An interview by Jacqueline Matskiv
Over the last year and a half, this tiny woman with an easel has become a fixture on hilly Thornhill streets…
Many stop by to admire her work in progress, and Manijeh Sabet doesn’t mind the onlookers, in fact, it is hard to mistake her dazzling smile for anything but an invitation. The conversation begins to flow as her hand leaves precise strokes on the canvas while yet another house with a brightly lit porch or a hooked dorm takes shape and comes to life. Some marvel at how fast she paints, other, at the unmistaken identity of the subjects emerging from under her brush. But most leave placing an order, soon to become friends, admirers of the artist’s talent, and oftentimes her students.
We catch up with Manijeh in her studio, where newly framed works on the walls tell the story of the artist’s journey: from almost unbearably hot mountain roads in her native Iran to noisy streetcars at Queen West and John.
Manijeh, for someone who has only been in the country for less than two years, your success as an artist and a new immigrant is not to be underestimated: how many can boast six personal and group exhibitions and a house full of students and friends in such a short time?
Sometimes I feel like I have been in Canada for a huge part of my life. I came here to visit with my son and his family, and fell in love with vast landscapes and people of so many different backgrounds- people you wouldn’t see standing next to one another anywhere else. But like any immigrant’s start, mine was not easy. I presented my works at two major exhibitions in Toronto only to sell one painting. The response was polite interest at best, and packing my booth after the second show I thought I could do two things: feel crushed and give up or move forward and continue learning. I chose the latter. I went into the streets and started painting people and the places where they live, love, and interact as a community. This, I thought, would help me to broaden my skills. The reaction I got was overwhelming. For many passers-by, it was their first encounter with a living artist and immediate access to the process of creation. The stories they told me, the questions they asked, the interest they displayed- it was astounding! I have to admit I had never painted outdoors that much and that often anywhere, even back home. For me, every street in this country is an invitation, an open studio and an ideal place to get feedback on the spot.
Why this interest in rows of ordinary brick houses? There are so many cities in the world where the architecture is much more intricate and exotic.
I believe the house is the fullest study of who you are. This relationship between a person and their home is fascinating to me. I grew up in Shiraz, the capital of Fars province and a place often called the crib of Persian culture. My house reflected everything about this nickname, and shaped my siblings and me into the people we have become. My Mother was a talented rug weaver and designer. The rooms were full of colorful yarns and sketches of the patterns they were to become. My father was a driving instructor, a philosopher, and a great humanitarian. He taught us, the kids, English, Math, and History, specifically the history of the Achaemenian kings from the nearby ruins of Persepolis. He introduced us to poetry through local icons Hafiz and Saadi, showed us how to love nature, and most of all, how to embrace all cultures, religions, and people.
Was he himself religious?
I was born Muslim, but was raised on the foundation of the belief that being a good and kind-hearted person is all that truly matters. Our faith was centred in humanitarian values.
So your father supported your intention to become an artist?
Becoming an artist was my childhood dream, but at the time when I was finishing high school, I was excellent at math and science, so my family encouraged me to study economics at Shiraz University. So that’s what I did. I married my cousin, and he was the love of my life until he succumbed to cancer eleven years ago. We had two sons while we were both at university. My parents took care of them while we crammed for exams. I graduated with a degree in economics and began to work as a manager for the local Hydro Company, one of the biggest in the country. When my boys were 9 and 7, I hired a teacher to give them art lessons. I watched them work from behind the doorframe until one day I asked the teacher if I could join in. I was twenty nine at the time.
What did your husband say?
He was my best critic, my motivational leader, and my soul mate. He was extremely proud of me. In Iran, offices work from seven in the morning till three in the afternoon. After work, I would rush home to take care of the family. Then, I had the whole night to practice. I had excellent teachers, many of whom were internationally acclaimed artists, such as Gholamhossein Saber in Shiraz, Nami, Vakili, Mazlomi Paar, Lale Aramy, and Fereydon Ghafar in Tehran. I studied figure painting, water color and drawing. My skills in math and science helped as well: geometry, physics, and chemistry gave me a solid foundation for the study of light and shadow, perspective, and colour. I also did official photography for various Hydro companies and combined drawing, painting and photography in my creative work. Within three years, I was already exhibiting. My work was accepted by the Museum of Fine Art in Tehran and appeared in several publications, including “The Eighth Land”, “Iran Contemporary Painting”, “Manifestations of Feeling”, and “Colours of Kindness”. And all that time, I continued working for the Hydro – a manager for 32 years before retiring, and as a free-lance financial consultant afterwards.
Why put so much pressure on yourself with balancing a full-time job, family life, and your art?
I thought that by having a daytime job I could afford not to compromise my principles and fall into the trap of commercialism. I wanted to create art that would be pure and true to life. Like the kind they say can save the world.
Do you really believe that art can save the world from conflicts like religious intolerance and devastating wars?
I honestly believe that it can save one person at a time. By doing art, you open up to beauty and a chance to cleanse your soul. You begin to see things in a different way, with more appreciation. I believe that through your work, you not only become a better person yourself, but you positively influence those around you. This is especially important when hatred and intolerance blind and kill.
How would you see yourself implementing this idea practically?
I dream of establishing a bigger studio, where doors would be open to everyone and anyone who wants to study art with an open mind and an open heart. I am also working on the creation of a group of travelling artists whom would go across Canada with the intent of capturing the life of its ordinary people. We would feature their homes, made of bricks and painted with the colours of love.