Beyond NYU: Creating art post-NASA

Tanya Gupta worked for NASA and IBM after graduating from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, and now she has built herself a career in digital art.


Aaliya Luthra

(Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Adrianna Nehme, Deputy News Editor

Former NASA engineer and Tandon alum Tanya Gupta has founded her own multimedia art studio, Guptanya Studios. Despite her degree in mechanical engineering from NYU, she now creates digital art on commission for various events and brands, and works on personal arts projects through her studio. 

Gupta, who was included in Forbes’ 2023 30 Under 30 list, founded the studio following a full-time job as a hardware engineer at IBM. She said that after work, she would teach herself how to use Photoshop, and she gradually began to share what she learned with the public. She was then selected in 2021 to take part in an Adobe Creative Residency — a year-long incubator for artists that provides a salary and benefits — and she was the first Indian American to be selected for the program.

In an interview with WSN, Gupta spoke about her career pivot, the projects she’s worked on and how her work as an engineer has influenced her work as an artist.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: How were you able to land your position at NASA?

Gupta: I sent over 200 applications for internships and jobs for the following year, and I would say about a quarter of those were all NASA. It was a lifelong dream of mine to work at NASA in some capacity. I visited Johnson Space Center for the first time when I was eight or nine years old, and I had been applying every year — but I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough. The summer when I sent all those applications out, I was a bloodhound, and I was like, ‘If I don’t do it like this, then I’m not going to get it.’ I ended up getting two offers — one was from Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the other was from Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert, two hours north of Los Angeles.

Gupta accepted NASA’s offer and moved to the Mojave Desert to work as a test engineer on a Martian aircraft called Prandtl-M. An earlier prototype of the aircraft is now at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and it is adorned with her signature. Gupta continued her NASA career in Florida at Kennedy Space Center’s augmented and virtual reality lab. 

WSN: How did you transition from working at NASA to creating your own art studio?

Gupta: I started this series where I was taking people’s smartphone selfie submissions and turning them into a little work of art — I would practice my compositing and Photoshop with it. People started following me either to see if I would choose their photo or to follow along my journey of learning these skills, and I started landing brand partnerships because of it.

I did some holiday campaigns for social media for Aerie, Claire’s, Tom Ford Beauty, Lancôme and Heinz — some big household names. And as time progressed, those gigs got bigger and bigger. I started out doing unpaid work just to build out my portfolio and to have these names, and then I started getting paid work and found myself being so much more excited to do that work than I ever was doing engineering. 

In one project, Gupta turned herself into Barbie dolls she dubbed “Tanya Dolls.” Each figure represented a different aspect of her life, such as being an astronaut or a businesswoman. She then connected with Ritesh Rajan — a Tisch alum who is the voice actor for Ken in an animated Barbie TV show — and turned him into a Ken doll.

WSN: Was there a specific message behind the Ken project that you hoped to convey?

Gupta: Ritesh is also Indian, like me. The fact that Ken is a blond-haired, blue-eyed white kid from Malibu, voiced by an Indian American man, is so exciting for our community, and cool and not something that had been celebrated enough. Part of the message that we were trying to send with this series was to highlight him and his talents — he’s incredibly talented — but also to deconstruct what we consider the modern heartthrob and what that can look like, and who can represent that. We also wanted to bring light to the creative community within the South Asian diaspora, because there are billions of us on the planet. There are stereotypes that most Indians and most South Asians pursue careers in STEM, but there are so many people who are creative, who are artists, who are musicians, actors and are so talented in their own right, and they deserve to have their moment as well.

During her sophomore year at NYU, Gupta was an admissions ambassador, giving campus tours and taking calls from prospective applicants. As a junior, she became an RA at the Second Street residence hall, while also being a teaching assistant at the Tandon School of Engineering for an introductory course. She also worked to develop the concert ticketing startup Curtain Call, which was a semi-finalist in the Stern School of Business’ $300K Entrepreneurs Challenge.

WSN: How have you allowed yourself to change career paths so many different times throughout your life?

Gupta:  It’s not very black and white — it’s not one or the other. Even in my work as a digital artist, my experience with technology, engineering and the problem-solving mindset that I learned in school all carry over into my work, even today. Even though I’m not building airplanes anymore, I still think that all those skills that I learned translate over into my artistic work, and, in fact, they actually are part of what makes me unique as an artist. I have never subscribed to the idea that you have to just choose one path and stick to it.

Gupta believes the life she carved out for herself was heavily influenced by her parents. Gupta’s father pursued chemical engineering in college before transitioning to work in business. She added that her mother is a singer, which she says represents her own creative side. 

WSN: Is there a reason why you choose to make your work so colorful?

Gupta: I have a very visceral reaction to color, and it can be a positive and a negative. I have colors that I’m very drawn toward — which are all the colors you see in my work — like mustard yellow, royal blue, Barbie pink, very specific shades of green and very specific shades of orange. I hardly ever use red though, because I also have an aversion to specific colors, so just as much as I’m drawn to some, I really don’t like other ones. That’s why my wardrobe, artwork, my home interior and the world I create for myself all is a very specific color palette. It wasn’t done on purpose, it’s just because I’m so sensitive to that, I only surround myself with those colors.

Contact Adrianna Nehme at [email protected].