Home » Loudoun Artist: Saya Behnam | Co-Creating Art with Nature
When Loudoun artist Saya Behnam produces a piece of art, she never works alone. The Iranian American artist says she always co-creates with nature, not just as a source of inspiration, but in a very physical, tactile sense. Behnam has learned to extract pigments from materials foraged from her surroundings, such as grasses, flowers, leaves, berries, bark, spices, rocks, and minerals. She uses brush strokes to affix part of that actual environment to raw cotton fabric and paper. Each natural color embraces the particular earth, weather, and seasonal characteristics from where the materials were gathered.
“My supplies are not just mediums, those are parts of places . . . they are specific to the moment, time, and environment . . . they become singular visual aesthetic records of that unique location and time,” said the artist, who lives in Lansdowne near Leesburg.
Creating from a light-filled studio facing a pond in Potomac Falls, Behnam’s art is inspired by whatever she is reading at the time, memories from her childhood in Tehran, modern Western experiences and culture, and visual details of her daily walks – the color of the sky, the edges of a blade of grass, shadows on the water, or the patterns of a blossom or an insect’s wings.
If Behnam’s art, which includes both paintings and sculptures, had to be described in just one word, it would be “juxtapositions.”
Combining her own efforts as a technically trained artist with the ethereal hand of nature falls in line with everything about Behnam’s work. “My art practice encompasses both the old and new, time and space, traditional and modern, and home and abroad,” she explains.
Examples of Behnam’s work can be viewed on her website, where viewers can examine her unique blend of loose brush strokes, ranging from deep opaque to watery translucent, combined with an eclectic assortment of ancient and modern images. Her works are embedded with calligraphy, intricate miniatures of ancient symbols and images nods to Persian carpets and talismans, numbers, sacred mathematical and geometric patterns, words of poetry, mythology, and even streaks of gold leaf.
Behnam points to life experiences and travels that have shaped her creative efforts. “Fleeing from war, turmoil, and revolution, and experiencing dictatorship with cultural and traditional barriers, has had a profound influence on my art and life,” she says.
Memories Turned to Colors
Many of the pigments that Behnam extracts are from materials that evoke strong sensory memories of her youth in Tehran. Chief among these is saffron. “To me, saffron holds a deep connection with the meaning of home, with its aroma, taste, and color that are part of my childhood,” says Behnam.
It was a cup of spilled hot hibiscus tea across a stack of work papers that toggled Behnam’s awareness of the powerful colors naturally available in her own surroundings. She watched the color slowly spread across the paper and observed how the hues changed upon drying. Before long, she was steeping a spectrum of plants, flowers, spices, leaves, fruits, berries, minerals, and even ground rocks, filtering out and drying the pigments and then controlling them with everything from lemon juice or honey to oils or egg yolks to get the desired consistency.
The shelves in Behnam’s studio are stacked with glass jars of various colors and sizes that hold a wealth of pigments that she has extracted from an astonishing collection of sources: Virginia bluebells, black-eyed Susans, daffodils, turmeric, black teas, walnuts, pokeweed, goldenrod, olive leaves, tall fescue, bark, figs, eucalyptus, logwood, malachite, ochre clay, and Lapis Lazuli as just some examples.
These pigments are extracted from materials Behnam has either foraged herself or ordered from remote locations, which she lovingly grinds using a variety of mortar and pestle sets she keeps in her studio. “Grinding is a critical part of the creative process,” says Behnam. “It’s part of my culture, not only sensory in feel and aroma, but it’s also an intensely meditative process,” she explains, adding that her grandmother insists that grinding materials brings good luck.[Need some Holiday Gift Suggestions? Read Kat Hoke’s Holiday Gift Guide now]
A Botanist First
Art has been Behnam’s passion since she was a young girl growing up in Tehran, but it was a passion suppressed by forces she could not control. “I wanted to study art in college, but in those years, the government decided what you could study,” she explains. “I had to take a big test in high school and fortunately scored high enough to be allowed to apply to college, but the government decided it already had enough artists – I was forced to choose from a list, so I picked botany and helped fill the female quota for that major.”
“The day I finished my botany major,” said Behnam, “I said, ‘There! I am done with that forever!’” She got married and started a life in America, working full time and raising a family. Behnam never stopped painting, though. She took certified coursework at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., but because she had children to raise and send to college, she could not pursue an additional degree. “I still got what I needed from the classes,” says Behnam. It was enough to run her own award-winning graphic design business in Potomac Falls for many years.
In 2013 Behnam traveled to China with her husband on a business trip. Visiting a museum while there, she had a powerful epiphany and could not shake the desire to throw herself into painting. “I knew it meant having less money, but that didn’t matter anymore,” she explains. “At some point, awards don’t matter, the greed of wanting more, more, more doesn’t matter – what matters is knowing that someday you will reach the end of your life, and you must have no regrets, no looking back wishing you had done something.”
The big surprise, however, is that all of Behnam’s training as a botanist actually differentiated her as an artist. “It is so interesting how things in your life come together without knowing or planning it,” she says. “I never thought Botany would be useful for me back then, but now I see it was meant to be – we have to trust the ways things fall in our path,” she says.
A Recognized Educator
Before COVID, Behnam stayed busy with her niche passion: teaching workshops on how to extract pigments from natural materials. She has presented classes not only at her Potomac Falls studio, but also at George Washington University, the Iranian Cultural Center, the U.S. Botanic Garden, the University of California at Berkley, and locations overseas. Halting in-person classes because of COVID social distancing requirements, Behnam is now producing synchronous and asynchronous digital classes that students can watch from their home computers. Check out her website for postings.
Behnam’s work has been displayed in public and corporate galleries since 2000, including the Corcoran, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Washington D.C. Commissions on the Arts and Humanities, GWU University, Montpelier Center for Arts and Education, the Strathmore Mansion, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Hill Center, and Mitre Corporation. Her website lists past shows and an impressive list of awards from across the region.
Saya Behnam, Co-Creating Art with Nature
46175 Westlake Dr., Ste 110
Potomac Falls, VA 20165
Photos by Traci Medlock | The Lock & Co.