Ferdowsi’s zeal for art focuses on one face at a time

Since she was about 8 years old, Kimia Ferdowsi never has had a doubt about what she would be when she grew up.

“When I got punished, my mom didn’t spank me or take away candy — I wasn’t allowed to do art that day,” says Ferdowsi, who will graduate this week as a painting major with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts with minors in Persian in Arts & Sciences and business.

Kimia Ferdowsi likes to immerse herself totally into her art, which makes this studio in Walker Hall one of her favorite places. Living in St. Louis, she says, has opened her eyes to the possibility of art as a career.

“Art was always hypnotic to me,” she says. “It’s the one thing that, when I’m fully engaged in it, I lose sight of myself. It’s like you’re released from your daily mental monologue and engaged with something bigger than yourself.”

Ferdowsi, who is of Iranian descent, grew up just outside of Nashville, Tenn., and came to WUSTL as a Danforth Scholar. As sure as she is of her calling as an artist, her parents had other plans for her when she was young. Her mother wanted her to be a doctor and her father, a lawyer, and they had a pact that they wouldn’t try to influence her.

“But secretly, when my dad was at work, my mom would (talk about being a doctor), and at night, my dad told me bedtime stories about Rex and Tex, the dinosaur attorneys,” she says, grinning broadly.

As she pursues her goal of being an artist, she says she wants that work to be informed by experience in her community. That facet of her calling was fueled in the past year by her experiences working in a St. Louis juvenile detention facility in a program called “Juvie.”

Although she originally came to the program as a tutor, it didn’t take long for the word to spread that she was an artist. Soon, she was giving art lessons and drawing pencil portraits.

“Every week I go, there’s an ongoing list of portraits to be drawn,” she says, smiling.

She thinks she knows why art — and, more specifically, the act of having someone draw a portrait of you — has such an appeal to these young, struggling teens.

“Art has such a creative energy that you are harnessing and doing something constructive with,” she says, taking a break from stretching canvases on the upper floor of Walker Hall.

“A lot of these kids have never been taught to do that. So for them to be in a situation where a person sits across from them and studies their face and elevates them enough to put them on paper … it’s like, ‘Wow, am I worth a portrait? Portraits are usually made of kings,'” she says.

Mentor Michael Byron, associate dean of faculty and professor of art, says that one of the things he appreciates most about Ferdowsi’s approach is that she uses the tenets of art history — such as the principles of figuration and composition — in building a narrative and an interaction between the figurative elements in her paintings.

Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, College of Art

“She’s engaged with history while keeping her work contemporary and focused on her generation as subject,” says Byron, the area coordinator for painting. “That is the strength of her work.”

Ferdowsi is weighing two options for next year: moving to New York and getting a job as a studio assistant while continuing to work on her own art, or moving to Israel to work at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, and receive on-the-job training as an art conservation coordinator. She has prepared herself well to juggle the demands of paying the bills while making progress on her career.

She has served as one of two student representatives to the University’s Board of Trustees, was a teaching assistant in the business school, studied abroad in Japan and the Czech Republic and worked as an intern and docent at several galleries and museums.

“Being in a city like St. Louis has opened my eyes to the possibility of being an artist as a legitimate career,” she says. “St. Louis has given me the confidence to be a painter. More than anything, I’ve discovered that my passion is possible.”