Breaking the 9-5: with Naghmeh Sharifi

Naghmeh Sharifi is an artist who has had her work exhibited around the world from La Compania Gallery in Mexico City to Red Bird Studios in Montreal. Most recently, Naghmeh presented her painting series “The World Inside” with the Montreal Council for the Arts.

I sat down with her over Skype to chat about her love of learning and her relationship to art.

Originally from Iran, Naghmeh moved to Canada at age 16 to begin school at the University of British Columbia. There she obtained two Bachelor of Arts degrees – one in Visual Arts and one in Psychology. Today she is working towards her MFA in Studio Arts at Concordia University.

What was the transition period like for you moving to Canada?

It was a tough time to immigrate because high school can be really tough. It’s all about fitting in… I come in and I have this heavy accent, and I just felt really out of place, just a culture shock and everything. So it was really tough. But in a sense it was good also, because I got 2 years of preparation before entering university. And I got to take courses that I didn’t have access to back at my high school in Iran.

How did you first get into the world of art? Was it an organic transition for you?

I was always taking classes, even as a child…You know how like as children our parents send us to piano or art lessons. I was just another kid taking piano lessons, art lessons. But then the painting and drawing lessons -- I guess I had some potential, and people were always commenting, and that encouraged me to stick with it.

When I came to Canada, I just didn’t even take a break class hour, I just took classes from 8 am to 6 pm. I was taking all the after school classes too. I started taking art classes and music classes and theatre, because I was interested in all of those. Painting was the one that I had the most experience with, and I just stuck with that. It just stuck and I knew that I wanted to continue down that road.

What was the process of finding your style?

You know, that’s another thing that’s very interesting. A lot of people find they struggle with that. Especially in undergrad, or high school, they have this preoccupation with finding their own style, or being unique, or doing something that hasn’t been done before. For some reason I never worried about that. I just did what came to me and I never worried. There was a time that I didn’t even know if this had been done before or not, but I didn’t even care about that. I was just doing my own thing. I didn’t think that it would become serious. I didn’t even know how long I would stick with it to be honest.

I was just busy handling all these courses and doing a double major and finishing it. I never thought about whether or not I have a style of my own. I just didn’t want to follow a trend. I know that sounds cliché. I just did my own thing, and never really worried about that.

People don’t really have to worry about that, because whatever you do, it’s your thing.

Most of the great painters have been inspired by somebody else, and their works resemble so much somebody else’s work. But then, after a certain point, it becomes their thing. It takes on their touch.

What kind of schedule do you work within when you’re doing art and painting?

I just go into the studio when I feel like it. Some days I struggle, some periods of the year I struggle. If it’s after an exhibition I really struggle. I get a block, or I get this post-partum depression. It’s usually encouraging if I have a show coming up. It’s hard. I just try to go in every day and I try to do something. Even if it’s not actually painting. If it’s taking photos. I take a lot of photos. Or it’s sketching, or looking at art. I just make sure that somehow I stay connected.

What inspires you to keep creating?

I do look a lot at different painters. I keep this Pinterest account…if I see a painter whose work I love on Instagram, I just keep looking at their work while I’m working. Sometimes I listen to music, books on tape, or podcasts. It really depends. If I already have an idea then I just get working on it. Then it really doesn’t matter what I’m listening to, I can work. But sometimes I just need to sit down and look at some paintings to be inspired.

Most recent studio listens: The Nose – Nikolai Gogol Open Culture – website with free audio books and lecture readings DW (Deustche Welle) – radio with a section dedicated to German lessons

Has language influenced your work or life?

I feel like my approach to language is like art in the sense that you take on this persona, you take on this character. That you believe you are French. And you just repeat whatever you hear, and you try to sound like that, and you don’t look at grammar, or spelling, or look at all those things people look at that discourage them from learning language. So you pretend you’re in somebody else’s position.

I like that approach believing that you’re somebody else. I really like Montreal because of that – or cities like that – that are bilingual, because it’s like you know you don’t have this fixed identity. There’s always transitions-- people you can be, or cultures that you can have.

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You mentioned fixed identity. Is that an idea represented in your work?

For me it is indirectly in the sense that I’m interested in the idea of exploring the in between states, whether it’s the idea of exploring what’s reality and what’s fiction.

In a way, I’m in between identities, where I don’t feel completely at home when I’m there, and I don’t feel like I’m completely at home here or in either culture. But I have elements of both. And I try to have that in my art.

And I try to not be too grounded as an Iranian artist or a Canadian artist. I try to have this universal language. If I’m depicting the human body, the body doesn’t have this specific origin, or these symbols and clothes that are specific to a cultural region.

Mixed media, painting from Naghmeh’s "The World Inside" series

How do you combat that in-between feeling?

I think back in the days I found that really difficult...But I think it’s really interesting that you can make that your own, and you can make that your style, and you can make that work to your advantage. If you can use it in your art, it actually makes you have this language.

This is the time of year when a lot of people just graduated from college and are looking to make the next step. Can you offer some advice -- With the art scene being so competitive, how do you stand out and make it work?

In the past maybe I was disillusioned to think that you have to be at like this really important city to make it work. That you had to go to New York and start, and just make it work. I don’t have that idea anymore. I used to move around a lot – I traveled a lot. I lived in probably 6 different cities. But I think ever since I set roots in Montreal and I thought about it – that I’m setting roots here, this is where I’m staying for now, things started happening. Not right away, but down the road. After 3, 4 years of just applying to different grants and call for proposals and galleries, all these things sort of happened.

I think it’s important to stay where you are, and branch out from there. Become important in your immediate cultural community and then branch out from there.

Instead of going to the ‘it’ places and trying to make it work, where you’re competing against thousands of amazing artists, and you know, trying to overcome the challenges of living in this metropolitan, where you’re having a hard time to make ends meet, that you don’t even have time to paint anything. I think just staying where you are and just not getting discouraged…keep applying, keep working. Sometimes it’s good to make it work from your home base.

How about when it comes to breaking out of artist’s block?

Shut everything out basically. It’s good to absorb information you’re receiving, look at other peoples’ art, be inspired by it, but never compare yourself – not your work, not the way you work, not how much you work, not what you’re reading, what other people are reading. They have to do what works for them.

At some point just step into the studio and tune it out and get to work. Because all those things – all those external influences are still influences, so you can actively struggle with them and let them affect you negatively, or treat them as things that are around, that are just noise.

A big thank you to Naghmeh for taking the time to chat and offer some words of wisdom for aspiring creators. You can follow along with Naghmeh's creative journey online, and view more of "The World Inside" series on her website.


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