Riverside

Reza Sepahdari's Prayers for Peace

There's nothing still about a Reza Sepahdari still life. Even a quiet bouquet  explodes with color, whorls with texture, defies convention with collisions of line and form. Sephardi's art is no wallflower. It dances with exuberance.

He's 58. Old enough to know better, but young enough to still have dreams of a better world. He makes art in Temecula's wine country, where he and his wife, Robin Wayland, own the Temecula Wine Country Art Gallery out on Rancho California Road next to the Van Roekel Winery. He often paints on the gallery's porches, next to pomegranate trees and symmetrical rows of vineyards arcing up hillsides. Ten or so students also come to the gallery for lessons. You can hear Reza, explaining the vocabulary of painting as prayer, gesturing with his hands for emphasis. 

In some ways, the landscape and the warm afternoons remind him of his birthplace in Arak, Iran. He's passionate about the misconception Americans have about Iran. He, like most Iranians, believes in peace, he says. His art is a prayer, a prayer for peace. He hopes that the world will see the love in his art, the love in his heart, and it will translate to better feelings toward his countrymen. 

Photo: Gordon Johnson

He is international in vision. He has exhibited the world over -- Iran, France, Italy, Greece, Canada -- and next at the Bowers Museum, 20th and Main, in Santa Ana. It's a one-day performance, Sunday, Oct. 13 11:30 to 3 p.m., called "Rumi on Canvas: A Musical Meditation." At the exhibit, Sepahdari will paint live and be joined by musicans and dance accompaniment as he creates a new canvas on site.

In a way, it's a cultural homage. It was in Iran that he started to draw when old enough to hold a pencil. His father, an educated man, brought home art books from the Louvre in Paris -- Rembrandt, Rubens, Leonardo de Vinci. By the time he was 8, he was studying Rembrandt's self portraits, practicing faces over and over again, learning the mechanics of drawing. "It is necessary to know the rules of art, before you can break them," he says.

Although, he never attended art school as a chlid, his self-education in art was thorough. In addition to art books, he read biographies and autobiographies and instruction manuals. He learned light from Rubens, composition from de Vinci, color from Caravaggio. He learned from the best. When he got older, he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Tehran University, a university with a renowned art department.

 Reza Sepahdari's art gallery | Photo: Chip Morton.

Meanwhile, as he painted, another artist beckoned. The 12th-century Persian poet Rumi lay siege to young Sepahdari's imagination, and has never let go. He found Rumi not simply an arbiter of beauty but a spiritual guide to the God within. It was through Rumi that Sepahdari recognized the interconnectedness of it all, especially the connections between beauty and movement and the divine.

Legend has it that Rumi would often spin and compose his poetry while in motion, dictating to a scribe. Rumi is considered a father of Sufism and the Whirling Dervish Dance. As a younger man, Sepahdari visited Turkey several times to dance the Whirling Dervish. He assumed the classic Dervish pose, one arm lifted to the heavens, the other reaching toward earth, head titled as if listening to the cosmos. "It was a unique experience," he says. "You start, spinning slowly, then faster and faster. As you spin, and you receive energy, spiritual and kinetic, that connects you to the universe as one. Although you are in a trance, you're very aware of the energy created, the energy that surrounds you.

"Three dancers" | Reza Sepahdari

"Mind you, you have to be very strong to do this, as the footwork alone requires balance and practice," he says. "Additionally, you have to be in top shape because spinning will initially make you dizzy. By practice, and focus, you can work past all that and arrive at the energy point."

Sepahdari likened it to  experience unfiltered and raw -- no priests, no prophets, no interference from anyone. Just you spinning, creating energy in the world as it too spins. For Sepahdari, it's the dance's mystical power and message that informs his art. 

"I feel the energy of the message, and like in the Dervish Dance, I'm compelled to bring the message to the canvas. I listen to music when I paint and I get energy from it that translates directly to the palette and canvas," he says. "The rhythm of the brush is my meter and the color of the palette is my prose."

"Rumi dance" | Reza Sepahdari

"Ballet in blue" | Reza Sepahdari

Sepahdari believes in the role of the artist as messenger of peace. In Iran, as his art evolved, his message of peace got louder. But the Iranian power structure mistook his message of peace as political opposition. They saw it as negative comment on their actions, and that couldn't be tolerated.  It became clear that Sepahdari had to flee Iran or face imprisonment. That was 28 years ago. He left his wife and children. He left his his bank account. He left with little more than what he had on his back and landed in Greece.

He hasn't been back.

Penniless, roofless, belly empty, he went into an art supply store and wrote an IOU to the owner for a few art supplies. He set up shop on a busy dock and started drawing tourist portraits. He made enough that first day for a cheap room and a meal, He returned the next day, and the day after that. He upped his prices and repaid the kind art shop owner.

"Flamenca" | Reza Sepahdari

A few months later, Sepahdari bought into the store and became a partner. A few months after that, Melina Mercouri, the Greek political activist and actress famous for her Academy Award-nominated role in "Never on Sunday," bought one of his paintings for $10,000.

"I'll be forever grateful to her," he said. The money helped get him to the United States.

It hasn't been easy being an Iranian in America. The roadblocks have been many. But he's a man who refuses to dwell in the negative. After an energetic search, he landed a job in Florida as art director for OTI, an information technologies firm, where he specialized in computer animation. From Florida he traveled to San Diego, where he met his wife, Robin, a Navy nurse. Together they run the Temecul art Gallery.

"Dance to euphoria" | Reza Sepahdari

He worked like a madman, sometimes doing art 16 hours a day. Sepahdari considers himself a mixed-media artist. He draws, he paints, he sculpts, he does bas relief. He's even done album covers for Paul Simon and Sting.

He's working hard, and he's at peace with himself, but he sometimes misses the warmth of his people. Yes, there are few crazies, but that is true of everywhere. He'll soon return for a visit home, his first in almost 30 years. He's not sure what he'll find.

"Spanish dancer" | Reza Sepahdari

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Top Image: "Dervishes" | Reza Sepahdari.

About the Author

I’m Cahuilla/Cupeno Indian and live on the Pala Indian Reservation.
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