Local artists exhibit work at ASU's Vault Gallery

Two local artists exploring themes of unity, joy and initiation are exhibiting their work this summer at the Vault Gallery, part of Arizona State University's Downtown Phoenix campus library. 

In her exhibition "What Unites Us," Nasim Nourian examines human interconnectedness, and for newcomer Chelsea Niven, winner of the 2019 Eric Fischl Vanguard Award at Phoenix College, the Vault Gallery marks her first curated exhibition, titled “Inchoate Amelioration.”

Although the downtown Phoenix library remains closed to the public due to COVID-19 restrictions, Jackie Young, the gallery’s curator and senior library information specialist, says students and library staff have been happy to see the return of new art to the Vault Gallery.

“Over the years, art has always been a part of the downtown library. It makes a significant difference in the mood and tone you feel when you’re here,” said Young, who in a typical year, will bring at least three new art exhibitions into the gallery space as a way of enhancing the library’s connection to its local community and increasing students’ exposure to diverse perspectives. “New art reinvents the library space in a new way every time we have new artists.”

The Vault Gallery has been something of a blessing for students in need of a mental break while studying in the library as well as for emerging artists seeking opportunities to share their work. 

“For the artists, many times, it’s the first opportunity they’ve been given to exhibit their work at a gallery,” she said.

Here to talk about their summer exhibitions at the Vault Gallery and their approaches to making art are Niven and Nourian, whose work will be featured at the gallery through August. Nourian immigrated to the United States from Tehran, Iran, and Niven was born and raised in the Southwest.

Question: Have you always made art?

Nasim Nourian: I used to draw and paint when I was a little girl. My first artwork was this gigantic green spider on the wall of our living room, which as a toddler I was extremely proud of, but also upset my mother to no end. I was successful in repeating the same mistake when I was a teenager and I painted a life-size Persian Miniature painting on the back wall of my closet. This time, mom did not let me get away with it so easily. So I locked away my artistic talent in that closet and gave up art altogether. In my culture, art was considered to be just a hobby, not a "serious" career. I did not paint or draw for almost three decades until the passion was rekindled when I took an art course at a community college and it all rushed back to me like the dam had been broken.

Chelsea Niven: I have been making art for as long as I can remember. It has always been something that’s a part of me and how I express my emotions. I wouldn’t feel like myself if I didn’t create art.

Q: Can you describe your artistic process?

Nourian: I am moved by what I see around me. It could be a stranger's face or movements. It could be a loved one moving about their daily routine, or it could be a random photo I see on social media. Whatever the source of inspiration, it stays with me, in my head, as a form of a picture. And it stays with me until I put it down on paper or canvas. These pictures are persistent and sometimes annoyingly so, and I feel the urge, almost a calling, to create an art work. 

As artists, just like any other creative genre, we want to be liked. I feel uplifted when people “like” my art. And yes, I’ve been influenced, especially when creating commissioned art, by whether it will be liked or not. But the process, even to this day, is at times obscured by uncertainty. Will I be able to express what’s in my heart? Will the final work be authentic enough? Am I finished or do I need to work on it a little more, another hour or another day? I’ve been told that it's through the process that we grow and I believe this to be true. When I don’t feel all those fears come up when I start a project, then it's not worth it. So, I let it all come up … and then through it all, something authentic emerges that I call art.

Niven: My art process has been changing and expanding so much, and I am sure will continue to do so. People have asked me where I get my inspiration from and honestly, it all depends on what I am doing. Is it a commission piece? Or am I just trying to use some of the paint that I have left over? Sometimes I have an idea in mind and just do a quick sketch of what I want to create. When I begin, I just let it flow. There are also times where I have nothing in mind and just listen to music and let whatever my vision is come to life. I tend to go into a trance and get lost while I am working on my art. It’s an escape for me in this busy world.

Q: Is there a particular subject you are currently drawn to in your art?

Nourian: Well, I always like human forms and portraits. I’m drawn to the paintings of Alice Neel right now and her naked approach to expressionistic portraits.

Niven: I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to a specific subject. I like my art to inspire people, fill them up with a sense of happiness, and evoke joy and deeper thought. My paintings are almost interactive. If you look at it from different perspectives, it shifts and changes in color. It highlights the importance of the bigger picture in order to see the harmony and come to a better understanding of one another.

Q: What do you think is the function or the power of art in society?

Nourian: The power of art is the power to express oneself like no one else can. It is the uniqueness and the exceptionalism of every single human being exactly as it was intended.  

Niven: Art is supposed to make people think and help them connect with their inner selves as well as others. The other important part of art is that it connects us to people around the world. Someone who speaks Mandarin can look and understand a painting the same as someone who speaks Portuguese could. That is one of the many beauties of art, it’s a universal language that brings together humanity and shows that we all carry the same emotions and basic ideals. I think this aspect of art is something that we, as a whole world, need to acknowledge and put into practice while interacting with people in our everyday lives. Art can teach the world to have more compassion.

Britt Lewis
britt.lewis@asu.edu