Curtain is an installation by ceramicist Forrest Lesch-Middelton and calligrapher Arash Shirinbab that can be found in the reception area of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund’s offices in San Francisco. In this work, a calligraphed poem on canvas emerges from under a wall of handmade bricks that have been imprinted with Tweets from an array of the Fund’s grantees.
In 2015, Lesch-Middelton and Shirinbab received a Creative Work Fund grant to collaborate with the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California (ICCNC) on To Contain and To Serve, for which they created dishes, vessels, and tiles using traditional ceramic and calligraphy practices. Those pieces highlighted the Islamic value of hospitality, and the project culminated with an installation and celebratory meal. As with Curtain, that work incorporated messages from both ancient Sufi poetry and contemporary sources.
Collaborative artists Arash Shirinbab and Forrest Lesch-Middelton have been creating artwork in tandem for over five years. The dialogue they have cultivated goes beyond the relationship of these two artists, one an American ceramicist and one an Iranian calligrapher, to embody a deeper understanding of the space that exists between two nations at odds. The space this work explores, makes room for, and pays homage to humanity, hospitality, expression, and respect for thought and empathy. Each artist brings a unique perspective to the table; and together, through conversation and kinship, they arrive at a physical manifestation of compromise and concession.
The work is about contrasts in conversation, age-old ceramic surfaces laden with ethereal calligraphy, poetic verse alongside Tweets, politics and the dinner table, education, and intuition. Here the contrast is evident between the static, rigid brick wall – an archival object of literal weight and substance, permanently laden with modern Tweets – in juxtaposition with the fluid and graceful hand-rendered calligraphic passage of poetry from 13th century Iranian poet Saadi Shirazzi.
This piece, Curtain, is made up of hundreds of bricks, each printed with Tweets from former Walter & Elise Haas Fund grant recipients. Each brick adds both visual and literal weight to the wall, as well as a time-worn sense of age and decay. It is no mistake that this wall was conceived and built in a time of great turmoil in the United States, a time when our greatest strengths, unity, and acceptance, are being challenged. A time when creative voices and brilliant minds in need of refuge are being turned away and supplanted with fear and scarcity.
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 (English translation by Ali Salami):
Human beings are limbs of one body indeed;
For they are created of the same soul and seed.
When one limb is afflicted with pain,
Other limbs will feel the bane.
He who has no sympathy for human suffering
Is not worthy of being called a human being.
The Film: Curtain (2 artists, a Zoom call, 281 Bricks and a Wall)
The COVID-19 pandemic made social distancing and other health precautions necessary as the artists were in the midst of creating Curtain, and Lesch-Middelton and Shirinbab were forced to work together outdoors at Lesch-Middelton’s studio in Petaluma. Because the Walter & Elise Haas Fund cannot host visitors in its office until the pandemic subsides, it turned to Raeshma Razvi, Forrest and Arash’s close partner from the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, to create a short film, “Curtain (2 artists, a Zoom Call, 281 Bricks and a Wall),” revealing the process and themes behind the work.
Artists’ Brief Biographies
Forrest Lesch-Middelton is the owner of FLM Ceramics and tile, and Petaluma Pottery in Petaluma, California. His work as a potter and tile maker has been widely acclaimed for its seamless blending of form and content at the highest level. Lesch-Middelton was chosen as the Ceramics Monthly Artist of the Year in 2014. He has received numerous grants for the development of his work, including a McKnight fellowship in 2016, and a Creative Work Fund Grant for his collaborative work with Arash Shirinbab. Lesch-Middelton Received his BFA from Alfred University in 1998 and an MFA from Utah State University in 2006. He has taught and lectured extensively throughout the US and is the Author of “Handmade Tile, Design, Create, and Install Custom Tile,” published in 2019 by Qarto Publishing Group.
Arash Shirinbab has managed to be a successful blend of award-winning artist, calligrapher, curator, and designer for over 15 years. Diverse forms of art always have been among Shirinbab’s passions. In 2008, he engaged in classical study of traditional Arabic-Persian calligraphy scripts under masters from the Iranian Calligraphists Association, learning two of the oldest calligraphy scripts. Shirinbab has participated in more than 80 exhibitions (over 10 solo) in the U.S., Spain, Poland, Canada, Russia, France, Italy, Japan, Thailand, U.A.E., India, and Iran. Venues included the Triton Museum of Art in California, the Kunsthaus-Berlin-Marbella Center in Spain, and the Saadabad Palace in Tehran.
Raeshma Razvi produces documentary media and transformative community arts projects. She has received fellowships and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, Creative Work Fund, and others for her projects. Concerned with growing Islamophobia, she has worked with the Islamic Center of Northern California for over five years where she has helped grow cultural capacity in the Muslim-American art space, piloting an artist-incubation program and garnering support from San Francisco Foundation, East Bay Community Foundation, Creative Work Fund, and others. She has managed large-scale community art programs with Cal Humanities, the International Museum of Women, and SOMArts. Recent film productions include “Sailor, Sufi, Spy,” a documentary about a Sufi boat-builder in Sausalito; and a video series based on the poetry and legacy of Hafiz. Razvi is currently directing the Shahrazad Squad, a community-building and storytelling project with California Shakespeare in tandem with their theatrical production of 1001 Nights (A Retelling).
Installation photography courtesy of Raeshma Razvi and Forrest Lesch-Middelton.