Today we’d like to introduce you to Shahrzad.
Shahrzad, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was a heroin addict in my 20’s. That’s the short version. So, I had to do a lot of rebuilding in my 30’s– in the sense of scraping pieces of a life back together from nothing – but also rebuilding who I thought I was. I started using hard drugs at 19 and at my lowest, I was a college dropout with a family who wouldn’t speak to me, no job, health issues, no car, no place to live and with mounting legal issues. I became the lower companion and as they say, my standards fell faster than I could keep up with. So, when I turned 29, I was dragged into a seven month stint at Tarzana Treatment Center in beautiful Tarzana, CA. And something clicked. After my time there, I showed up to a sober living in Reseda with my food stamps and two trash bags of clothing and started to put my life back together. So much so that I remember getting hit by a car on my bike trying to cross Reseda Blvd between Sherman Way and Wilbur and when the ambulance came, I was so scared of relapse that I was yelling at the EMT’s that I was sober (or clean, whatever) while they were cutting off my skinny jeans — all because I didn’t want them to give me opiates. What a time. Given how bad things had been, it was easy for me to be grateful for what I had: I was grateful for that bus in Canoga Park, grateful for that job in Woodland Hills, grateful I didn’t have to live for that next fix and I was grateful for a chance at a career and a life. But, I still didn’t know where I was going. My recovery taught me the power of showing up (to the appointment, to the show, to the event) even if I felt like I don’t have it in me, wasn’t prepared or if I assumed things wouldn’t go my way. That really paid off for me. But despite it all, I knew that there was one corrective experience I yearned for. And that was finishing school. In conjunction with that, I knew I wanted to return to art. I had a coworker (wherever she may be now, Toni: thank you) start a GoFund Me so I could pay back the 3k hold on my transcripts. Thanks to a surprising number of compassionate friends, we hit that goal and the slow, arduous process of returning to school began. I finally returned to school at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo three years later in 2018 and graduated that same year with a fine arts degree as a 4.0 award student. This from a kid that was kicked out of that same school years earlier for terrible grades.
I know sometimes people say, “we have to make our own luck” but that’s not necessarily true. Sure, I show up for myself but I know privilege has everything to do with the opportunities that I was given. There are a ton of similar stories as mine. But our paths can look dramatically different because of a systemically racist system, the prison-industrial complex, generations of family drug use, lack of familial support or a health care system that doesn’t advocate for the wounded (I’m looking at you, only-three-weeks-in-rehab insurance). You just never know what someone is working against.
Fast forward to now, and I get to be an artist. And yeah, I have a day job that doesn’t involve art. And, I am a serious artist. And, in that job, I get to see other addicts on the regular and on a good day, I get to share a piece of that compassion that was so freely given to me. I get an opportunity to not pass judgment and maybe for a moment, be the bright spot in another person’s otherwise crappy day. And that feels pretty good.
Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Haha, an entire decade of my life was an obstacle. I mean if we wanted to dig deeper, I’m sure that there are feelings of lack, imposter syndrome, years of trauma manifested into adult anxiety and insecurity — all that buoy the chaos of that time. I went to a lot of therapy and gained some tools on how to work through those things without being defined by them so that I could move forward. Easier said than done. Even with a head full of therapy and AA, I remember my first day back at school at 34. I was nervously making my way to a class I knew was to be taught by an individual I was supposed to graduate with back in 2008. She had her path and I had mine. And, if that wasn’t humbling. And what a gift that turned out to be–she was so compassionate and understanding. I gained a fast friend because of that experience. And, moreover, I discovered that the more vulnerable I allowed myself to be, the more the faculty and my peers supported me. And that carried over into my work. I was making terrible art but I was experimenting. And that felt really good. I felt stronger in who I was as a person and as an artist because of my vulnerability — not in spite of it.
Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
As to my career and perspective, right now I make work that pulls from my personal narrative as an addict, toying with notions of power, regret and spirituality. Those ideas are then filtered through my experience as a mixed, white-presenting, 1st generation Iranian American. I have the tendency to lean on performance and object making to tell those stories. The origin story of the name SHAHRZAD is that of a legendary storyteller. I primarily use my familial stories, sculpture, performance, and my body because they so eloquently speak to both the permanence and impermanence of experience. That way, you have something tangible with objects as well as intangible with work that centers around gesture and time. My most recent work that personifies those elements started with six large scale sculptures that I did for the city that pulled from middle eastern myth and pop-up culture. They stood downtown for a month. After a month, I spent five hours standing with them. It was my standing farewell to the work. After my five hours, I then did the best I could to destroy them with a sledgehammer for two hours. My goal had been three hours but I didn’t make it. My arms are still sore. This performance (Marianne Williamson Can’t Save Me Now) was exhausting, both emotionally and physically. But, I think I am most proud of that work because that pride is in direct proportion to the level of fear I had prior to doing it. I didn’t know I could do it. And while I didn’t make it to my goal, I still surpassed anything I’d ever done, endurance wise. I remember seeing EJ Hill do his standing piece, Excellentia, Mollitia, Victoria in 2018 at the Hammer and I immediately had chills. I was so blown away by the mental and physical stamina it took to carry out a feat like that. Miles Greenberg’s Oysterknife in 2020 is another contemporary example of that level of stamina (in this piece he walked a treadmill for 24 hours). We are physically capable of so much– whether that physicality is expressed by standing, rolling, sitting, screaming. Humans are amazing.
That said, in regards to what sets me apart, I am not sure. I am one storyteller of many. I am doing my best to share myself with you in hopes you share a piece of you, with me in return. And because there is so much power in that, maybe that is enough.
Where we are in life is often partly because of others. Who/what else deserves credit for how your story turned out?
Hands down, my mother, Shoaleh Nabatian: for pulling me up out of the trap house in 2013. For encouraging me no matter how weird she thinks my work is. For inspiring my work by nurturing Persian tradition in our family and keeping our story alive.
David Kempken, my loving partner and artist. He patiently teaches me everything he knows about metal and fabrication. He throws himself all in when I need him on my performance projects. He never judges, only encourages.
Emma Saperstein and Cynthia Post Hunt: they introduced me to my first performance art residency. They continue to support me at shows and through my thought processes. They introduce me to new work and other performance artists. They buy my work! They are thoughtful, intuitive, inclusive and loving curators.
Laura Krifka, Elizabeth Folk, Sara Frantz: at one time they were my teachers and now they are my mentors and most importantly, they are my friends. Not to mention brilliant artists. They come to my weird shows, I trust them to tell me the truth. They inspire me on the regular and encourage me to keep pushing the envelope. I would not be where I am without them and I’m lucky to be in their orbit.
My friend Nancy. For her wicked smarts, her perspective, her thoughtful scope of the bird’s eye view, her interest and her support.
- Website: www.lelawelch.com
- Instagram: lela.shahrzad
David Kempken Todd Perkins Jacqui Chatsworth Cynthia Post Hunt