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A Conversation with Shahnaz Nia: Best in Show for the August Open Exhibit 2019

The Best-in Show winning piece for this month’s exhibit was selected by juror, Julia Kwon. Julia is also a textile artist (see her work here, and here) and so it is no wonder that textiles were beautifully highlighted this month in the gallery! Shahnaz Nia‘s Dreaming of Appalachia is inspired by her love of Appalachia and the call of nature. The Art League interviewed Nia about her Best in Show winning work, her process, and how she came to create the mixed media textile piece:

How did you come up with the concept for this piece? How did this work evolve?

Dreaming of Appalachia evolved after spending several weeks on a large, surrealist painting I was doing. The piece itself was a peculiar scene with bold colors—but I grew to really dislike it as I was working on it. There was a point where I couldn’t even stand to look at it anymore, so one day, I flipped the canvas over on my easel and the wooden frame was facing me. I had seen a fiber artist’s work on Instagram and thought to myself, what if I did something similar? So I used the wood frame of the canvas to do something of my own. I gathered some nails, a hammer, a ruler, and meticulously measured out a centimeter distance between each nail I put along the frame. 

Is this the first weaving you’ve done?

Yes, I’ve never done anything like this before! I’ve always felt as if painting was my forte, but I was frustrated with the medium since I wasn’t producing the types of pieces I wished to. When I was younger and painted frequently, my mom took me to Iran one year, since both my parents are Iranian. We were in Tehran for the summer, and my mother had a connection to a well-known artist, Abbas Katouzian. His work was everywhere in Iran. I was only ten years old when I took painting classes at his house with a couple other girls as well. We sat in a little classroom within his house and learned how to oil paint. 

That’s how my art began, but I’ve slowly lost it over the years, y’know? I’ve been trying to balance having a stable life and job along with making my art. I’m actually a dentist, and I do my art on the side because that’s what makes me feel alive; it’s my passion. After long days in the office, I would come home and add layers onto Dreaming of Appalachia since it was somewhat mindless. I started from the bottom of the piece, and worked my way to the top. It took me months to finish.

During the time I started to work full-time, I realized that I wasn’t satisfied enough with dentistry. I needed something to keep me sane, which was how Dreaming of Appalachia got started.

There’s a strong sense of dedication to the Appalachian Mountains with this; it provides a meditation of being there without physically being present.

There was no stress about the end product of this work since the texture of the yarn was already so warm and inviting. Regardless of the result, the scale was going to be large due to the size of the makeshift loom, which I knew would be interesting and draw attention. Though it was fun to play around with the dimension; I used the 3D aspect of the yarn to keep the composition interesting. This weaving is a really, really playful piece with its areas of dense, puffy yarn. 

Was there a large aspect of spontaneity with the fiber, or was there some structure of a sketch you were trying to follow? 

Zero planning. I went to the store, got all my materials, and just started going layer by layer. During this, I would step back to look at it from a distance and evaluate what needed more thickness, or if an area required a finer stitch. The white background at the top of the piece took the longest amount of time because it was a repetitive one by one by one by one… you get the idea haha. It was so tiny and took so long—I was exhausted working on this piece by the end of it. 

The process of making Dreaming of Appalachia reminded me of a hike. You start out really optimistic, “Yeah! This is gonna be awesome!” All of a sudden, you’re halfway up the mountain when you realize that it, maybe, wasn’t the best idea hiking in the summer heat. You feel exhausted and out of breath. 

That process sounds all too familiar!

Even still, through it all, this piece means so much more to me now since its selection into the show. I got engaged last week while my boyfriend and we were hiking a mountain, so everything about this weave feels special now. I grew up in Georgia, hiking the Appalachian trails for most of my life. 

The title of the piece, Dreaming of Appalachia, I would love to hear what you’re dreaming about in Appalachia⁠—if there’s anything you were meditating on while creating this. 

Dreaming of Appalachia is based upon a feeling. Since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with nature. When my parents would drive us to a trail, I would be carsick in the backseat, looking out the window and completely mesmerized by all the mountains in the crazy wilderness. Seeing all of that took me by shock as a kid. As I got older, the wilderness centered me and brought me my spirituality. Being in the woods makes me feel as if I’m in church—that is my church. With Dreaming of Appalachia, whenever I felt stressed, especially in the winter when it’s cold, I would dream about Appalachia. There’s a specific quiet hum in the mountains, and that sound of stillness is what my piece is all about. I get fed up with the day-to-day grind of city life, so my fantasy is to live and be out there. 

That is such a dream, and a beautiful answer! How do you think fiber, as a material, connects to the South? I know fiber is generally labeled as “women’s work,” so I’m intrigued if you could expand on these inquires.

Fiber reminds me of warmth and comfort; there’s an embrace of fibers in our clothes, blankets, and how those objects are the first things we latch onto. It feels like a primitive materiality. And with “women’s work,” I feel connected to that on a generational scale⁠— How many women have done this work before me?

It’s nice that you can put it back into your work. You did this meditative practice, with materials unfamiliar to you as a dedication to one of the most familiar place to you, and that’s so interesting to learn. Do you think you’ll continue in fiber?

Right now, I’ve been learning ceramic work for the past year—I’ve been taking classes here at The Art League. I’m not very good at it! I’m realizing that. I used to do charcoal drawings, acrylic, oil, and encaustic work…I really take everything one day at a time, because anything is possible. So, I don’t think I’ll cast my fiber practice aside. The recognition I’ve received from Dreaming of Appalachia encourages me not to just shove this under my mattress once the show is over.

You can see Nia’s piece as well as the entire August Open Exhibit, and B.D. Richardson’s “Gone Fishin'” through September 8. 

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