ARTIST INSPIRED BY ANCIENT GREEK ART
INTERVIEW WITH MEHRI YAZDANI


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Mehri Yazdani in her Sacramento studio. The painting in the backround is "Solitude IV," mixed media, 52 in. x 48 in., 1989, which was inspired by Persian miniatures.

The art of Mehri Yazdani has evolved out of her appreciation for the ancient art of Greece, Persia, and Egypt. The semi-abstract images of her paintings give new form to ancient motifs, creating a unique style which captures the spirit of these early civilizations. Her interpretations of horses, chariots, charioteers, footsoldiers, and giftbearers paying tribute to their rulers comes alive through her use of vibrant colors in acrylic and oil. Many of her paintings have the texture of ancient frescoes.

Ms. Yazdani grew up in Iran where her introduction to the sculpted relief of the palace of the Persian kings Darius I and Xerxes (about 510-460 B.C.) at Persepolis played a major role in awakening her artistic talent. She lived in Tehran until she moved to the United States in 1971. She now lives in Sacramento.

The artist began painting professionally in the mid-1970s. In addition to exhibiting her work in Greece and Germany, she has shown her paintings in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California.

The archaic Greek art of the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. has had significant influence on the development of her work. A turning point in her admiration for the compositions of this period came when she spent a year in Greece from 1990 to 1991. Although, she lived in Rethymnon, Crete, most of the year, she was able to visit archaeological sites and museum throughout the country to see the art which had inspired her since her teens.

The artist holds a B.A. in English literature from Tehran University and an M.A. in Persian literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. In addition, she has a degree in fine arts from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

She has been the recipient of many awards in Pennsylvania, including the Governor's Award for outstanding accomplishment in the fine arts, the William Emlen Cresson Scholarship for a three-month period of study in Europe, the Binney and Smith Fine Arts Award given by the Allentown At Museum, the Benjamin West Prize for technical excellence, and the Liquitex Fine Arts Award for outstanding quality and originality in aesthetic direction, technique, and use of media.

In the following interview with Newsletter Editor Susan M. Spencer, Mehri Yazdani talks about her art and the experiences she has had which have influenced her style of painting. The interview was conducted within the context of an exhibition of the artist's work at the Showplace East Atrium in Rocklin, California, February 19-27, 1993.


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South frieze of the Siphnian Treasure House, Delphi Museum, c. 525 B.C.

Which pieces of archaic Greek art have had the most influence on your work?

I have been inspired immensely by the sculpted frieze of the Siphnian Treasure House at Delphi, dating to about 525 B.C., with its horses, chariots, charioteers, and hoplites or foot soldiers. My painting had been influenced by the forms in this frieze before I went to Delphi for the first time in 1990. However, before I actually saw the frieze, I thought the images in it were enormous because they were so majestic. Their simplicity and solidity impressed me.

When I arrived at Delphi, it was astonishing to see that most of the forms in the frieze were less than 36 inches in length. Any of them could have been the inspiration for a new painting. Even though there was a minimum of detail in the sculpture, the forms were alive and the presence of every individual image was very strong. I felt their spirit. The experience was similar to listening to a beautiful piece of music.


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"The Race II," mixed media, 24 in. x 54 in., 1988

Why does most of your inspiration from Greek art come from tbe archaic period rather than the classical period?

Archaic art has a grandeur about it that expresses the feeling of strength I want to show on canvas. In this type of art, the lines are simple and the shapes are straightforward. When I paint in this fashion, I have to give soul to a simple line drawing. It is necessary to control the movement of my arm because one movement can create a whole form through the sharpness of the line. This technique incorporates the actual body movement of the artist into the drawing. It is like calligraphy. A good calligrapher knows how to give shape to letters with one movement of the hand.

In archaic art, the position of the body complements the position and expression of the face. The continuous line running from the body to the head gives the figure the tension and strength that supports it. The expressions of the people in archaic art are captivating. They take the viewer on a journey through their soul.

The features of archaic Greek art closely resemble the solidity and flow of ancient Persian and Egyptian art. In all three genres, an invisible triangle holding up the shoulders of a figure comes to a point at the waist.

Classical forms are expressive in a different way and I have been inspired by them. But their refined features require the rendering of more details in the anatomy and clothing. This stops the flow of my body movement as I paint. When I work in the classical style, I become involved in capturing the exactness of the detail rather than interpreting the spirit of the form.


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"Stallions, No. 2," mixed media, 68 in. x 62 in., 1992.

How old were you when you first saw the relief of the palace of the Persian kings at Persepolis, and how has it influenced your work?

One of the most important turning points of my life was seeing this relief when I was about 15 years old and inexperienced in art. I felt moved by it, but I was unable to express the intensity of my feelings.

Time had left its mark on some forms in the relief, but those forms were beautiful to me. The parts that were missing were still there to my eye, and I envisioned a new shape in their place which was a type of abstraction. I would show my mother and sisters an area in which the relief had disappeared and, with a gesture of my hand, I would connect it with the areas which were still well preserved.

It was the figures in the relief at Persepolis that gave me the idea of painting the giftbearers which are depicted in my work referred to as "Booty." At Persepolis, the huge relief of these giftbearers, who are paying tribute to the king, lines the monumental staircase of the ancient palace. As a teenager, I felt very small in front of these figures and I was amazed that these shapes could emerge from stone walls.

What other historical sites in Iran that you visited as a child affected the direction of your art style?

The old wall paintings I saw in Isfahan for the first time when I was about 15 years old have played an important role in my style of painting. The ones I remember the most clearly were in an old church in Julfa, the Armenian section of the city, and in Chihil Sutun, a seventeenth-century imperial palace from the Safavid period which had frescoes of seated musicians entertaining the shah. I remember looking at some of the areas of these wall paintings that were damaged and thinking that they were very beautiful. I actually liked those areas better than the undamaged portions.

That's where the concept of time comes into my paintings. Time is very important in my work because I look at it as an element that is not destructive. Just as I did as a teenager in Iran, I still view the broken pieces of a sculpture in which shapes are missing or a wall painting where the color has worn off as a composition that I can build on to make something constructive. When I look at these broken or worn areas, I see a different beauty in them. I see a new form there which I add to the form that existed thousands of years ago. That is why I connect ancient art to my art today.

My early appreciation for old frescoes with peeling paint has influenced the texture of my paintings. The irregular surface of my work, which resembles these frescoes, has become another aspect of my painting that makes a statement about time. By communicating the idea of a worn surface through my texture, I am conveying the idea that such a surface is worth looking at. There is a duality in my paintings-the new and the old- and the two elements play against each other.


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"The Race," mixed media, 72 in. x 60 in., 1988.

When did you begin painting?

I was around art at a very early age. My older sisters were always painting, and they taught me how to paint when I was about nine years old.

In high school, I was very interested in being a physician because I loved drawing all the internal organs of the human body in my biology class. By the time I received my high school diploma, I thought I could understand the internal functions of the body quite well.

During my formative painting years in Iran, I drew from plaster casts of Greek sculpture, such as the classical discus thrower, torsos, and horses, which were made available in the universitv art studios.


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"Booty VIII," mixed media, 72 in. x 40 in., 1988.


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"Booty VII," mixed media, 72 in. x 66 in., 1988.

How did your love for literature develop?

I was introduced to literature when I was a child because my older sister was studying poetry and would read me lines from the poetry of Hafez-a medieval, mystical Persian poet- from a book of his collected works that she always carried with her.

In addition, my mother used proverbs and poetry to train us. If we did something wrong, she never scolded us. Instead, she gave us a proverb or line of poetry from medieval Persian literature which conveyed a message about our behavior. Then she asked us to try to understand it and discuss it with her. When I couldn't understand the quotation, I would ask my sister what it meant. The messages in this literature gave me a sense of being responsible for my own actions. The quotations sounded like songs, so, even if I did not do anything wrong, I would ask my mother to recite excerpts from this literature.

How has your interest in literature complemented your painting?

Painting and literature are one for me. Literature gives me inspiration for themes and forms in my paintings and also affects my whole approach to the canvas. I often meditate in front of the canvas for hours. All of a sudden I get up to put one inch of paint on it. Then, I continue studying it some more. I think my background in literature has given me this approach to painting.


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"Charioteer, No. 4," mixed media, 32 in. x 50 in., 1992.

How did you react to living in Greece?

Living in Greece started a new chapter in my life, but the experience was a complement to the experiences I had growing up in Iran because the lifestyles of the two countries are very similar. I felt at home in Greece. I was able to experience the spirit of the country-to get to know the people, to feel the art. Learning the language was very important also because it brought me closer to feeling the essence of the country.

One of the most inspiring experiences I had on Crete was walking into different villages and talking to the people who lived there. Some of the images I remember were seeing an old man who had designed a beautiful cane from a tree branch, looking at an elderly woman in a black dress who was smiling with her teeth missing, and going into old houses where the paint was peeling off the walls. In the houses, I saw the small rooms where all the family pictures and other precious items were arranged on the tables. Once, an elderly woman showed me her home and all of the lace, flowers, and embroidery which she had used to decorate it with so much love.

I became acquainted with the women in Greece by joining a book club of 14 Greek women in Rethymnon. The group met once a week to discuss Greek books such as Anafora ston Greco (Report to Greco) by Nikos Kazantzakis. Through the group, I came to know how these women felt about life, what they wanted from life.

Every week, I also used to go to the laike agora (open produce market) where I learned a great deal about the people and saw how hard the women worked. From my studio window, I observed the women picking fruit in the fields to sell at the market.

How did the experience of living on Crete for a year affect your painting?

I had never painted boats before I lived on Crete. But since the north side of my studio faced the sea, I saw boats coming in and out of the harbor every day, and I also saw them when I walked to town. In addition, I studied the depiction of boats on the ancient vases in the Herakleion Museum and other museums. However, I did not begin painting boats when I first arrived on Crete. I was there for a year before I painted a boat. I had to internalize the idea first and then, at some point, I was ready.

MS. YAZDANI DONATES PROCEEDS FROM AUCTION OF HER WORK TO VRYONIS CENTER

At the opening of an exhibit of her work at the Showplace East Atrium in Rocklin, California, February 19-27, 1993, Ms. Yazdani held a silent auction of two of her paintings with Greek themes to benefit the Vryonis Center. The paintings were "Study for Storm" and "Charioteer, No. 5." The Center extends its thanks to Ms. Yazdani for this very generous gift.


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"Charioteer, No. 5," acrylic, 15 in. x 22 in., 1993.

Finally, my inspiration was the poem "Ithake," by the Greek poet Cavafy, which I was studying in my Greek class. I had never read any Greek literature before I read "Ithake" and it was a beautiful introduction to Greek poetry. To me, boats symbolize a journey through life and that poem explained it so well. When I read it, the language was dancing in front of my eyes. The inspiration it gave me was very similar to what I experienced when I looked at the archaic frieze at Delphi. The poem made me ready to express my reaction to the images I had seen in the museums and the boats I had seen every day in the harbor. So I painted a boat which I called "Ithake." Although I envisioned it to be an ancient boat, it is a combination of all the experiences I had living by the sea on Crete.

This poem also led me to paint a figure of Odysseus tied up in his boat to prevent him from being tempted by the songs of the Sirens. In this painting, I wanted to create the contrast between the tension of the figure and the movement of the flowing lines around it which communicate the melodic sounds of the Sirens' voices.


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"Odysseus," mixed media, 48 in. x 68 in., 1992.

Getting to know the women in Greece also had a definite effect on my painting. Usually, when I paint people, it is not clear whether they are men or women. It is up to the person viewing the painting to decide. But in Crete, for the first time, I painted a figure which is more like a woman in a painting called "Procession".

When I began the painting, I wasn't thinking about depicting either women or men in any particular style. I just started painting. As I was working, I realized that a woman was appearing in the center of the canvas, a figure with her arms open who was walking through a doorway, so I started to develop the figure more and more. As I continued, figures appeared on both sides of the woman, and the composition began to take on a Byzantine look which was probably influenced by the wall paintings I had admired so much in Greek churches. The people around the central figure began forming a procession which was no doubt inspired by the processions which take place at Easter in the villages throughout Greece. The central figure did not seem to be grounded. It was being lifted up and had a lightness to it. When I finished the painting, I decided that it would be the last one I did before leaving Greece, and I dedicated it to the women of the country.


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"Procession," mixed media, 30 in. x 54 in., 1991.

Do your paintings make a statement about history or culture, or do you feel that they are created purely to be an aesthetic experience for the viewer?

I choose historical motifs purely for their beauty and form, not for any underlying statement. However, I think every artist should be a product of his or her time, so, if my work can communicate something about contemporary life, the process should be subconscious. If it becomes conscious, the aesthetic value of the art is destroyed.

My art is eclectic. I might be inspired by another painting, a fresco, a piece of sculpture, or a poem, but even a shape on the asphalt can be very inspiring to me.

Many people ask how long it takes me to create a painting. It takes a lifetime because all the experiences I have had come together when I am painting. Finally, when the time is right, I am ready to put them on canvas.

UPCOMING EXHIBITS OF PAINTINGS BY MEHRI YAZDANI

University of Washington, Seattle, WA, June 1996
San Bernardino County Museum, San Bernardino, CA, Sept 1996
Mangel Gallery, Philadelphia, PA, Nov. 1996


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