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Anxiety of an outsider

After enduring a childhood that left her traumatized, Woodside resident Kymia Nawabi has used her experience to create art intended to express her struggles with social anxiety disorder. As she further developed as an artist and grappled with her anxiety, her artwork began to make a more generalized statement about the relationship between emotion and the human body.

“My theory is that it stems from being displaced within culture and environment,” Nawabi said of her anxiety. “It’s not like I was miserable and had no friends, but it was the little subtle things that could happen every now and then that did have a giant impact even if they have a small brush.”

Her upbringing as a Middle Easterner in the South certainly colors her take on human emotions. Nawabi’s parents are from Iran and moved to California in 1979 when the Iranian monarchy was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic republic. Although Nawabi was born in 1980 in a community she describes as an “Iranian Mecca,” her family moved to Durham, N.C., several years later, and that is where she and her sister grew up. During the 1980s in North Carolina, Middle Eastern families were a minority and Nawabi felt like an outcast.

The allegory between her inner turmoil and her art is apparent in her work. Although she uses bright colors, the subject matter she tries to illuminate is darker, almost anguished. One sculpture depicts legs thrusting through eyeballs, while another figure is comprised of a gigantic head attached to a rubber-band like body. Painting in watercolor, oil and acrylic, she portrays the human body as fluid and ephemeral. Looking at her paintings, viewers obtain a sense of confusion and sometimes suffering.

Explaining her work, Nawabi says, “My artwork has opened up to what I don’t understand about the way the mind and the body work. Not the way other people see you externally, but all that’s internal, as if your body’s turned inside out and that people could actually feel or hear or taste everything that you’re experiencing on the inside that isn’t necessarily easy to put into words or images or songs or whatever art form you can think of. There’s always that level of mystery and uncertainty with what it is that you’re feeling, why you’re here and what it all means. All that magical stuff on the inside, even if it’s dark and it hurts.”

Besides working as a civil engineer, Nawabi’s father was an architect, and his skill as a draftsman allowed him to assist his daughters with their school art projects. Her mother also loved to draw. Engrossed in her art classes during high school, Nawabi proceeded to obtain her bachelor of fine arts degree from East Carolina University and her master of fine arts degree from the University of Florida.

Within a year of graduating, Nawabi moved to New York City, where she has taken jobs, such as waitressing and teaching, to financially support herself and pursue her career as an artist. Nawabi considers herself fortunate to have received grants, fellowships and residencies that have provided her with time, money and studio space to continue her work.

As a result, Nawabi has exhibited her paintings and sculptures in various galleries and museums throughout the United States since 2004. In 2009 she displayed her work at the Queens Museum of Art’s International Biennial Art Show. Nawabi’s work can currently been seen at Westchester Community College’s art show “Tragic Sense of Life,” which will be on display through April 16.

As for future plans, Nawabi hopes to remain in New York City, dedicate herself to her artwork and one day teach college-level art courses. In regards to being an art teacher, she observes, “I don’t think that human beings could survive without art. Not just visual arts, but any of the arts. If you’re hoping to perpetuate those practices within the world, I feel like there’s no better honor.”

For more information about Kymia Nawabi, her artwork and her exhibits, you can visit her Web site at

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