A Cozy Chat With Houston Artist Noushin Lotfi
by Yasamin Lotfi
On a quiet Sunday afternoon, in a two-story apartment complex behind IKEA, everything seems droll and sedentary. But as I get closer to the small studio apartment on the second floor, I hear the sound of Bach through the walls. Intrigued, I walk inside, and find myself first in a dark room, a small living space with a fridge, a table, and a futon.
There are paint palettes in a small sink next to used coffee mugs, some knick knacks and decorations here and there. I continue into the main studio area, a modest sanctum with a bare window that overlooks a vast church parking lot and lets in lots of natural light. The room smells like paint and dust, and there are sketches and pictures taped to the walls.
A few semi-finished canvases sit on easels, and gingerly earmarked books take up lots of the floor space. In one particularly messy corner stands a child’s easel and painting supplies, and the child’s handiwork proudly displayed. In the middle of this perfect disorganization, I see the artist herself, wearing some old nondescript clothes, hair up in a messy bun.
She turns the stereo down so we can have our interview. I pull up a chair from the other room and take out my note pad. Having noticed the children’s corner, I think of my first question:
Yasi: When did you start painting?
Noushin: When I was 12. I remember buying my own supplies for the first time. Drawing became my strongest subject in school. I followed that to a B.A. in interior design, but my first real painting classes didn’t start until I had my degree, had gotten married, and in fact had my first child.
Y: What was the class?
N: A tidy and structured class taught by Nami Petgar. I learned sketching, pastels, colored pencils and oil and paint, and every lunch break he guided a group discussion on subjects related to painting. I was there for about five years, on and off. When I felt I had gleamed all I could, I found Aydin Aghdashloo.
Y: What was his class like?
N: It was always a few degrees too hot, and eternally messy. Students sat or stood elbow to elbow. I loved it. It was an environment to be inspired in, and he was a great teacher. He taught me to be bold, and to paint with fervor and purpose. I did a lot of watercolor there for the next two years. By then it was the height of the Iran-Iraq war and in 1987 we left for America.
Y: Oh yes, you lived in Houston for six years before you returned to Iran again right?
N: Yeah, longer than we had anticipated. It was a hard transition, and once again painting was my solace. I took a few semesters at Glassel School of Art. I remember the joy I felt drawing live models for the first time. This was never allowed in our sketch classes in Iran! I also found a great teacher, Ardeshir Arjang. I worked mostly with oil and paint, and in two years painted enough to have two shows, one private and one at Rice University. I also used to run an antique booth for a while and learned ceramic painting from a colleague, which I loved.
Y: Then back to Iran?
N: Yes, and I was back in my element – I started with Aghdashloo again, this time learning about Miniature painting. I built a studio in the backyard and spent hours there every day. I would turn on the music, tracks from Beethoven and Bach, and Mozart’s famous Requiem, and be happily absorbed.
Y: With this new space to grow in as an artist, did you seek out other teachers?
N: I did some portrait drawing with Mr. Katouzian, and fell in love with Gouash at Mr. Shafeyi’s class. During that period I had a few group shows, at Seyhoun Gallery, Golestan Gallery, and Niavaran Farhangsara. In the late 90s I had a couple of individual shows at Seyhoun Gallery.
Y: Did any of them feature the “Golden Samovar”?
N: (laughs) No that was before the revolution. The French embassy hosted an art exhibit, and select artists had one painting featured, and mine was of a gold samovar filled with flowers. They had a picture of it in Keyhan magazine.
Y: Back in Iran you started a business too, right?
N: Yes, I met a talented lady named Shahla Etefagh, and she taught mural painting at her house. So for about two years I would go there with a group and we would basically paint on the walls. Eventually a friend and I went off on our own and started a business. She bought an apartment and we painted everything in it, walls, floors, furniture, plates, …and then we had a successful show to put it on display.
Y: These were obviously prolific years. But at the turn of the century something changed. Tell me about that.
N: Both my kids were abroad, and that had left an obvious hole. We had also moved from our old house with my beloved studio. In the next few years I lost both parents and a brother, and also had major back surgery. Throughout this difficult time, as I tried again to find comfort in painting, a voice in my head would say, “What’s the point”? I tried to continue, but I felt that my inspiration was gone.
Y: How did you get it back?
N: We moved back to Houston permanently a couple of years ago, and I guess in a way I had to get my studio back first. I rented a small apartment and, feeling a spark, put it all together in a matter of weeks. I turned on my music and picked up my brush and voila! Since July I have thirteen finished works and a few in progress. Sometimes I can’t believe it myself!
Y: Having done this for decades now, do you have any inspiring words for a fledgling artist?
N: Don’t take it for granted, when you’re young and time is expansive, and life is more boundless. And don’t let anything discourage you. Persevere.
Y: What inspires your paintings?
N: Nature’s calm. Animals. I’m inspired by my memories of life in Sanandaj. We would go fishing, horseback riding, and spend almost all our free time exploring the countryside. We watched the harvest, and sometimes travelled to distant villages. I owned lots of animals, from my own horse to a porcupine!
Y: Can you pick a favorite genre from the many you’ve mastered?
N: I think it would be hard. I can’t just settle on one thing; must have something to do with being a Gemini! I think portrait drawing is on top of the list. But really I’ve enjoyed them all.
Y: Favorite media you’ve worked with?
N: Probably gouache, and oil and paint.
Y: If you could have done anything other than painting, what would you have done?
N: Hmm…animal husbandry? Or maybe Egyptology. Is that a profession? I’m obsessed with it!
Y: What beliefs do you carry with you in life?
N: I believe in destiny, that things happen for a reason. I believe I was meant to go through everything I did in order to be sitting here now. I believe in love and nature. I believe that how you act will come back to you in this life, here on earth, so you have to be kind and compassionate.
Y: Can we look forward to a show sometime in the near future?
Y: (I remember what prompted my first question and ask my last): Tell me about all the children stuff in the corner.
N: That’s where my daughter’s two kids come to paint, usually once a week. The older one, Parsa, is especially fond of it, excels at it really. It’s one of my great joys, to watch their excitement, and teach them a little of what I know and love.
And with that, our interview is over. I close my notepad and get up to leave. She follows me back through the dark anteroom and stands at the doorway as I walk downstairs and toward my car. As I’m getting in I look up and watch her slowly close the door. I ponder the events of the last hour and think how refreshing to have met a true artist, someone who paints as she lives and loves. I get in my car, and with Bach’s Mass in B minor still swirling in my head, drive off.