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Published monthly by Artists of Utah, a non-profit organization   

Fahimeh Amiri in her Sugarhouse studio. Photo by Jared Christensen.

Artist Profile: Salt Lake City
Forging a Passage
The life and art of Fahimeh Amiri

A passage can be something literal, a tangible progression from one place to another, or it can represent something metaphorical, a life journey of gained personal experience, and the personal development it manifests.  Utah artist Fahimeh Amiri, who is one of the featured artists in the Springville Museum of Art’s current show Passages and Pathways, has gone though both literal and figurative passages in a lifelong span of development.  An insatiable love of art — first discovered when she was 5 and her mother found her bedroom covered with artistic design and exclaimed “Fahimeh’s an artist!” — would take her from her native Iran, to Boston, and then Utah, and propel a career that has spanned Persian miniatures, poster design, children’s book illustrations, and stylized cubist-like geometric works. Amiri’s talents and abilities as an artist, and as a cultural liaison, span East and West, ancient and contemporary, traditional and progressive. Her evolution is a passage from one place to the next, and of one culture and artistic progression to the next in an ongoing formation and discovery of self, that through her art and teaching she has shared with many.

Amiri grew up in Tehran, an only child who was very artistically skilled at an early age. When she was 9, her mother took a drawing of hers to the famed painter Hossein Behzad. “He was the great Persian miniaturist at the time in Iran, and he would not accept any pupils. But when he saw my drawing, he said, ‘I’ll see her.’  So from that age, I was under his tutelage,” says Amiri.  Behzad worked in the traditional style of the early Persians. Traditional miniatures have a very flat application to all aspects of the composition — the primary subject, any secondary subjects, walls, floor, and even the sky and clouds.  They are lined with minuscule details — floral, graphic, and religious — that tell a story symbolically. While Amiri learned these techniques, master and pupil would sit on a Persian rug while Behzad smoked opium. Behzed’s work, marked by careful design, colorful compositions and a very human storytelling capacity, would have a strong influence on Amiri’s own.

From Behzad’s studio, Amiri went to Tehran’s prestigious School of Fine Arts, which she attended for three years, from 1965 to 1968, becoming the first girl to earn the school’s highest honors. “I received national awards from the Ministry of Education and Queen Farah.  All of my valuable art learning took place with the intensive program of the Fine Arts School, where we had to cover everything from sculpture to graphic design, from old masters, artifacts, textile design, Persian Miniature, everything was in depth.” 

Exhibition Review: Provo
Persecution Paradigm
C.C.A. Christensen's Mormon Panorama at the BYU Museum of Art

In the 1870s, LDS Church leaders became increasingly worried about the commitment of the second and third generations of Mormons, those born too late to have remembered or witnessed the church’s formative days outside of Utah. In the decade after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, several factors began undermining the cultural foundation of Mormonism in the Rocky Mountains: an increasing number of “Gentiles” came to the territory, bringing with them new distractions: entertainments, money and political influence; the U.S. Congress began enacting anti-polygamy laws, which harmed the entire Mormon community, though only a minority of Mormons engaged in the practice; and The Salt Lake Tribune was established mid-decade and quickly became a virulently anti-Mormon publication, holding up church leaders and practices to ridicule. Various measures were employed to buoy up the enthusiasm of Mormonism’s younger generations: to keep the youth out of trouble and more socially welded to the institution, church leaders formed the Mutual Improvement Association; Mormon leaders who were still monogamous were encouraged (read pressured) to take a second wife as a show of religious solidarity; and the territory’s first temples — where the original ceremonies stressed historical grievances from the church’s early years and demanded oaths of fealty —were finally completed. While these measures were being instituted by church leadership, individual members did their own part to strengthen the resolve of the new generations, including pioneer artist C. C. A. Christensen.

Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Subtle Alterations in Perspective
Kate Ericson & Mel Ziegler at UMOCA

The current controversy over art’s funding, precipitated by the apparently politically-motivated firing of Utah Division of Arts and Museums director Lynnette Hiskey, exposes two fundamentally different ideals of how art should operate in modern society. To be fair, it’s not that the Tea Party-types don’t like art; they just think it should pay for itself. This classic, 19th-century view makes good sense today, at least as far as certain artists and galleries are concerned. Their market is thriving, with private collectors paying record amounts for works and artists that never will be so valuable again. But on the other hand, for the arts administrators, those who together with Hiskey shoulder the responsibility to curate and care for the entirely of the state’s invaluable art heritage, that narrow vision speaks from ignorance of the total picture. As they understand only too well, there are art forms and activities that would not survive without public patronage, and as the show under scrutiny here demonstrates, these arguably comprise the most important art of our day. Those who agree have found allies in a third party, consisting largely of artists who feel their livelihood threatened by reduction or elimination of the grants they depend on. Into this critical dispute, UMOCA, one among the many ever-evolving facilities Arts and Museums has helped support on behalf of citizens of Utah over the decades, has ventured with an exhibit that crystallizes how, at least since the 1980s, public funding has stepped in where free market capitalism has inadequately supported the most original and essential arts.

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler met in the Heartland, at the Kansas City Art Institute, in 1977. Both were art students, and the time and place were to have a powerful influence in shaping the work they made together over the next 18 years, turning their backs on then-prevalent schools of art that were abstract not only in formal terms, but in their disconnection from ordinary lives and common experience. Instead of vaguely universal expressions of contemporary spiritual and philosophical issues that sat on pedestals, they developed a way of working that utilized everyday materials, transformed through equally mundane means into accessible social commentaries that sat out in the open. Rather than plop down an alien construction on a site, they liked to modify what they found into witty and evocative statements that celebrated Americana, even as they questioned what Americans know and think about their birthright. Since Ericson’s premature death in 1995, Mel Ziegler has continued the work they started. It’s no exaggeration to say that Grandma’s Cupboard, which will remain up until December 18th, constitutes an essential ingredient in the education not only of every artist, but of every American.

Grandma’s Cupboard is entered by descending the stairs near the entrance. This arrangement gave curator Rebecca Maksym opportunity to show one cerebrally playful work in a particularly satisfying way. “From the Making of Mount Rushmore” consists of four stones taken from the great rubble pile still visible at the base of the monument, each stone representing the head its removal helped configure. Placing them high in the stairwell enables viewers to see them first just above eye level, as the actual heads appear from a distance, then on coming closer see them loom above, each mounted to mimic the position of one portrait, while all four together complete the composition. Here the artists invoke, if with wry satire, the notion that artworks possess an aura that comes from their having been in the presence of their creators. All the same, the audience comes closer to these relics, making them more real, than they would to the finished sculpture.

Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler's From the Making of Mount Rushmore at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
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