A Thoroughly Modern Artist–Interview with Kelly Izdihar
In this interview, we’ll be introducing a gem in the Atlanta community: Kelly Izdihar! Kelly grew up in Louisiana, where she fostered her love for the arts from an early age. Her educational and work pursuits have taken her all over the world. Her fascinating career in both the production and management of art is full of great lessons for all you emerging artists out there. To learn more about Kelly’s work, visit her website.
What was your ‘aha’ moment that made you realize art was calling you?
I guess you can say that I never had an “aha” moment. For as long as I can remember, I have always been drawn to the arts. As a child, I loved drawing and coloring and I’ve followed that passion to this day. My transition from being a student with a personal hobby to an art student who could pursue her craft professionally took place in the sixth grade. I was recommended for Louisiana’s state education program called “Talented in Visual Arts”. It is a special education program for talented art students to use extra class time honing their craft. After passing the drawing test, I was accepted into the program. From then on, I was treated as a serious art student by my teachers and as someone who could go on to do great things in the art community.
How were you introduced to your specific art field and were there any mentors or specific programs that gave you a push?
I’ve had two mentors who’ve helped me. My first art teacher was Mr. Punzo. For two years in junior high school, he taught me the basics of drawing and painting. Plus, he was kind and very encouraging to his students. My second mentor was my high school art teacher, Mr. Thomas. Already a well-established artist in the New Orleans community, he not only taught us the basics of painting and the elements of design, he taught the professional methods of working artists. He ran a non-profit arts group for young artists called Pieces of Power. Through this organization, we painted murals for private businesses and organizations all across New Orleans. So doing our art assignments went beyond getting a good grade. At a young age, we were making money with our work and getting the first-hand experience of being a working artist.
Have I ever second-guessed becoming an artist?
This is complicated due to my college and work experience. In college, I discovered other loves and skills that I have, such as writing and working with non-profit organizations. So for my bachelor’s program, I chose studio arts as a major but I also took classes in French, Arabic and creative writing. I also worked for a tourism development initiative and I worked as an English tutor. So while art has always been my first love, I pursued numerous fields so that I can have as many options for the future as possible. I knew that becoming a self-sustaining artist would be something that would take time, but in the meantime I could pursue other interests.
Thankfully, I’m skilled in the art studio and in the corporate environment. I was also able to combine my interests in promoting the arts with the business world by pursuing a master’s degree in arts administration. I currently started my path towards art education certification so that’s “another feather in the hat.” During this economic downturn, I think we all have some doubts about our chosen fields. I believe about 96% of art graduates are doing something outside of their chosen fields. But I’m thankful that I have a wide range of skills that can help me to pay the bills while pursuing what I love to do. I love creating art and whether I’m working as a teacher, or sales person, or editorial assistant, it’s something I would never give up. It’s a part of me and I love it too much.
What is your most defining moment to-date, the moment that makes you feel what you do is all worth it?
My defining moment would be when I was living and working in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. While I was working in the human resources department, I was able to get my foot in the door because my artwork and work experience caught the eye of the company’s CEO. I believe this is an example of how your art can pay off for you in ways you couldn’t have imagined. I had a dream of living in Dubai but never thought it would actually happen. Another defining moment would be all the times I exhibited while I was living overseas. Knowing that I could make it on my own in a foreign land and receive positive feedback and exposure for my work was very empowering. It gave me the confidence that I had lacked before the working-abroad experience.
Explain your style in three words
Colorful, bold, warm.
Who’s style in your field do you look up the most?
As a painter, I’m inspired by the art movements starting from the Impressionists up to the Abstract Expressionists. So those periods fall between roughly the 1870s to the 1950s. This was such a dynamic period for the arts in Europe and America. Artists were freer to experiment and go against the status quo and they ended creating some of the most famous work known among those of us who are not necessarily art buffs. Some of my favorite movements, such as Fauvism, Cubism and Expression developed during this time frame.
One of my favorite artists is Henri Matisse. He was a French painter (who was encouraged to study law but eventually gave it up). I love his bold use of color and patterns. He belonged to the Fauvist movement, which I love because they were obsessed with the use of pure and bold colors. I feel like his style is most similar to my own. Plus, he and I both share a love of North and West African cultures, as he and Pablo Picasso studied the cultures of these regions.
I’m also fascinated with the arts of the Muslim world. Arabic calligraphy, mosque architecture, tile work and illuminated manuscripts provide me with lots of inspiration. It doesn’t matter if the Muslim artist was from Persia, India, Istanbul or Spain, Muslims have always expressed themselves with elegance, vitality and refinement. In fact, my first introduction to Islamic art was as a teenager. I saw a copy of Al Fatiha in an Islamic calendar. It was created with a gold and blue background with black ink. This experience peeked my interest in Islamic art and in Islam itself.
What central theme and message does your work convey most often to your audience?
To sum up my work in its totality, I found this quote from Henri Matisse which describes my work perfectly. “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” I’m not very interested in depression or drudgery in my work. I feel as if there is enough ugliness in the world and I don’t want to add to it. In fact, art can be the antidote to some of the drudgery of the world. Also, having the ability to produce art is a gift from the Creator.
And one of the highest acts in Islam is beautiful action—beautiful behavior, beautiful character, beautiful words. We are called to be people of ihsan so with all the negativity that’s aimed at Muslims and Islam, what better way to respond than by returning the evil with good, or the ugly with something beautiful? I wish more Muslims would keep this in mind when we react to ugly stereotypical portrayals of our religion. Artists are in a unique position to challenge these negative portrayals.
Are any of your projects inspired by social, political, or ethical movements? Are they geared towards influencing change at an institutional level or more towards individual level?
In the future, I would like to explore some social and political themes that I’m passionate about, such as poverty, political corruption and community activism. I also want to do art about Muslims—our manner of dress, our methods of worship and our beliefs. But like many artists, my interests float from one theme to another. One day it’s still lives, the next day, it’s hand painted boxes. I guess I need to discipline myself to create a plan that would give each desired project its due.
Is your work more abstract or concrete? Do you value ambiguity as a way to appeal to many people, or do you lean more towards blunt, concrete messages?
Sometimes, my work blurs the line between the abstract and the concrete. For example, with my stylized Arabic works, the Arabic words convey a concrete message but the design of the piece is done in a very modern, abstract way. I’m a blender of forms, styles and techniques. I like using traditional and non-traditional methods of creating art. I love bending the modern with the ancient. I’ve been told that my work blurs the line between fine art and craft. My goal is to marry different forms rather than stick to rigid categories of art making.