apresnovembre is a blog featuring the fascinating work of Shahrzad Maydani, a Baha’i artist from Toronto. The work on her blog features some of the truly beautiful art that she’s created in response to some of the major tests that have come her way in recent years.
Lemons, which feature quite prominently in her work, as you’ll no doubt notice, are used as a metaphor for life’s tests and difficulties – a clever play on the popular expression “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”.
What I really love about Shahrzad’s paintings, apart from their obvious aesthetic appeal, is their honesty. Shahrzad’s art is so easy to relate to because it talks about the numerous, contradictory, and yet – somehow – simultaneous responses that we have to the tests that come into our lives: hope, optimism, despair, denial, anger, guilt, shame, and anything and everything in between.
I think her work is of particular interest to Baha’is or, in fact, anyone who is spiritual and shares the Baha’i understanding of tests and difficulties as being signs of God’s providence and simply opportunities for spiritual growth.
Each one of Shahrzad’s paintings is beautiful and profound in its own way, and it’s impossible to choose a favourite, but the two I’ve included in this post probably resonated with me the most.
Her “What lemons?” painting reminded me of all the times I’ve tried to deal with my tests with a mixture of optimism and denial, and her “Are you sure I need more lemons?” painting reminded me of how conflicted you can feel when your emotions don’t align – and we all know they hardly ever do! – with your spiritual and even intellectual understanding of tests as being opportunities for spiritual growth.
So you can imagine what a huge delight it was for me to have the opportunity to talk to Shahrzad about her paintings and to hear about her story and the inspiration for her work, as well as her thoughts on dealing with tests. (And how her art helped her do this!)
Baha’i Blog: Shahrzad, you’ve mentioned that the story behind apresnovembre began 3 years before the blog was even created. Could you tell us a bit more?
I was 22, recently married, and about three months into my first year of marriage when on November 17, 2008 my husband relapsed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I say “relapse” because Nima was first diagnosed with leukemia while we were dating in August of 2007 and I think it had only been about 6 months since the end of his treatment when we discovered that the leukemia had returned. However, unlike before, it had spread to his spinal fluid as well as his bone marrow which, as far as a relapse is concerned, isn’t the best sign. Our oncologist told us that instead of the 8 months we had gone through the last time, this time, the treatment would take almost 3 years.
At the time, I was in my second year of art school and so I decided to defer my enrollment until Nima was better. I don’t think I touched a paintbrush for almost two years after that, although I never quite gave up drawing. It was hard to indulge in my art while Nima was going through what he was going through.
Baha’i Blog: And so how did apresnovembre start?
My lemon paintings started on a particularly bad day. Nima had come down with an infection and had a fever that just would not break. Having an infection is life-threatening for a leukemia patient because they don’t have an immune system that is strong enough to protect them from even a simple cold. I had just spent my fourth night in the emergency room and was about to walk home when I was pulled aside by one of the attending doctors and was told that if they could not figure out the source of his infection, that I should prepare myself for the worst.
Honestly, the possibility of death was so much a part of our lives at this point that I think I’d become quite numb to the idea. So I walked home, made Nima’s lunch and dinner, and was about to return to the hospital when I decided to just sit down and breathe. That was the moment I remember grabbing my sketch book and drawing a lemon.
It was random and silly but that’s basically where my paintings began. Nima got better, then sick, then a little better again and it started a cycle for me.
Baha’i Blog: What did you hope to achieve with it when you first started? And do you feel like you’ve achieved it?
I started apresnovembre (which means “after November” in French) in 2011, just to share the paintings that I had accumulated. And to my absolute shock and surprise, people responded really well to them. I didn’t really set out to do anything other than share them. Really, my lemon paintings were like diary entries. I’m glad that people can relate to them and I think it’s wonderful that people can find their own stories in my work.
What I ended up discovering was that I was becoming equally invested in the stories that I would create with each painting along with the final piece itself. I loved writing the little poems or sentences that in a way set the scene for each painting. I really have a love affair with the idea that in a single story a hundred different people can find their own truth. A story is a universal connector, a universal language.
So now my journey as an artist has morphed into something more. I produce fewer lemon paintings now and have shifted my focus to where I believe the real magic lies and that is in creating stories. Over the past year, I’ve been working on writing and illustrating a children’s book and getting myself established as an illustrator.
Baha’i Blog: What do you feel about the role art and creative expression has in dealing with tests and difficulties?
I started the paintings with a focus on the phrase “when life gives you lemons”. Having been raised as a Baha’i, the idea that tests are a way to help you grow in this life is something I relied on heavily throughout. I felt, though, that there was a gap between what I believed and what I was feeling and so my sketches turned into little stories where I created a persona that was allowed to say and feel the things I didn’t want to feel or that I was ashamed of feeling.
In a way, my lemon paintings allowed me to experience and even validate the emotions that I think can often get swept to the corner of the room when you believe in a higher power. At the time, even admitting to being exhausted would have made me feel like I’d failed and so my lemon paintings really served as a way to accept that I can still strive to overcome my tests but that in order to do that I had to first be completely honest with myself.
This quote from Shoghi Effendi is one that I love and I think best explains the path I was on.
“We must always look ahead and seek to accomplish in the future what we have failed to do in the past. Failures, test, and trials, if we use them correctly, can become the means of purifying our spirits, strengthening our characters, and enable us to rise to greater heights of service” – From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi toan individual believer, December 14, 1941
I think art can be used as a way to express the human condition of wanting to attain perfection even after failing time and time again, in an arena where there is no judgment and there is an element of anonymity. Or, at least, that is how I used art when dealing with a difficult situation in my life.
Baha’i Blog: Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful work, your inspiring story and your profound insights with us, Shahrzad!
Make sure to check out Shahrzad’s work on the apresnovembre blog and stay updated by following her on the apresnovembre Facebook page.