Kinstler Conversation with Orkideh Torabi

By Maddie Klett

The following is a conversation with Chicago based painter Orkideh Torabi. This interview took place in Spring 2022 and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Maddie Klett: For Hookah House (2021), and other recent works, you print with fabric dye on cotton. Could you talk about your process?

Orkideh Torabi: I used to work with oil and acrylic paints. But I'm a perfectionist, so I always find myself being obsessed with the details of one part of a work. I was looking for a medium that would allow me to loosen up a bit. I started working with fabric dye on cotton, and I started mono-printing (or silkscreen printing a single color at a time) which really helps with this. When you mono-print, you don't have that much control over the work. Things happen more by chance. Many stains remain on the final painting that I can't do anything about because their dyes become saturated into the cotton.

 There is no way that I can fix it, and that helped me actualize the paintings I'm doing. I paint people with all these flaws, so these variations and mistakes in the dying process can become part of my subject matter. Working with dye is like being a person who is right-handed and then starting to write with their left hand. There is less control over the work. I like that idea. I like that quality. 

MK: It feels freeing to give up some control?

OT: A little bit, yeah.

I begin by painting on a screen with dye and then transfer it with a squeegee onto cotton. Sometimes a work has almost a hundred layers of paint. It's a very time-consuming process because I have to mask every color and print it separately. It's a process of layering and masking. Usually, each painting takes one month, especially if it has many detailsHookah House took me one month to finish.

MK: You didn't create the process of mono-printing, but it sounds like you’ve really made it your own. How do you begin an intricate composition like Hookah House, do you make preparatory sketches?

OT: Usually, when I start a work I have some idea of what I want to make. When I think of something I write it down in my notebook because I'm a very forgetful person. If I have my notebook I also make a very quick sketch and if I start with figures, I try to arrange them in a space. I think about where and which space, and add details until I'm happy with the drawing. And then I make the drawing bigger because, when I begin to start the mono-printing process I need to have an exact drawing of what will get printed on the fabric. 

For the color, the process is different because, even though I have a general idea and I know where I want things to be, it is never exact. While I'm working and layering each piece, I decide about colors. Sometimes I can change or fix color as a go along, like I can print on top of a lighter color. But if the color is dark blue, I can't change anything once it is printed. So I plan things a bit, like the general scheme. I work on the colors on Photoshop to see what blue hue might look best, for example, for the upper part.

MK: It's fascinating to learn about how you work, but also why you've decided to work this way. You've moved away from the immediacy of painting in oil and acrylic and decided to do this heavily planned process. 

OT: Sometimes it's tiring, but it's good. I like the medium I’m working with. 

MK: What is going on in Hookah House? In terms of the narrative, who are the people? Where are they?

OT: In general, narration is an important part of my process. Usually when I start a painting I have a story in my mind and those stories come from my memories, my experiences, something I have read, even something I have dreamt about. The paintings are mostly reactions to some problematic moments in my life that I'm trying to turn into something creative. This is the way I deal with reality and with trauma. For Hookah House it was part of the series I was working on a few months ago. I was focusing on gender-segregated environments in Iran, where I’m from. Places like coffee shops or public baths. 

I wanted to address some issues around patriarchy, social norms, social structures, and the idea came from a memory. When I was in Iran a few years ago, I went to a coffee shop with some girlfriends. There were only men there and when we entered, all of them immediately left. It was a very odd moment because they didn't want to be in the same room with women. That was a memory stuck in my head until a few months ago when I decided to paint it. Women are also not allowed to smoke in public. So I'm criticizing that with this painting as well.

MK: All of the figures that appear in Hookah House are men? 

OT: Yes. I used to paint only women, actually. But a few years ago I found myself painting a portrait of a man and I really liked it. As a character, I suddenly figured, “oh, I know this person, this is so familiar to me” and all of those memories came alive. I started making more and more of those portraits of people I know. Some of them come from my memory of my childhood, so they are not exact people. After a while I had around 100 individual portraits, 100 characters. 

I'm describing a society with different types of people. Some of them are innocent people and some are the people who are making war and a mess. And usually, the people I depict have this duality to them and it comes from my memory and the country I'm coming from. In Iran today, the society is struggling between tradition and modernity and this duality has especially affected women’s lives. That's why I'm more concerned about women's issues in my work. I see my paintings as scenes in a play. These people are my cast and I have a story in my mind and they play their role and create that story. I develop the story by putting them in different spaces.

MK: It is this ongoing production that is equal parts reality and fantasy. And with the architecture for Hookah House, it is an unrealistic view, like on the stage set. It's a cross-section of a house. I'm interested in how you think about spatial arrangement. Because you’re referencing a particular architecture here, with the furnishings and tiles. 

OT: I'm inspired by Persian miniatures, which are tiny paintings that illustrate a poem or story to make it more enjoyable. They have a huge influence on my work because, like with miniatures, there are no shadows in my work. The lightning is even and buildings are shown with complex views. You can see the interior and exterior at the same time. That inspiration helps me with my paintings, because it allows me to show different parts of a story simultaneously, and I like that quality.

MK: Since you’re talking about miniatures, I want to hear you speak about scale, and about the huge project you did for the Atrium at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago. You enlarged your painting of men in a bathhouse, Peach House’s 5 Bucks Morning Special (2020), to cover an entire wall.  Did the bodies become human scale or were they even bigger?

OT: No, they were three times bigger.

MK: Oh, wow. Like giants.

OT: They are giant figures. My recent works are large too. When I have only one figure in a painting they are bigger than human-scale. But when I have multiple figures, there is a limitation. I work on cotton fabric, and there is a limit for size—they can only be 68 inches wide. I could work in different panels. In the future I’d like to try something like that. 

MK: Hookah House as a puzzle is also a different, smaller scale from the original painting (which is 53 x 85 inches).

OT: Right? Yeah.

MK: It will be smaller, but there is also going to be a different relationship with how each viewer interacts with the work. They will be able to touch it, it will be horizontal, and they will spend time with the details of the painting. 

OT: I think it's a good idea because people have more time for it. They can make their own story. One of the reasons I like this kind of painting is that it shows different parts of a story, and a viewer can follow it how they want. I don't want to be just a storyteller. I also want to hear what people think about the story. 

When I went to the MCA, some people told me what they thought about my mural and it was interesting because sometimes it was totally different from what I had in my mind. Having Hookah House as a puzzle allows people to spend time with the characters and make their own stories. 

MK: Yes! You can start and end at so many different points in the painting. What is puzzling you today?

OT: Today I'm working toward my gallery show in New York. The works are more personal, I'm thinking about all of these people who are fighting for their survival. After COVID happened, I was alone all the time in my studio working. I am very judgmental about myself, with many voices in my mind. 

MK: Do you find your process of almost perfecting how you make these works helpful for that survival? It is so complex and you've really worked to fine tune it. I wonder if that focus has been helpful while you’ve been in your studio?

OT: Sometimes I get tired of that very involved process. At the same time I love my medium. I love the complexity, so yes I can say it helped, but it is sometimes hard to be so focused on the details. I have so many ideas in my mind and my process is slow. Sometimes I want to finish a piece and start another one that I’ve developed in my head. That part is hard because I'm stuck with a painting and I want to start another one because I'm very excited about it… but I have to finish the other one first. 

MK: It sounds like your art is both enjoyable and challenging. 

OT: Yeah. I love painting. It’s very hard for me if I am not able to work for two or three days. All of that time I'm thinking about work.  I'm thinking about the process and I'm sketching new ideas. Wow, I'm kind of obsessed.