Kimia Ferdowsi Kline’s curatorial career began when she was sitting at the front desk at the Wythe Hotel. It was her first job in New York—no gallery would hire her, she explains. When the hotel made the decision to start buying original artwork, they asked Kline to choose it.
Her first thought? “Oh, I could never be a curator because I don’t have a degree in Art History, and I didn’t study curating,” Kline remembers. What she didn’t realize that she had been curating for years—culling folders full of works by painters she admired, which was both an extension of her own painting practice and a way to “meaningfully connect” to other artists.
Now, Kline says, “It’s really exciting for me in that way to get to engage in the artistic community, both as an artist and also as a curator.”
Kline’s own paintings draw from a deep wellspring of inspiration—other artists, the stories she heard as a child, and the art of her family’s native Iran—to take the viewer into a colorful paradise that is as rich in history as it is in fantasy.
This interview was conducted by Montana Simone from IDIO Gallery and has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first consider yourself an artist, and how did that identity become a reality for you?
The story goes that when I was eight I declared to my parents that I was going to be a painter. I don’t remember this, but they talk about it as, like, the most horrifying day of their lives, because they had big plans for me. My dad was like, “Oh, she’s going to be a lawyer!” and my mom was like, “No, she’s going to be a doctor!” Because my mom’s whole side was in medicine, and my dad’s whole side was in law and business. From when I was really little, I loved drawing and painting. If my mom needed to be in a long meeting, she would just bring coloring books and I would sit quietly for hours and just color … I forgot about it [until] years later when I was in high school starting to apply to college. I was in all the AP art classes and I had a really amazing art teacher who said to me, “You know this is a legit profession, you could actually do this.” With her encouragement and then talking about it with my parents again, I decided, “I’m going to be a painter.”
A lot of people told me, “Oh, it’s a waste of your life, it’s a waste of your talents,” because there are so many stereotypes about what it means to be an artist; like, you cut off your ear like Van Gogh, you’re crazy, you’re antisocial … all these stereotypes that sometimes are true, but not always. And especially as the daughter of immigrants, you come to this country and you’re rebuilding your life, there are certain pressures that are placed on them. You’re expected to go into something that is a secure job with a great salary. But I think somewhere deep down, it just always felt like my calling; it just always felt like what I loved most in this world, and despite all the naysayers and despite all of the really logical reasons why I should not be doing this, I thought, “I’m going to do it anyway.” And I did, and it’s turning out alright so far!
Why did you choose painting?
One of my professors used to always say that painting was the queen of the art world. I’ve done sculpture, I’ve done printmaking, I’ve done pottery, bookbinding, book arts. [But] at the end of the day, I feel like with painting I can be more improvisational than in other disciplines, and that’s sort of where my work (for me) gets interesting, in those surprise moments. The immediacy of painting, not having a printing press between you and the final piece … it’s just your hand and brush and the paint.
But I have worked in other mediums, and I go back and forth, actually. Printmaking has been a big part of my process. I did a lot of printmaking in college, and [now] I have a show coming up in Detroit in a very large space, so I’m working in installation. It’s the first time I’ve done a large-scale installation with a fifty-foot wall. And that has forced me to think about my work in a more three-dimensional way, in a more environmentally, sort of encompassing, encapsulating way, which is really fun. Because then it affects the way that I’m thinking about space within a flat, 2-D picture plane. I’m actually starting to do pottery again as well. Painting is kind of like my home base, but to have these other avenues—it re-informs the work, it refreshes it, and it renews the way that I interact with that medium.
How does your work connect with your family history?
For a long time, like when I was in school, I was a slave to the photograph, which I think a lot of young art students are and young painters are. I wanted things to look realistic, and so I would only paint from photos or directly from life. This whole idea of painting from my head was so foreign to me, and I was really opposed to it. As the years went on, all of my professors were really encouraging me, [saying], “Kimia, you have to start painting and talking about Iran.” I put up such a fight, because I thought, “I can’t! I’ve never been there—how am I going to make paintings about a place I’ve never seen? That I’ve never taken photos of? That I’ve never observed firsthand?”
After grad school I went to India for a year. Being in the East and being in a culture that architecturally and artistically is so similar to Iran, I finally felt like I was experiencing at least a version of what Iran was like. I started going to all the museums in India and looking at the miniatures, which we really don’t have access to in the West, and really researching and educating myself about Persian and Indian miniatures and Eastern art. Then I started, for the first time, painting from a mixture of imagination, experience, old family photos that I found of my father’s home in Iran, of my grandparents’ backyard, my grandmother’s garden, their summer house on the Caspian Sea. My paintings basically became collages of all of these different sources of imagery. I learned how to use Photoshop—that was a big part of it. That year was a catalyst in my artistic process. I released the shackles of the photograph. Now I barely even look at images; I’ll l have some resource images, but my paintings are much more about recreating fictitious experience and finding a way to connect with this homeland that I’m otherwise kind of barred from visiting.
A lot of the paintings are based on stories that I grew up hearing. My mom would always talk about how sweet the watermelons were in Iran; she said that when you would drive, they would pile the watermelons up on the side of the road to sell them, and the skin of the watermelons is so thin and the watermelons are so sweet that when you drive by in a car, the vibrations of the tires make the watermelons pop open. I only grew up hearing about the beauty of Iran. The stuff you see in the media and the news now, it’s all about the government, and it’s all political, but the actual culture and the actual people are so sweet and so beautiful and hospitable—it’s a completely different experience from what you’re seeing on television. I wanted my paintings to speak to that. I wanted my paintings to speak to the super romanticized, fantastical stories that I grew up hearing about this place that I can’t visit.
All images by Kimia Ferdowsi Kline
Featured image: I Come Bearing Mangoes – Oil on panel, 48 × 72″, 2015