I came into the world in 1970 in Pars Hospital in the city of Tehran, Iran. I have a sister who was born three years ahead of me and a brother who came along eight years after me. I spent my formative years in the city of Lahijan at the foot of a mountain called Satan’s Peak. Many years have passed since then and the city has grown up considerably. After all these years I never did figure out how this mountain –whose green slopes could be traversed in all of half a day after which you might suddenly come face to face with a porcupine –got its name. All that has remained of that little mountain is its name, the scent of the rain and the porcupines which have long since disappeared.
My mother shaped my childhood and my father, my teenage years. Father was a doctor and hoped I would follow in his footsteps. As a small kid, I wasn’t into school. I preferred to spend my time painting and instead of textbooks, I was crazy about picture books that my sister used to bring home as prizes from school. There was The Little Boy with Blue Eyes and The Moonlight Oozes illustrated by Farshid Mesghali, Snowman, illustrated by Allen Bayash, Gord Afarid illustrated by Ali Akbar Sadeghi and Bastur illustrated by Nikzad Nojumi, all big names in Iranian children’s illustration.
1979 was the year of the Revolution. It gradually transformed the political and cultural conditions of society. Still, during art classes at school, kids were either made to draw tulips or practice calligraphy. Later, the novels of Jules Verne and Mark Twain took the place of my sister’s picture books. After that, I became acquainted with Dostoevsky, Romain Rolland and Mahmoud Dawlatabadi. After literature, I discovered cinema. Actually, I did more reading of film critiques than film watching. After that, I found music and then…the list goes on. But the Russian 12-color waterpaint set that got thrown from the second floor of the house occupies the place of prominence in my memories into adolescence. Nothing could take its place.
Having passed the university entrance exams in 1989, I opted for art as my chosen field of study. I would not live up to my father’s expectations. As a result, my studies in art school were looked upon as a family tragedy for a considerable period of time. This tragedy was in fact, the best period of my life. My first group exhibition was with two fellow painters at the university gallery with the theme of social satire. My first group exhibition was with two fellow painters at the university gallery with the theme of social the newspaper, Keyhan. It should come as no surprise that someone like me who had grown up on the illustrations of Farshid Mesghali, Nureddin Zerrinkelk and Allen Bayash should be attracted to works geared towards children and young adults. The topic of my final project was the assessment of children’s picture books under the supervision of Ebrahim Haghighi and Touran Mirhadi2.
In 1993 at the age of 25, I received my undergraduate degree in Visual Communication from The Art and Architecture department of Azad University of Tehran. After this, taking a sample of my work, I went in search of a publisher. In 1994, I signed my first illustration contract with Zolal Publishing. My career as an illustrator was thus launched with the books Where Should I Go Bedibye? and The Butterfly in the Rain.
In 1995, I earned my Master of Arts degree in Visual Communication. At this same time, I started doing article and cover illustrations for the educational, economic and social magazine, Healthy Society. The idea of working in a different environment had its temptations. The magazine editor was looking for an illustrator and I was looking for a way to get my work noticed. One of the covers I illustrated for this magazine with the title US-Iran relations: Yes or No? won a Special Award and Honourable Mention at the Fifth Biennial Exhibition of Graphic Designers of Iran. My work with that magazine continued until the revolutionary court closed it down.
As someone who was devoted to illustration, meeting the people who were making a change in the world through their illustrations was like finding kindred spirits and fellow travellers, an extremely joyful experience. These were illustrators from all over the world whose works attracted me and pushed me into deeper levels of thought and contemplation. A few names: Nafiseh Riahi, Dušan Kállay, Ardeshir Mohases, Štěpán Zavřel, Nesrin Khosrovi and many others whose work I had become acquainted with during my student years. I studied these masters and learned from seeing their works. Through their talent and creativity they helped me progress along my path.
In 1996, I fell in love. I completed my master’s thesis under the supervision of Bahram Kalhornia. I got married, went to fulfil my obligatory military service…in 1998, my son was born. This is when things really became hectic!
I don’t think there is any place in the world where a person can earn a lucrative income from illustration. Not that it matters. I was always in love with my work. How much money my work would bring in was never a consideration for me. Of course, book illustration for children does not pay the bills for grown-ups. There are the groceries, electricity, gas, insurance and taxes to worry about. Therefore, on the side, I accepted every manner of job doing book and magazine covers, illustrating pages of monthlies, posters, layout, signage, letterheads and name cards. Those days, I sometimes had to work 14 hours non-stop a day.
My studio was at home. One day when my son was three, he entered my workroom in my absence. He took three drawings from the set of illustrations for the book Twenty Iranian Tales off my desk and proceeded to embellish them with his color crayons. These three illustrations found a place in my heart. One might say he had inadvertently put his stamp of approval on our joint production. In any case, I suddenly felt unsatisfied with the entirety of this work but the deadline with Zaman Publishing was almost up. I contacted the publisher and he gave me an extension. I tore up the rest of the illustrations and re-did them in a different style. After the book was published and was well received, I decided that after that I would never again waste one second hesitating about tearing up any work with which I was not satisfied.
I started teaching at the Tehran Fine Arts School for boys in 1999. This school has nurtured some of Iran’s greatest talent. Sohrab Sepehri, one of the best-known contemporary artists and poets got his start here. After that, I also taught at the Tehran Institute of Technology, Soore University and at the Faculty of Art and Architecture at Azad University, my old alma mater. As long as my father was alive, he would simply introduce me as a university professor instead of illustrator or graphic designer and leave it at that. I loved teaching. I still teach self-motivated, enthusiastic and determined young artists at my studio. I even teach the ones who do not possess all these qualities!
Illustration is like any other profession and requires mastery of the fundamentals, established knowledge, know-how, and the literature. There are no short-cuts. I try to get my students to the point where they believe in themselves and allow their individuality to come out in their work. I have also written some stories for children. With the exception of one which the publisher kindly agreed to publish complete with the illustrations which I did myself, none of my other stories ever saw the light of day. The name of the one published story is Little Wishes and Long-Tailed Comets. There is a little crow that has a stuttering problem and is not accepted by the rest of the crows. Perhaps I lack the ability to express myself through words. My tongue always comes up against a brick wall whenever I try to communicate my inner thoughts. Creating a picture is a means by which I am able to collect my dreams, beliefs, thoughts and feelings and whatever I have inside and present it to another.
For this, I attempt to establish a connection with my interlocutors: I graft the mass of images resulting from the conjunction of what is universally theoretical and what I have personally experienced onto others. Each person, in accordance with his or her own characteristics, receives my message at a different point in time and space. I establish a connection so that as they are attracted to it, so are they able to accept and understand it. This way of turning dreams and inner desires into a shared experience is not as simple as it appears. Sometimes I stare transfixed at the blank piece of paper before me, unable even to sketch a line. But with every picture that I do finally manage to bring to completion, I have a moment which I seize and, dumbfounded at the world I have discovered, I break into a smile of wonderment. The book The Madman and the Well came into being in just such circumstances. I tried to make my illustrations conform to the hero of this story with strange twists and turns. In 2004, this book was awarded the IBBY Honour List Diploma.
Imaginative stories with surreal narratives set in mythical lands crisscrossed by valleys of mysteries are landscapes of beautiful reality for me and they beckon my creative energies to step forth. Stories like Arash, Mah Pishani of Our Story and Rostam and Esfandiyar reflect this and in fact, they enjoyed a positive reception on the part of the readers and critics. I never limit the scope of my selections. The variety of literary styles causes me, as illustrator, to explore new realms and find my place in them. The Sultan and the Deer, and A Friend is Never Lost, nor is an Enemy are rewritings of old stories which capture the subtle ironies of reality and challenge the readers without admonishing them. I strive to bestow my illustrations with the potential of being possible in the eyes of the person looking at them.
When I decide to illustrate the text of a writer, different ideas come to my mind. The more a story is better equipped and lends itself to illustration, the harder it is for me to start and make a final decision. I’m always filled with this anxiety as to whether or not I really am up to performing the task in the best possible way. Reading the text and dividing it into sections demarcated by key illustrations with special considerations for the needs of the readers is the next stage. After that come design and putting the parts together. Characterization and casting the heroes of the story in their final form and shape are the most interesting and exciting parts of the job for me. I try to carry this out in such a way that even I myself will be surprised. This is a challenge which is met after dozens of attempts. In the end, I render a full-size sketch in pencil which, after consulting with the art director of the publisher, I then proceed to execute in its final form. I decide on a technique and style of execution, taking the kind of design into consideration. Experimenting with various styles has given me the ability to make my style of illustration fit the story. Having a fixed style prevents experimentation and the discovery of new frontiers and keeps the illustration from its primary mission of conveying the message of different stories in a suitable pictorial form. The last stage in the creative process happens when the work is taken from the easel and I give permission for illustration and illustrator to part company and go their separate ways. This cannot be quantified and happens only in abstract conditions. I go to visit the picture again. This is when I make the decision to show it or completely destroy it. We must thank good illustrators who do not publish their bad works. This is something Gabriel García Márquez said about writers. The success of a work of art is that even after viewing it several times, it still has the ability to surprise the viewer. Sometimes I think I have turned into a compulsive idealist.
I have designed over 500 book and magazine covers mainly directed to or about young readers. Besides illustrating, I also paint and work on different type of sculptures. These are my private domain. They are places where I myself am the only audience, a private conversation. No one has commissioned them and no one will look at them. Naturally there is great freedom in this act. But I love my children and young adult audience and will work for them as long as I can only occasionally answering the pangs of that exhilarating freedom afforded me by painting and sculpting.
In the end, I have to say we all wish to be remembered. We wish to leave a legacy which will remain from our physical selves and memories, a legacy which makes life more beautiful for living in the world. Life is more important than anything else.
For my son and for all the children of the world