15, 2021

During the earliest weeks of the pandemic, around the time Governor Baker announced a state of emergency in Massachusetts, I was not thinking too much about my artwork. I had just finished a couple of commissions, and it was an especially busy time at work, where healthcare clients had so many new questions they needed answered. In my limited spare time, I found myself staying up to date on every piece of news available and/or finding comfort in watching “Dawson’s Creek” (for the first time), clinging to what felt like a safer world of the past.

As the next few weeks wore on and we all adapted to our new reality, I started hearing news from friends about changes in their lives—their families were growing or they were planning their moves into less populated areas—and I wondered what would be next for me.

As the weather grew warmer and I still felt uncertain and isolated, alone in my apartment in Somerville, I turned to my art practice in order to regain some grounding. My artwork in those early days was reflective of both what was happening in the present and my feeling of being thrown more quickly than expected toward the future, as an attempt to make sense of it all. Through my brushstrokes, which served as meditations on experiences and some relationships fading away, I felt connected to myself. I found peace in the unknown and the warm May breezes flowing through the apartment on those nights letting me know that things would be okay.


Syeda Raji, Rivers and Roads, oil paint, 30″x40″ 2020


Soon I was also finding peace visiting my favorite beach near my parents’ home on the North Shore. I felt so much relief when at the end of May I decided to move back with my family. My lease in Somerville was ending, I was having trouble choosing the right home to buy, and I no longer needed to be close to my office in Boston, where everyone was working remotely indefinitely.

In June, just as Phase I reopening began in Massachusetts, I took time off work to start my move. But while I ran errands and packed, loaded and unloaded boxes, I began reflecting on the part of my life I was saying goodbye to and felt called to create a collection of paintings based on photos I had taken over the years. This way, I could take my time saying my goodbyes.

Crimson Dusk 3 was my third time painting this scene in Cambridge, from a photo I had taken when I was a student in Harvard’s premedical postbaccalaureate program. Charles/MGH was painted from a photo I snapped while waiting for the T home after a day in the life of a research coordinator at MGH.


Syeda Raji, Crimson Dusk 3, acrylic paint, 8″ x 6″ 2020


Syeda Raji, Charles/MGH, acrylic paint, 6″ x 9″  2020


My mother has always been an invaluable sounding board for me in my art practice, and her observations about Charles/MGH revealed more about the piece—and myself—than I had originally seen. She advised me that the piece looked complete as it was, and that I didn’t need to worry about adding more details. Though it looks unfinished at first glance, after a closer look, I agree that it is complete. It’s much like my journey on the path to medical school: I ultimately decided not to apply, and years later, I still have trouble putting reasons into words because a part of me may always feel pulled toward that world. Medical school dreams, my life in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville – those parts of my life feel unfinished and yet complete.

On June 30th, I completed my move back to my parents’ house. I took the next few weeks to finish up interviews for my new job, re-design my old bedroom, unpack a bit, say goodbye to my old job, start the new job, and get settled into my new/old suburban life. Art was generally on hold except for a few sketches here and there. A lot of this pause had to do with no longer having a designated studio space; being unsure of how long I’d be there kept me from arranging a new studio space.

Before I knew it, 4th of July, Labor Day, Halloween, and the election had come and gone in this “paused-but-still-playing” state. On Thanksgiving Day I felt so generally grateful and hopeful for the future, and I started moving paint around. By the end of the day, I had decided to put together a holiday collection over the next week, which later became the Pandemic Autumn collection.

At this point I was feeling at home in my new life, and I began exploring old stomping grounds and recording their energy on paper.

I have thought about this time as the “autumn” of the pandemic’s life, as society prepares to put this chapter behind us with vaccines being rolled out, trying to hold things together through this final stretch while seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.


Syeda Raji, Pandemic Autumn 1, acrylic paint, 6″ x 8″ 2020


Syeda Raji, Pandemic Autumn 2, acrylic paint, 6″ x 8″ 2020


Though our journey through this pandemic is hopefully nearing its end, we still have a few months ahead of us in 2021 that may not be all smooth sailing. Second Winter 1 is my first painting of 2021. It is a meditation on what the future may hold, while I am feeling hopeful, wiser, and like the darkest days are behind us, but we are not completely past the finish line.

In this next year it is hard to know what will come, but in each present moment there is peace to be found, if only to use this peace to make it through each “next day,” until that collective sigh of relief is possible.


Syeda Raji, Second Winter 1, acrylic paint, 6″ x 8″ 2020

Copyright © 2021 Syeda Raji
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  1. Lydia Gralla on February 11, 2021 at 6:04 pm

    I find your paintings incredibly inspiring on so many levels. I love the way you use color and brush strokes; so expressive of the way many feeling overlap, all at once. I am amazed at how much power your images have and was very surprised that they are not oversized canvases but can be balanced in one hand…

    • Syeda Raji on February 11, 2021 at 8:55 pm

      Thank you Lydia for such a kind and thoughtful comment! I’m so happy you found some inspiration here – I’ve been doing what I can on small canvases/paper but hoping to get back into larger work once I have a little more space again, hopefully later this year.

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