We recently got to kick it with the incredibly talented Niki Zarrabi and learn everything from her beginnings as an artist,
to her process, to her family background and some of her favorite Atlanta artists.
FH: To start things off: who are you; how long have you lived in Atlanta; and how long have you considered yourself an artist?
NZ: I'm Niki Zarrabi, and I was born in New Jersey but only lived there for maybe a year. I don't remember any of it obviously, and then I moved and grew up here. I pretty much only know Atlanta. As far as when I started considering myself an artist... officially it would be after I graduated from art school at Georgia State. Even though I was involved in everything art related in high school and college, I was actually never planning to be an artist.
My dad and sister both went to Georgia Tech, and I didn't really know what I was going to do (and I still don't understand why 18-year-olds are expected to know what they're going to do for the rest of their lives.) My sister suggested I go to Tech and do industrial design, and I was like "okay, totally I'll do that.”
When I got a conditional acceptance to Tech, I thought, "ok, I’ll go to Georgia State and do what I do best and always do, which is art." I figured I’d take whatever classes they require and transfer over.
Then I just got so comfortable and kind of fell in love with the atmosphere of the art classes and the professors and my peers; so I just stayed. After I graduated, I thought, "Wow this is what I'm doing. I'm an artist I'm going to give it my all.”
FH: Did you have an instructor or mentor that helped you discover new things? Who's the first person who comes to mind?
NZ: Pam Longobardi is an amazing artist. You should look her up. I had an installation class with her, and that’s where I fell in love with installation work. That's actually my favorite kind of thing to work on, even though I don't get the opportunity very often.
She’s a hardcore environmentalist and collects trash out of the ocean and makes art out of it, and her work is... I don't know; it's just so dope! She was so awesome. I feel like I learned so much from her class. I always painted and drew realistically and did studies of objects, but I didn't really understand abstract art until art school; and she was one of the teachers that really opened my eyes and gave me appreciation for it.
I was always intimidated by abstract art, but after learning about it, I told myself, "That challenges me, so that's what I'm going to try and do.” I can paint realistically; I can draw; I've been doing that all my life; so the teachers that push me to explore more are the most inspiring to me.
FH: I know you said you like the challenging aspect of abstract art, but what made you appreciate it?
NZ: That would mostly be art history courses I took; once you start understanding what a Jackson Pollock actually is, or even Duchamp’s work. You know, a lot of people outside of the art world are kind of like, "What the fuck, this is a urinal. How is this art?" But when you study the course and understand the conceptual part behind it; you really understand the power that art can hold. I just feel like abstract art has a bigger outlet for creating a message -- not to undermine realistic painters at all, -- but I feel like it has more of a dialogue.
FH: Do you feel like going to school ever hindered your own originality?
NZ: Yes, but only towards the beginning, which makes sense because the intro classes are all pretty much just teaching you. There'd be an oil painting class where they're teaching you how to work with oil paint; and there's water color, and that's fine because you're learning different mediums. Toward the end of senior year, you have a lot of freedom because you have to come up with an entire thesis and write about your statement and create a series based on that. They give you the tools for it, and then at the end they're like, "see what you can do with it," which I feel is a good way to go about it because I had no idea how to use oil paint correctly when I went into art school. All I worked with in high school was acrylic paint.
FH: I feel like oil paint is the one thing I always hear people say, "ahh, fuck oil painting!”
NZ: I love it! If you're familiar with my work, you know that I have my abstract layered Plexiglass pieces, and the other series that I do is the oil paintings of flowers and plants on wood grain.
FH: How long does it usually take you to create one of your Plexiglass pieces versus one of your oil paintings?
NZ: The oil paintings actually take longer, but that's only because oil takes so long to dry. Sometimes I have to wait for it to dry a little bit before I can go in and add some details and do the background. That's the only reason. The plexiglass pieces used to take me a while in the beginning because I was trying to figure out how to do it! I had this idea of layering all of these pieces. I didn't really know how to go about it. Now that I finally have the formula down, it doesn't take too long. It depends on the size of the piece. If it's a really large piece; it can take one to two weeks if I'm working on just that. If it's a small one; I can usually finish it in a week or less.
FH: How does your creative process go from idea to completion?
NZ: My creative process is very much about the actual art itself and the meaning behind it. My abstract pieces are influenced by science and biology, in particular. It's about the atoms, elements, and energy that come together to give us life; and how they connect us because we're all made of the same fragile and delicate elements.
For my plexiglass pieces, I have a macro versus micro concept of the universe [where a bunch of small things come together to bring life to one big thing]. Like the universe itself; it's all just a big circle, really.
The wood pieces are about reincarnation. They're a lot more straightforward, but go hand-in-hand with the same idea of us all being connected. The flowers and plants are supposed to represent life, and melting into the wood grain is death, but going back into the wood grain is also like us going back into nature and so forth. It's reincarnation.
I got really into that whole concept. I had to choose a science class in school and I thought, "Well, I guess I really like animals. Maybe I'll do Biology." I actually fell in love with biology and was inspired by all of it.
Usually people use science to defy spirituality, but for me it confirms it. You can use science to prove that we're all somehow connected to one another because we all come from the same things. It's really spiritual in that way, and I think that's kind of awesome.
FH: How long have you been working out of your studio?
NZ: Since I graduated school. My apartment is small, and I didn’t want to pay 500 dollars to rent a studio. My parents are really supportive and let me take over this whole area in their garage.
I’m first generation American. My dad came from Iran when he was 17, not fluent in English. He taught himself everything and made it his own. I’m very grateful and privileged, and I think knowing that history also pushes me to make this work. I don't want my art to be meaningless; I want people to look at it and really think “what is this about?”
FH: Are there any particular art organizations, galleries, or groups of artists that you love working with?
NZ: What I like about Atlanta is that we have these niche, more well-known galleries like Hathaway, Mason Fine Art, Kai Lin... you know, the list goes on. Then there are artists who say "Wait, I can do this too. I can put together events, curate shows and make things happen," and open their own spaces. There are Mammal Gallery, Kibbee, and Facet Gallery now. Those people are so fun to work with because they're actual artists themselves and understand both sides. It's not just money to them; they're not just business men trying to sell work because they really care about the art community. I think they're creating opportunities for their friends to have places to showcase their work; it really does feel like an awesome family.
FH: Are there any particular Atlanta influencers or people you've been inspired by in Atlanta?
NZ: Peter Ferrari has been doing a lot for the art community with Forward Warrior and opening Facet. He's definitely influential one, and I think the guys from Mammal are awesome.
FH: In the Atlanta community as people or as a whole, what do you feel is the one thing that you hope to see more of, and what opportunities does the city have?
NZ: I would love if more galleries threw happenings. I'm biased because I love creating interactive installations, but I think it's a great way to get people who are not super into the art world to be more involved in the art scene, so they can experience it in a more powerful and different way. What if we took it to the next level and had more of these huge interactive art galleries? Similar to what New York and LA are doing. The artists there are creating these awesome huge funds, and I believe Atlanta can do that too.
It's going to take a while, but it would be awesome if going to art openings and being a part of that art experience became a normal, lifestyle thing to do for people living in Atlanta.
Photos by Mercedes Bleth.