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September 2015
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 3   

Fahimeh Amiri . . . from page 1

In 1968, Amiri moved to Boston to continue her education at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University, where she graduated with a BFA in 1975. In Boston she married a fellow Iranian and began a family (she has three children). She also gained international attention with exhibitions of 13 original poster designs. These images are crisp compositions of cut-out shapes – furniture, animals, musical instruments — with powerful contrasts created by color arrangements and design elements that are never statically placed but use every corner of the picture plane to create shifting balances.  The stylization of these posters would find their way back into her current graphic style.

In 1989, she moved with her family to Salt Lake City, drawn here by the “striking geographical resemblance to my native city of Tehran, and my affinity for outdoor activities.” It was here that she embarked on a career in book illustration, a form at which her early master, Behzad, had excelled. Amiri’s book designs are imaginative and draw on the ancient culture of her country and her own personal ethics to share stories with children.  Amiri might use a boldly decorative scene of a colorful and energetic festival from days of ancient Iran to educate children on their past, or delight them with the fantastical and jubilant crowds occupying the streets in dance. 

Her first book, Babri, was created around Amiri’s illustrations, for which author James S. Jacobs wrote the text, reversing the normal process for an illustrated book. Published by Kaysville, Utah’s Gibbs Smith, it’s the story of a curious young tiger who ventures into the jungle alone in search of answers and after a series of adventures is returned home to his anxious mother by an elephant. The images are saturated with color and sprinkled with intricate and playful design.

It was at this time that Amiri took up her Persian miniature style again and the theme of suppression of women would become paramount in these miniatures, as it would in later work. These later miniatures are refined with precision, and speak of the culture of Tehran, especially the role of women in that culture.  In “Beggar Woman,” a poor woman holding a child dressed in patched clothes reaches to receive alms from a man in a pinstripe suit. She resembles a classical “Pieta” but the commentary is very contemporary. In “Caged,” a woman tightly cloaked in a chador, is juxtaposed to a parrot kept in a gilded cage, each trapped in their own experience. By contrast, a work like “Drowning Her Sorrows” conveys the essence of deity in womanhood, be this an actual goddess, or a woman becoming at one with her goddess power. It is an evocation of the actual inner power and strength of the ancient tradition of Persian women.

In 1994, with the success of Babri, Amiri decided to return to Boston to be closer to the publishing world. In 1997, she illustrated The Monkey Bridge, a book by Rafe Martin that tells an ancient Indian story. Critics noted how well Amiri’s watercolor and gouache paintings effectively called to mind the ancient tradition of Indian and Persian miniature. In 2001 she illustrated another Indian story in “The Prince Who Ran Away: The Story of Gautama Buddha,” where the illustrations are both playful and refined, showing an artist capable of taking her style in any number of directions.

By 2004, when Amiri moved back to Salt Lake City, her work had changed from the miniature work she had been known for, to a geometric, graphic style reminiscent both of cubism and Islamic art. “At a point, I thought, ‘You can’t come up with the ancient Persian miniature to the full extent, today, you just can’t do it.  As a result, when I returned to Salt Lake for the second time, in 2004, I brought a geometric, Islamic quality.  I had been stuck, I did not know what to do, no room to grow, and I was puzzled.”

In Boston, Amiri had begun working with children and had illustrated some educational material for children. “After my art, children are my greatest passion I have in my life,” she says. She continues working with children, teaching 30-40 students at a time, in ages from 6 to 17. Working with children is what gave her the freedom to change her style. “The freedom that children use to express themselves influenced and helped me break away from the constituents; how a child sees, this was a breakthrough for me.  This freed me from Persian miniatures — everything has to be perfect.  With children there is no regulation, no limitation.”

This license is translated in a decidedly bold and playful cubist influence in her contemporary work, a hybrid of her childlike freedom in form and the Iranian subjects that have appeared in much of her work. These compositions abound in line, shape, form, stylization, repetition, and stunning color, allowing the subject to shift between ancient and new, old and young, adapting to the different points of view found in the work such as the mighty and the repressed, the classical and the modern, the elated and the ethereal.

Many of the subjects are the same — mother and child, domestic interiors, arrangements of flowers and instruments. But Amiri’s newest mode allows for the plane to be broken up, in segments and various portions of the picture plane, providing advanced formal development and conceptual complexity within the picture, but also allowing for disparateness in place, idea, and utility, making a painting that is very much alive with the formal and thus elemental being.

“Bazaar” is one such emphatic painting, emphasizing the presence of the primary subject and the seeming reverberations around the subject caused by the structural distinctions.  Centered is a mother with a black cloak that opens to a rose pink frock, given a sturdy structure of unity even as the planes are divided into distinct folds, a defined top and a rigid collar.  Her hair is given a wave that is echoed in like planes of orange inward to outward, and she grasps a crying baby painted in its dress of four planes overlying the shadow of four darker planes.  This precision and structuring lends strength to the form and realism to the subject, whose parts are emphasized and galvanized in the whole — an implication of reality but also a compendium authentic to it.  Behind, an older bearded man with a like structural treatment, looks shocked in his space, while two women in the rear, hovering together in cloaks, are so close that their looking and whispering resonates as one form; and so they are, in essence.  This western approach to dress and the laissez-faire manner of the woman carrying the child rushedly through the open market, is apparently unacceptable to onlookers, yet Amiri is excellent at presenting the contemporary cultural situation in harmony with the past: the cubist-like articulation creates this tradition in a single manifestation. 

“Prayers” is a powerful and profound painting in Amiri’s new style. The articulation of the geometry shows women, each as if behind a brightly colored curtain, praying in a shrine.  Are they praying for their children, their ancestors, themselves, for what they have seen, for what they wish they had not, for the freedom they wish they had? We cannot know what they pray for in this abstracted use of form that displaces all sense of reason.

Another beautiful and joyful image in Amiri’s newer style is “Feeding Pigeons With My Grandmother.” This has the same cubist articulation that defines strength of form, individuality, sense of place and of being, and the mood and atmosphere of the painting.  The young girl and grandmother, are brought together in a synthetic-like cubist expression of bringing together,that animates their relation, gives a genuine pleasure in their being together, while above, white pigeons, or doves, fill the space jubilantly.

Building upon her past, with one area of strength building upon the next, Amiri’s mode of expression today is absolutely distinct, a current expression of her life’s passages and pathways, of her native culture and her own aesthetic development. Beginning with the Persian formal tradition, she has formulated a contemporary geometric style well-suited to her astute cultural critiques of her native Iran. While she has made America — where she has the freedom to explore these subjects — her home, her heart and her art remain ever intertwined with the women of her homeland.

Exhibition Review: Wendover
Strangers Less Strange
Paul Butler's annual Wendover Project

For nearly two decades, Ogden-based artist and international photographer Paul Butler has directed the annual “Wendover Project,” which on Sept. 12 is expected to draw more than 100 women. Most, at first, will be strangers. The majority will stand nude and barefoot on private property in the hot sun while being artistically body painted by the other women in a design created by Butler. They then will pose as a group for his camera, followed by cool showers in a nearby hotel. Make no mistake: It’s a long, often miserable day – tired legs, sore feet. But more women are welcome to contact Butler and take part, as painters or posers. He says the project offers great discussions, new friends, self awareness and freedom.  “Often tears and hugs come my way for the positive experience,” Butler states.

He got the notion for the Wendover Project some 18 years ago while drawing figures in the studio and “discovering how common it was for women to ‘hate’ things about their bodies,” Butler recalls. He found it painful to see them feeling inadequate or insecure “considering how temporary we all are.” (He finds that men, whom he also sketches and photographs, are significantly less body-conscious.)

Butler knows all women are beautiful, despite age, weight, color, ability, stretch marks, an off-kilter nose, or any other misperceived “difference” or “imperfection.” And if that is the message, the human body then actually becomes his medium. “At Wendover, there are no good or bad shapes,” he says, “just human shapes, alive and celebrated.”

Butler tends to be very good at whatever artistic pursuit he follows. A student of famed USU educator and landscape painter Harrison Groutage (who died in 2013 at age 87), he learned his lessons well. One of Grout’s favorites, he lived with the family for a time so he could afford to stay in school and remained close friends with the artist for 40 years; daughter Hilary Groutage still considers him a big brother. He also studied art at California State University at Long Beach.

A Sterling Scholar, he began winning professional art awards at 17; took up photography seriously at 18 and went on to do the usual: oil, watercolor, pastel, charcoal and sculpture. He then evolved into another area essential to the Wendover Project: design. Furniture, costumes, houses (including his own impressive studio in the Ogden foothills, an ongoing project he started in the ‘80s).
“I see art as admiring and enjoying the beauty around us. I love selling stuff, but don’t think of art as a product,” he says. He does photography worldwide, a lot of oil and charcoal in the studio, and reserves a room for body painting, or as he terms it, “composition on multiple bodies,” which he photographs and often posts online. Butler spent three days in “Facebook jail” in July (for those of you who have never overstepped, that means you can’t post or use FB Messenger for a specified period of time.) He had skipped the body paint that time

For the Wendover Project, Butler uses “bright, exciting colors” and organic shapes in the design, taking cues from human bodies. The project to him is first art, then design. The photography, he says, is merely documentation: “It’s only the avenue to get me back to the studio where I can continue the art.”  We live in an age, he explains, “where we actually can discover the art many times again on the computer. So when I first design it, I think about that, about later changing the colors, textures, edges.” For his first Wendover Project shoot he had just a single model and used “white stripes to make parts of her body disappear against the white salt,” he recalls.

And how do his models feel about the experience? The women we spoke with agree that it is liberating and both say they plan to return so long as the project continues.

This will be Jen Robel’s third year in Wendover. She first heard about it from a friend; they teamed up to go together and have continued to attend. “I agreed to do it because it sounded like an enlightening experience,” says Robel. She explains, too, that she once suffered from eating disorders and body issues and felt it would be a good opportunity to “for once, be comfortable in my own skin. I was not wrong. Once you get out there and on the flats without your clothes on you’re no longer just a sexualized body. You’re just a person,” she says. “Afterward I had a newfound confidence that I never knew I had, not to mention I had also made a ton of new friends.”

A year ago, Macie Hamblin signed up to be a painter. “I was too chicken to be a model,” she remembers. But she went to Butler’s studio and worked with a smaller group “and it was just so fun that this year I have to be one of the models.” She is bringing two women with her who never have been part of the project. “It’s just intriguing to be with a group of women with different body types,” she says.

Hamblin at one time was scared of being naked in front of other people, “even by myself, I used to avoid mirrors. You just get closer to yourself with this. I learned that all shapes and sizes are really beautiful, that I’m really beautiful. In today’s society it’s not OK to be different. Here, you don’t have to lose weight to be celebrated,” she observes. “I feel like a work of art. Well, I am a work of art and Paul makes us realize that.

“I’m so grateful that this exists,” Hamblin says.

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