Chance Meeting Between Iranian Grad Student And Local Artist Ignites Creative Spark
Prolific Baltimore painter Larry Scott’s latest stylistic evolution began with a laugh in a coffee shop. Last year Scott was sitting and drawing in Xandos, his frequent morning haunt, when an explosive giggle from a dark-haired young woman at another table broke his concentration.
“I heard this really annoying laughter,” Scott remembers, sitting just a few feet away from his usual table in the Charles Village coffee shop. “I was trying to draw, and looking at her, thinking, God, she’s really annoying. But this is what happens. I didn’t set out to draw her, but she attracted my attention immediately, and I was inspired. And even though she annoyed me, my pen started to move. It was like, To hell with you, Larry, you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ll catch up.”
The woman with the annoying laugh was Atiyeh Ghoreyshi, a native of Iran and a graduate student in Johns Hopkins University’s biomedical engineering program. Intrigued by Scott’s quick sketches of her, Ghoreyshi struck up a conversation, and over time the two became friends. Ghoreyshi told Scott about her parents, who were imprisoned by the Iranian government for being politically active during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and opposing the conservative Islamic republic established by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. She told him about waiting for her extended family to pick her up from elementary school to visit her parents in jail and the close familial bonds that developed after her father was executed in 1988.
“We have these very strong family ties,” Ghoreyshi says. “It’s just a very strong emotional relationship that I have, not just with my mother, but with my grandmother and my uncles. It’s all of them. I am the only child, since they didn’t have a chance to have another baby. So that makes it more difficult, for me and for them.”
According to Ghoreyshi, educated Iranians often find it difficult to secure employment unless they have government connections—so she elected to study in America. Unfortunately, due to strict visa laws, she was unable to obtain anything other than a single-entry visa, which means that she is unable to leave the United States to visit her family in Tehran for fear that she will be barred from returning to the U.S. to complete her education.
“They have done it before, in the middle of people’s educations—you go home for a visit and cannot return,” Ghoreyshi says. “It’s very risky to go back, and also very risky to go back and live there, because of my family background. We don’t have any ties to the government, and the financial situation is not good over there. As the only child, I feel a responsibility. I think I should be able to support me and them. That’s why I was really determined to go somewhere that guarantees stability.”
Scott, a self-taught artist, was deeply moved by Ghoreyshi’s dedication to her family and her education, even in the face of prolonged separation. “I know that if I was in a different country, and I didn’t have access to go back and forth between the countries and see my family at will, I would have serious problems,” Scott says. “I would be, ‘I’m crying, I’m miserable, I’m lonely, I’m depressed.’ But she didn’t want to let that happen to herself. And I grew to admire the strength of a 22-year-old, at the time, putting myself where she was.”
Known for incorporating images of family and friends into his paintings, he began to paint a vast series of portraits of the young student, sometimes having Ghoreyshi model, other times working from memory. One of Scott’s earliest portraits of Ghoreyshi was featured in last summer’s The Evolution of Depression, a sprawling solo show presented by Sub-Basement Studios that showcased the artist’s wildly diverse style. This first portrait, “Atiyeh in Blue,” featured collage, another style prevalent in Scott’s work—a small scrap of lined paper was decoupaged onto one corner of the piece, with the hope that Ghoreyshi would eventually use the space to write a letter to her faraway family. Since then, the girl with the annoying laugh has become Scott’s principal muse. His “Atiyeh” paintings, like his other works, employ inks, watercolors, oils, and collage elements, and vary wildly, almost schizophrenically, in style and line.
“As an artist, what I’ve noticed is, certain moods can affect my line,” Scott explains. “Conversations send my style off in one direction, then another direction, and then back. That’s why you see so many different versions of Atiyeh.
“One young guy asked [me], ‘How can you paint her perfectly? How did you capture the essence of her?’” Scott continues. “It’s by listening and taking her in, and then letting the pen or the brush do the work. I’m constantly building a visual vocabulary. Sometimes she’s talking, and my mind is turning what she says into pictures.”
Sometimes, as in “Atiyeh on Fire,” Ghoreyshi appears as a tangle of erratic Egon Schiele-ish lines. Other times, as in “Atiyeh in Green,” she is rendered realistically, her aquiline nose and haunting eyes evoking the same sense of inscrutable mystery seen in Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits. One unfinished work shows her swaddled in a burqa between two birds that are calling to one another, representing the communication between her and her family in Iran. But no matter which style Scott chooses to use, Ghoreyshi is always unmistakably herself. In addition to capturing the many moods of his friend, he views the works as a “personal protest” against the red tape that prevents talented young people like Ghoreyshi from enjoying free access to America’s educational resources.
“I’m not a writer, I’m a painter,” Scott says. “So I have to write with paint. I want her story to be known. Not just for her, but for the people who come behind her in this situation. We’ve got to embrace these talented young people who come from other countries. They only can add to America, enhance America. It’s like trying to stifle them, and only the best can survive. I mean, she’s running a marathon with some cement running shoes on and doing a hell of a job keeping up, maintaining her grades and going to school and everything. I’m blessed by our developing friendship, because I’m constantly inspired by her strength and fortitude. I look up to her. She’s like a hero to me, really.”
During a recent exhibit at Philadelphia’s Friends Center, titled Atiyeh: The Gift, Scott exhibited many of his Ghoreyshi portraits, and one of the pieces was acquired by a museum in El Salvador. Currently, the works appear in Fells Point’s Teaology, and on the walls of the Xandos where Scott and Ghoreyshi first met, where their unmistakable resemblance to the coffee shop’s frequent customer often elicits curious stares. For her part, Ghoreyshi is both astounded and humbled by Scott’s passion for portraying her, and her accidental status as a silent icon for international students hoping to study in the United States.
“I’m not really that comfortable with the publicity,” Ghoreyshi says. “I don’t know. It’s a good thing. I think he finds something in me that, I don’t know what it is. It’s flattering. What I would really like to see through myself is for people to know the story, not just my life, or my family’s life. The problem that I have, with my visas being rejected, there are a lot of people who have the same problem, students who come from Iran and other countries. I know that students have written letters to senators, but I don’t think the voice is loud enough to change anything.”
Scott is looking for more opportunities to exhibit his “Atiyeh” series, and is constantly creating new works. The most recent pieces, still untitled, are more poetic and abstract versions of the young Iranian, painted as visual responses to conversations with Ghoreyshi about her culture, her studies, and her hopes for the future.
“People ask, ‘Why her?’” Scott says. “But that’s like asking van Gogh, ‘Why the sunflowers?’ Or asking Picasso, ‘Why Guernica?’ I could spend my life just painting pretty pictures, or I could record what is happening now. Somebody has to record what’s going on in our lives right now. How many artists do you know that sit around for years and years and years looking for that perfect sunset, that perfect skyline, forest, waterfall—and all of a sudden, the inspiration just walks through the door, from Iran. And you just go off, and it’s nonstop work. I’m really grateful, because I’m surprising myself.”
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