Colors of a Somber Paradise
By F. Scott Hess
In late 1991, I received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts which enabled me to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran. During my stay, lasting from March of '92 until March of '93, I traveled extensively, visiting historical sights, religious monuments, art museums, and an almost uncountable number of my wife's kind and hospitable relatives.
I documented this sojourn in a journal, took rolls of slides and during times spent in Tehran when I was not traveling, I painted. Three of the pieces were painted in public in the large gallery of the Bahman Cultural Center in south Tehran, where a vast complex of buildings formerly used as a slaughterhouse now boasts a cinema, two concert halls, a museum, exhibition space, cafes and sporting facilities.
My first two months in Iran were filled with fear and uncertainty ("The American"). I didn't know what I was allowed to do, whether I could even walk alone on the streets. My wife's family was no help in this regard, as they had no experience with American guests under the current government ("Chador").
Eventually I realized that the entire country shared my in-law's lack of experience with Americans. From the machine gun-toting teenagers at the checkpoints to the heavily bearded officials at the Foreign Ministry, I was the most exotic of creatures whose presence called for extreme delicacy and care.
I was always treated respectfully, most of the time even kindly, and my fear of the situation soon evaporated.
The painting "CHECK-POINT" was created in reaction to this initial fear, a way of objectifying my vague anxiety during the first months. This painting, like all of those that I brought back from Iran, bears on its reverse side the stamp of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.
When I began to paint in Tehran, it was immediately clear to me that the violent colors of my Los Angeles works would not do in this new environment. Colors in Iran are more muted; the general tone is somber ("BEAT IT").
I looked to some of Iran's painters, Kamal-al-Molk and his school, and qahveh khaneh (coffeehouse) paintings, to see how those artists dealt with color.
Initially it was difficult to focus on my paintings due to the separation from L.A. culture that had informed my work for 10 years and the unsettled, excited state-of-being caused by my immersion in a strange environment ("Butcher Boys").
The feeling of being a fish dropped in a new tank gradually dissipated as the year progressed and deeper insights into Iranian life became possible.
In "Untitled (WAITING)", men sit around in an office at night sipping tea and smoking under the watchful eyes of the ayatollahs on the wall. The shadow of someone entering the office is cast across the floor. Outside the factory is dark and silent.
Curiously, this painting caused consternation among some dissident Iranian artists who saw the inclusion of the portraits of the ayatollahs as a championing of the Islamic government, and was probably approved by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance for the same reason.
I included them, however, for the simple reason that every office has those pictures on the wall. It was a detail that added realism and set the picture in a specific time and place.
I gave two talks at the Tehran Art University, and was the first American to do so since the Islamic revolution. It was fairly difficult and controversial even for the faculty and administration of this government-sponsored institution and until the moment I went on stage, they were unsure as to whether they could proceed.
The first talk was greeted by predominantly hostile questioning from the art professors and students, probably confused as to why this American artist was allowed to speak to them.
By the time of my second talk several months later, word about me had gotten around and I believe the audience understood that I was not there to spread government propaganda (neither theirs nor mine). The talk was covered in a half-page, full-color article in Hamshahri, Tehran's most popular daily newspaper.
Throughout my travels to various regions of Iran, my family and I were thrust upon the kindness of distant relatives and complete strangers who responded repeatedly in the most remarkable ways.
This "culture of hosting," as I call it, is one of the most remarkable traits of the Iranian people. We lived for a short time in the small village of Tasooj, north of Lake Orumiyeh, in Azarbaijan. While we lived in our own mud-brick dwelling, we were literally adopted by a couple of families who saw to it that we were fed, entertained, shown the sights and generally pampered.
A young boy brought us fresh bread every morning and would not accept a toman for it. These people lived simply, in clean mud homes with small walled gardens and fountains, had family orchards and friends. They ate healthy food and had fresh water from one of the 20 springs in the village.
I remarked to my wife that this place was paradise, and still think of it as such today.
The villagers, of course, dream of the American life; television with a hundred cable channels, computers, modern kitchen appliances, pop music and fancy cars in which they can go to no particular place really, really fast.
Born in 1955 in Baltimore, Maryland, Scott Hess started painting at an early age. He received his BSA from University of Wisconsin in 1977 and continued his art education in Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria 1979-1983.
His work was soon noticed in the Vienna art circles and Scott had his first one man exhibit at Galerie Herzog in 1979 and later he had another one person exhibit at Galerie im Tabak Museum.
Since his return to the U.S. in 1983, Scott has had 13 one person exhibits and over 40 group exhibitions. His one person exhibits include Fresno Art Museum, Ovsey Gallery in Los Angeles and USC Fisher Art Gallery. His group exhibits include Oakland Museum, San Diego Museum of Arts, University of Washington, Henry Art Gallery, Laguna Art Museum., Flint Museum of Art and Tai Pei Fine Art Museum in Taiwan.
Scott's works are exhibited in public collections in many museums including Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, Fresno Art Museum, Oakland Museum, The Elveghem Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin, Norton Family Foundation and de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara, California.
Other than winning prestigious art awards from National Endowments for the Arts, Getty Museum Fellowship, Western State Art Federation Award, and The Theodor Koerner Award in Vienna, Austria; Scott has also spent Artist in Residency at Cite International des arts in Paris in 1991.
Scott is living in Los Angeles with his Iranian wife Gita and two daughters Ava and Atieh.