by Yolanda Wysocki
Roya Motamedi, the featured artist in the Summer 2014 Issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices and visions, comes from a rich cultural background. Her Afghani father was an archeologist, her Japanese mother an art historian. Archaeological sites in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan valley — the land of giant Buddhas — were her “playground.” In 1979, before the coup d’état, her family moved to Kamakura, Japan — the town where Zen Buddhism started; her father stayed in Afghanistan.
Yolanda Wysocki: What role do you think art plays in culture?
Roya Motamedi: It’s very interesting how in some ways art is so insignificant; it doesn’t bring income, but it feeds the soul. Without it we are empty inside. The culture gives birth to art but art turns around and feeds the heart and soul of the culture, of individuals. It becomes part of the rhythm, richness of life, of the earth. On so many levels it wakes you up, alerts you to the moment, and makes you smile. I think of the culture that is not allowed to paint or create; you feel death inside you even though you are alive.
YW: And I assume that is why you paint?
RM: Yes, it definitely feeds me; it’s the only place I make sense. I truly love it. I go to my messy studio and I get really excited. I am never not excited to be there. It’s like a meditation, like a journal, like turning a stone and seeing how the light hits today, within me, within this place. It’s a safe place.
YW: Would you feel as satisfied if you didn’t show your art?
RM: There is something in me that needs to show it. Sometimes I go to a museum and question my relevance, but because of the way I was raised, I see color differently than a person who has been disciplined in only one culture, so I feel I have a small but valid voice. I know what I had – the country I lost – doesn’t exist anymore, so I have to be strong, and have a voice and show for them.
YW: With such a rich cultural heritage, you state your painting is beyond language and culture. Will you say more about that?
RM: Culture has a boundary, and I don’t fit in any boundaries. Paintings are beyond the restrictions of culture … so people can enter into them; they can communicate beyond cultures. Abstract art is a language, another doorway for a new paradigm.
YW: Yet your art is so much about place.
RM: Yes, like writing letters. I relate to the place where I am now, and write letters from that place. When we lived in Mexico for two years, the light, the life reminded me of my time in Afghanistan. I hope my paintings are like sending letters home, stopping time, capturing moments, the feeling of them.
YW: Do you ever go back to Afghanistan?
RM: No, it would take me years to process all the sadness. What I had doesn’t exist anymore; it would be like going to a burned house. I feel like someday I should write about my life. I know a place that is no longer; I should save it.
YW: What would you write about?
RM: Watching my grandmother cook, the light, the way the door hit the frame whenever I went in, the echo; the quiet of the museum that I walked within with my father, on weekends; the archaeological sites I went to with my mom and brother. The Buddha’s head was my height; I wasn’t sure why I only saw his head. It was beautiful and I related to it as a person, from a child’s perspective.
YW: You have many sense memories.
RM: Yes, because I lost it all, I put it in a box, all these memories.
YW: How does that come through your paintings?
RM: I think it’s emotion. I translate these into the emotion of color: shapes and juxtaposing color. I first started painting blocks of the city and myself in relation to color in New York; they became so ingrained that it became the structure of my paintings: I am feeling this — I may be a red dot — and this is how I feel next to this color.
YW: I imagine you have a specific memory that comes with an emotion and from that you allow a painting to come through.
RM: Yes. For example, if the feeling of walking around Bamiyan is the feeling I bring to my studio, the colors of the murals of Bamiyan are very much in my paintings. When I did the blue and white paintings, it was surprising how Japanese they were, like my grandmother’s kimono. I don’t intentionally do it. It doesn’t work if I try to think it and make it happen; it comes through.
In my last show, I was processing the choice my father made to stay in Afghanistan. It’s always been a question, why did he choose to stay? A tear, the rain healing, healing the sadness. It’s like making sense of my life through paintings, but also a kind of letter to him, too.
Painting is a relationship. I have a conversation with my painting, and rather than doing too much, sometimes I go to my studio and just watch the painting. I listen and watch and wait. It takes 6-7 months for a painting to develop from beginning to end. I cannot map out what I’m going to do. If I do too much I am not allowing that other dimension to happen; I’m killing it.
Paul Guston said,
When you’re in the studio painting, there are a lot of people in there with you. Your teachers, friends, painters from history, critics … and one by one, if you’re really painting, they walk out. And if you’re really painting, you walk out.
That’s what I want, to be affected by the relationship, to become one with it. I become so much part of it that it influences me.
YW: What is your favorite painting, one you may never sell?
RM: One of Brooklyn, I felt strong there, I felt myself, like I belonged. I keep it to remind myself.
Roya Motamedi has been living in Portland with her husband and daughter Mina for six years, drawn by the Japanese immersion school. She also chose Portland because it is beautiful and more possible to live here than in New York, where they had been living. Roya started taking painting classes at Guilford College, NC, where she earned her BA in oil painting. She won first prize in the student art show in 1992. She is represented by the Blackfish Gallery in Portland.
Yolanda Wysocki works as a life/transformation coach. Her background has been in counseling and social services for over 25 years. She went back to school for a second bachelor’s degree when she was 51 years old. Seven years and three schools later, she completed her art degree, a lifelong dream.