Recycled Painting: Interview with Artist Bita Mokhtar Masoumi

Recycled Painting
Bita Mokhtar Masoumi is an artist, designer, and founder of the recycled painting practice that involves painting on discarded materials.

Bita Mokhtar Masoumi is an artist, designer, and founder of the recycled painting practice. Recycled painting describes painting on discarded materials such as paper packaging, especially food packing. An eco-friendly practice, recycled painting is against waste and promotes the concept of good art emerging from seemingly lowly materials.

Bita grew up in Tehran where her grandfather was a painter and a student of the well-known Kamalolmolk. Bita started taking formal painting classes at age 9 and got accepted into art school at university where she studied graphic design and eventually earned a Bachelors degree in the subject. Throughout college, painting was a private therapeutic emotional practice. After graduating from Alzahra University, Bita studied multimedia design in Malaysia and received an MA in Graphic Design from Savannah College of Art and Design.

Bita has worked as a visual designer since 2014 and had her first solo public show in 2017, titled “Untold,” which featured both her visual art and poetry. Bita recently discussed her work via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for art and why do you gravitate towards found objects and recycled materials?

Bita Mokhtar Masoumi (BM): I grew up with my painter grandfather. The painting was like magic; I was mesmerized by how my grandpa creates the most beautiful images with his colors and brush. Spending time in grandpa’s studio was the most joyful memory of my childhood. His studio was my paradise. When I was a kid, I knew I want to be a painter, just like grandpa. At the age of 9, my parents realized I have talent, and they took me to a painting class. Although I started the formal painting education at the age of nine, my paintings were more than what is expected from a teenager, but it was not extraordinary for me until my father’s death when I was 17. The emotional shock of my father’s death was the beginning of a journey of self-discovery, and drawing and painting were my main tool in this journey.

The momentary drawing on anything turned into a need; to take control of my emotions and thoughts. When I was feeling heavy emotions, I felt the need to draw. I was drawing on anything–a paper cup, books, sandwich paper wrap, leftover paper from packages of whatever I had purchased… anywhere in the taxi or bus, in classes, in a restaurant, etc. That’s how I started to draw on packages. First, I was drawing on the packages’ front side; then I realized the packages’ empty backside is more textured and more beautiful for painting. Then, I tried to paint on an opened flat package and started playing with lines and shapes inside an opened package’s interesting shapes (die-line). As a graphic design student, I was fascinated by the interesting shapes of packages die-lines. Painting on different packages with different sizes and die-line shapes became my most exciting adventure. Painting on rectangular and regular paper is boring. Besides, painting on garbage packaging had a greater benefit: I didn’t have to spend money on paper or canvas when I was a student and financially struggling. Moreover, I love paper. Every piece of paper has its own unique beauty, texture, and color. As it is a part of design training, I know papers very well. Every beautiful piece of paper in the trash bin bothers me because it’s a piece stolen from nature. Besides, I love papers that are not rectangular or square. That’s how I started to paint on found papers sometimes.

The need to momentary drawing on anything after my father’s death, my graphic design training on packaging and paper, led me to paint on recycled packages and found papers. You may ask why did I choose the graphic design in college while I loved painting? After I lost my father, painting had become a strictly emotional experience for me. This led me to pursue graphic design in college and keep painting as a private practice—a therapeutic and emotional outlet. The painting you see on my website has never been created to be presented in an art gallery. I was not painting for art galleries; I was painting because I needed to, and I was free to do anything when painting, and that was keeping me alive. That’s why I did not even think of painting on recycled material is acceptable in traditional art or not. I still have the same attitude when I make art.

MM: Why is food packing of such special interest to you?

Recycled PaintingBM: I started to paint on food packages since food waste became my obsession even without knowing it. After the sanctions against Iran, money became tight, and It was not easy to transfer money from Iran, and I was always cutting my food budget to have enough money for school and rent. Besides, I witnessed a huge amount of good food going to the trash bins in resultants and the school cafe, and It broke my heart, especially when I was seeing homeless people begging for $1 to buy food outside the restaurant. Why do people waste food while that wasted bite can save a life? Moreover, I was born in the middle of the Iran & Iraq war. I grew up in an era that resources were limited in Iran, and extravagance was criticized. After moving to the US, shockingly, I was faced with overconsumption and extravagance, especially in food. Food waste was in huge contrast with all I experienced and learned from my family and culture. That is how food waste became my obsession.

MM: Typically, how long does a piece take to create?

BM: It depends. Mostly, I create the sketch quickly and finish it on the same day or week. Sometimes, I create the sketch very quickly on the go but It takes time to get back to it to finish it. It also depends on the artwork; sometimes I can’t do anything else until I finish it. And sometimes, I feel I can’t finish it. There’s no pattern; I follow my emotions and mood.

MM: What was life like for you growing up and how did your childhood—and artistic family—foster your creativity?

BM: I was born in the middle of the Iran and Iraq war, and parts of my childhood were in the war. My childhood had two opposite sides. The first side was the war, fear, anxiety, chaos, the bombard. The second side was my paradise, my grandfather’s studio, and his brushes, colors, and paintings. Definitely, my grandfather and the encouragements of my father had a significant role in my creativity. I have a good family; my parents took me to a painting class when they realized I have a talent. When I was a kid, I knew I want to be a painter, just like my grandfather.

MM: What prompted you to use your art to discuss the environment and food waste?

BM: I didn’t use art to discuss the environment and food waste in the beginning. I was making art because I needed to make art, but during the experiences and life events, I got some interests, concerns, fears, and obsessions that shaped my art later on. I already told you how my childhood, loss, college, and experiences affected my paintings and shaped my art. Except for past experiences, anybody who has open eyes and sees problems can’t be indifferent. When I see food waste and starving people, it bothers me. When I see overconsumption and ecological overshoot, I can’t ignore them. I didn’t grow up in the Barbie and Disney world; I was born in the middle of the war; I grew up with the world’s harsh reality; I have seen bombard, death, shelters, poverty, starvation, food scarcity, long lines to buy food, and so on. I lived in Tehran, one of the most polluted cities globally, and my mom was suffering from a respiratory allergy. I am an artist who can never be indifferent and apathetic to such global issues.

MM: Of all the pieces you’ve done, have you any special favorites?

BM: I love all of them, but “In Search of Fate”, “Clamor” are my favorites.

MM: How did you break into the art industry and get your art showcased in galleries?

BM: Since 17, the painting was a private practice. This painting style you see on my website was shaped after 17; and the paintings were never intended to be shown to the public. It was private until 2017; after a conversation with my family and a few life events, shockingly, something changed in me. I got this idea to show my works to the public. In the beginning, I had a tough time deciding to reveal the most private parts of my life, especially the poems. Finally, I decided to do that. I showed my works to Seyhoun Gallery in LA. Syhoun Gallery is a reputable galley I knew from Iran; and has introduced the best Iranian artist to the world. Maryam Seyhoun was the gallery owner and curator who I trust the most. She liked my works, and we picked a date for the exhibition. It happened very fast after I decided.

MM: How did you become involved with Orenda Artworks and how have they helped you establish yourself further, especially here in New York?

Recycled PaintingBM: I was looking for a gallery representation in New York, and I saw Orenda Artworks announcement. It was a call for artists for a Juried solo exhibition. I filled out the form and submitted it. Then, Elaine, the Art Director emailed me; she liked my works, and we had Zoom meetings, discussed my works and background and the exhibition. She’s also going to publish one of my works in the Orenda Artworks Magazine. Orenda Artworks helps me take the first step to become a part of the New York art community.

MM: What are you most excited about regarding your forthcoming exhibition?

BM: I am very excited to be a part of the New York art community. I am looking forward to my next exhibition in Orenda Artworks from April 30 to May21st. I am sure this exhibition will open many doors in my future career.

MM: What do you hope viewers take away from or remember about your work?

BM: I hope that my works can ignite something in the viewer; it may transfer an emotion or convey the message. I hope it can make them think about consumerism and waste in their daily life, how much food they waste daily. Even if my works make them think, “why is the artist painting on recycled material?” Or “why is she painting on food packages?” I would be glad. It can start a conversation that can make an impact.

MM: What other projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

BM: I have a lot of ideas, and I will work on them one by one. I am working on one of my ideas right now. it’s a surprise!

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To learn more about Bita, visit her official website.