Curtain: A West Wall Project

Picture of the finished installation at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund offices in San Francisco
Finished installation at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund offices in San Francisco

Every 18 to 24 months, the Walter & Elise Haas Fund recognizes and supports one or more of the talented artists who has received a Creative Work Fund grant through the commissioning of a West Wall project. These artworks — installed in the Fund’s offices, along the west wall of our entryway — reflect on the work of the Fund and its grantees. They also serve as a tangible, literal reminder of why we come to work every day.

Even during a pandemic, when our commute and our connection is largely constrained to the virtual.

In the case of our newest West Wall piece, Curtain, a collaboration between calligrapher Arash Shirinbab and ceramic artist Forrest Lesch-Middelton, the physical and the virtual intertwine to draw us together and lift us up.

Arash and Forrest’s artwork layers ancient and contemporary words and media. First, Arash calligraphed verses by the 13th Century Iranian poet Saadi Shirazzi onto a supported canvas that they stretched across the west wall’s expanse. In consultation with W&EHF staff, Arash and Forrest followed Fund grantees on Twitter so they could curate a selection of their tweets. They then printed these ephemeral messages onto bricks, which were handmade by Forrest. To complete the work, they affixed hundreds of these bricks to the upper portion of the wall, partially obscuring the calligraphy.

Close up of two hands cutting a canvas with calligraphy on it.

Close up of a brick that says "Black Lives Matter" on it.

 

Forrest writes in the artists’ statement:

The hopeful and charitable work of every organization represented by the tweets on these bricks accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of lifting the weight of the wall upward with the same ease that one draws a curtain. Underneath is revealed a different paradigm that challenges old perceptions, one of beauty and hope, one represented by beautiful calligraphy and verse that reads:

Human beings are limbs of one body indeed;
For they are created of the same soul and seed.
When one limb is infected with pain,
Other limbs will feel the bane.
He who has no sympathy for human suffering
Is not worth being called a human being.
–Saadi Shirazzi, translation by Ali Salami

The COVID-19 pandemic has added another dimension to this commissioned work. Because health precautions make it impossible for us to open our office to visitors at this time, we turned to filmmaker Raeshma Razvi — the artist who had previously collaborated with both artists when she was cultural coordinator at the Islamic Cultural Center — to create a short film: “Curtain (2 artists, a Zoom Call, 281 Bricks and a Wall).” Raeshma’s piece reveals the process and themes behind the work and brings its beauty within our reach.

The two artist pose in front of a calligraphed curtain.
Forrest Lesch-Middelton and Arash Shirinbab pose in front of the calligraphed curtain.

It is particularly gratifying when a collaborative relationship previously supported by a Creative Work Fund grant sparks an ongoing partnership, as is the case with Arash and Forrest. In 2015, the Creative Work Fund awarded a grant to Arash, who partnered with Forrest in collaboration with the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC). The resulting piece, To Contain and To Serve, consisted of dishes, vessels, and tiles conveying messages from both ancient Sufi poetry and contemporary sources.

To Contain and To Serve highlighted the Islamic value of hospitality — and it culminated with an installation and a celebratory meal served on the dishes the artists created.

Arash and Forrest continued to work together, lecturing about, creating, and exhibiting other multimedia, cross-cultural work. Now, Curtain honors the voices of the Fund’s grantees, the resonance of cross-cultural dialogue, and the strength of sustained collaboration.

We look forward to being able to re-open our offices so that you may view it in person.

Photography courtesy of  Forrest Lesch-Middelton. 

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