Dallas Monring News Article:

Home's where the art is

Sohaila Bahrani skirts the conventional route by turning her house into her gallery By Tom Sime / Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News Published 09-02-1998 

ART IN ODD PLACES PLANO - Sohaila Bahrani is no starving artist. But even dressed in finery, surrounded by the luxuries of her rococo mini-mansion in north Plano, she's got a hungry look. Ambition can do that to even the most well-heeled painter. Ms. Bahrani, a native of Iran and now a U.S. citizen, has been an artist all her life. Her close-knit family calls her "Ms. Picasso" and is avidly behind her. But the gallery world has been less rewarding. Ms. Bahrani, who worked with an agent for eight years, was frustrated by the loss of creative control and the large commissions (dealers generally take 50 percent) that often come with gallery representation. So, after exhibits at several local galleries, Ms. Bahrani began searching for an alternative. She found it in her own house. Sohaila's Private Gallery, open by appointment only, takes up the central portion of the second floor. "It looks like a gallery. That's why I bought this house," says Ms. Bahrani of the mezzanine-like room. Buying directly from the artist is nothing new. Studio visits are an essential component of art marketing, and many artists maintain studios in their homes. But unlike the typically paint-spattered garage or backyard shed, Ms. Bahrani's exhibit space is spacious and plush. The works' elaborate gold frames perpetuate the air of luxury that she favors. Eschewing the factory-direct feel of most studio visits, she embraces the theater of retail, with her deluxe digs as the stage. "When you have clients in your home, they get a better feel of who you are," says Ms. Bahrani. "In a public place, you talk all about business. To me, painting is about your emotions, your heart. So you want to befriend your client. I want whoever buys my paintings to know who I am." The gallery displays a range of Ms. Bahrani's works, as well as a chronicle of her childhood beginnings as an artist. Considered a prodigy in her birthplace, the Iranian cultural capital Shiraz ("a city of poetry and wine"), Ms. Bahrani studied with acknowledged masters of Persian-style painting, and won several statewide art competitions before she was 14. After she'd won the grand prize in one contest three times, she was asked to stop entering"to give somebody else a chance." But as she grew up amid the theocracy of post-revolution Iran, Ms. Bahrani's flamboyant personal style made her a target. After a terrifying encounter with police who objected to her makeup (she says she escaped unharmed through sheer luck), she decided to emigrate at age 19. Ms. Bahrani studied art at Salem College in North Carolina for three years, but decided to follow her own instincts, and left before graduating. She met her Iranian-born husband Karim Sharif in the Dallas area 12 years ago. The couple, who recently had their first child, share the Plano house with her parents, and in this convivial clan, there are usually plenty of other relatives around as well. They're all part of Ms. Bahrani's support system. Mr. Sharif, who acts as her manager, helps Ms. Bahrani organize her exhibits and tends to the paintings with great care. He built a large wooden case to protect his wife's latest work, a large, fanciful study of a peacock, which she recently finished after two years' work. It's an impressive, even amazing piece, ornate and many-layered. Within the image of a bird's head and spread feathers are 100 more birds, hidden in every crevice of the heavy crust of paint. "My husband calls it "The Grand Peacock.' It's the eye of the jewel, the symbol of creation," Ms. Bahrani says. "In each feather, there is a story, a puzzle. . . . It plays games with you." Her sense of triumph in finishing this painting is clear, and it's hard to believe she could part with it. She's as particular about buyers as she is about venues. But "I'm going to sell it when I have the right client," she pledges. She may be choosy about placing some works, but Bernice Sankaray, co-owner of the Printworks Fine Art Galleries in North Dallas, says Ms. Bahrani was pleasant to work with when she had a solo exhibition at Printworks' Prestonwood Town Center location several years ago. "She's an interesting young artist," says Ms. Sankary. "Her Persian heritage comes out in her work. . . . I think she has a very definite talent. People liked her work. It was a good show for us." Ms. Bahrani's earlier works do indeed show a facility for traditional Persian painting, an elaborate, many-layered method full of intricate, fantastical detail. But her father, Mohammad Bahrani, a lawyer and poet and "the main force behind me," urged her to veer away from traditional styles. "She's always had this ambition, this goal to follow the greats like Van Gogh," Mr. Bahrani explains, with Mr. Sharif translating. "I told her that in order to reach that level, she had to come up with her own style." Ms. Bahrani set out to do just that, exhausting herself with long nights of brainstorming before arriving at two distinctive modes of painting. She calls one her "Hidden Dream Style"; these paintings are figurative and decidedly Persian-influenced, often depicting nudes with long, flowing hair whose strands twist into still more images. The other mode is her more abstract "Jewelry Style," in which Ms. Bahrani builds layers of acrylic paint, often metallic, into elaborate, symmetrical reliefs that resemble not only jewelry but also exotic flowers or microscopic, geometric life forms. She considers the peacock a synthesis of her two styles. It's the fulfillment of a theme she explored earlier in her contribution to the Deep Ellum Association's mural project in the Good-Latimer tunnel. But she wasn't happy with that project; she had only three colors to work with, and "the sun was on my head. I got dizzy." It is indeed difficult to picture the carefully groomed Ms. Bahrani toiling away under an overpass. She prefers to sweat over her paintings in private. But her fondness for a sleek surface doesn't extend to her artwork; she deplores the idea of a work of art as a luxury object. "People go to a gallery or a furniture store to buy a special painting only to find a decorative match for their living room set," she says. "This is a shame, a pity because the value of painting is higher than anyone can imagine." She's determined to advance her career not only to sell her paintings, but also to popularize this philosophy of art as a still-vital medium. While "working like a dog all the time" on her paintings, she's also writing a book, a sort of manifesto calling for a high-profile, televised national competition. "I strongly believe that there are no other media as strong and effective as painting," she says. "But there's not enough competititon. I feel like you want to progress more if there's something to go for." She's going for something greater than a gold statue, though; she wants to follow her idol into the pantheon. "He was not "Picasso' when he was born," she says. "He worked very hard, prayed very hard, and became so." To make arrangements to visit Sohaila's Private Gallery, call (972) 867-8827. PHOTO(S): (The Dallas Morning News: Juan Garcia) 1. Artist Sohaila Bahrani displays all her works in a gallery upstairs in her home in Plano 2. This painting of a peacock by Ms. Bahrani, entitled "The Queen of the Birds," incorporates more than 100 birds.

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