Fall 2008 Vol. VII, No. 1
Connections: I Have Lived More Abundantly
“Having had to struggle in extraordinary darkness, and then seeing the light, is my life lived more abundantly,” writes Shamira Derakhshani Nicolas (BA ’66, MA ’72)
One of my most lingering memories of coming to AUB was Dr. Bliss’s statement—etched in mosaics on top of the Main Gate of AUB—“and have it more abundantly.” Those words would engage my mind for the rest of my life as I wrestled with its meaning, implications, and fulfillment.
I came to AUB from Tehran with a full scholarship. My scholarship limited my choice of major to teaching, nursing, or the study of political science and public administration. I chose the latter because I knew the least about it. As long as I majored in public administration, I was allowed to take as many electives as I could handle. I chose art because my heart was in it. I was fortunate to be at AUB (BA ’66, MA ’72), as it had a wonderful Art Department at that time. I took all the drawing and painting classes that were offered. We drew and painted from nature on our tours of campus and its surroundings. We produced many land and seascapes. Apart from our short trips outside of class, we did a great deal of still life as well as portraits from live models. My infant son Peter was a frequent model in those days. The majority of students were from the Middle East, which meant that our exposure to art was vastly different from what we were being taught. Islamic mosaics, Persian miniatures, and Persian carpets were the only visuals I had ever been exposed to. The contrast between Eastern and Western art was as different as day is from night.
In 1972, upon receiving his medical degree, my husband, our son Peter, and I left for Cleveland, Ohio, for my husband’s residency in orthopedics. The move provided me with an unparalleled opportunity to study art at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Renowned for its excellence in all facets of art, drawing, painting, ceramics, and sculpture, the institute is also strategically located next to the Cleveland Museum of Art.
During my years at the Cleveland Institute of Art, I was provided with the best tools to draw and paint the things our eyes can see. The study of the history of Western art taught me the role art played throughout the ages. I was particularly impressed by the accomplishments of masters at different time periods who defied the established academic rules and replaced them with their own. I learned the art that once served a master, church, or the monarchy became personal and served the artist himself. I learned about the great European masters of different periods and their contributions to art. Much of Western art deals with tangible, physical reality or its distortions, and many masters contributed to that trend. However, among the greats, a few rose to unparalleled heights and left a permanent mark on me. Matisse and Monet dealt with objective realities outside their own existence. Mondrian and Kandinsky made efforts at a visual world rising above national, cultural, and personal issues.
Besides training my eyes, learning the tools to make art, and understanding the history of Western art, I had several other issues to resolve: early exposure to Islamic art, early life in an environment that glorified spirituality, the impact of being raised by a Sufi grandmother, and a “two-sided” brain.
I refer to this as the “dark” or “lost” period. It would take me the next 22 years to resolve the many conflicting and difficult issues that I confronted, including two opposing forces in my own nature.
My present work emerged after years of frustrations and setbacks. My work today is the sum total of who I am, what I see, and how I present my findings. Since my aim has always been to look at universal laws that govern us all, my solution had to be universal. Of all the things we humans share, none is more universally understood than numbers. Numbers are exact, objective, reliable, cold, orderly, and accountable. In my work, numbers are always balanced by their opposite: chaos, tension, passion, and breakdowns.
It is in its ability to generate balance that I see the secret to our universe.
Having had to struggle in extraordinary darkness, and then seeing the light, is my life, lived more abundantly.
Shamira Derakhshani Nicolas