I’m so thrilled that Fereshteh Toosi took the time to answer some questions for this blog. For those of you who do not know her, Fereshteh is a local Miami artist and a member of the FIU faculty. She joined the art faculty here at FIU in 2017. Since moving to Miami, Professor Toosi has been active embedding herself in the local arts scene. Most recently she has won a prestigious “Ellie” award – she is the recipient of the 2018 Creator Award. She has also published in the Miami Herald and participated in O, Miami’s poetry month. She runs the Nature Connection Arts Lab where she designs contemplative, sensory outdoor experiences (that you can join her on)! I urge you to check out her work on her website. I believe her work would be of special interest to folks interested in environmental ethics, or the relationship between art and environmental activism.
1. How did you become an artist?
As a child I liked planning birthday parties for my siblings, making dioramas, photocopying zines, and pressing perfume from roses. I cherished a book called Concoctions which I never returned to the library. It had recipes for things like toothpaste putty and invisible ink. I also took a lot of music lessons and dance classes and I was a yearbook editor in high school, which meant doing a lot of graphic design. All of this influenced the way I make art now, especially because my high school visual art classes were pretty narrow. Like a lot of places, the teacher focused on realistic representation and since that wasn’t my interest, I was unsure what role art would play in my future. I went to a pre-college art program at the art school in Portland Maine and I met students who introduced me to a creative world that was beyond my hometown, but I still wasn’t sure that there was a place for me as an artist. Because I didn’t grow up in a big city, I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of contemporary art in galleries and museums. In college, I learned more about the various ways contemporary artists work, and the fact that I was studying other subjects was really important too. During my senior year I finished my thesis show which was an installation in an empty swimming pool on campus and one of my professors encouraged me to apply for an exhibit at a gallery. Her vote of confidence bolstered me. After graduation I worked in Japan for a couple years and I continued to make art and music while I was there. When I came back to the States, I tried to get an office job to make money but it felt wrong. I started applying to MFA programs and being an artist is what I’ve been focusing on ever since.
2. What art projects are you working on now?
I run an initiative called the Nature Connection Arts Lab which produces performances and media art to foster gratitude, respect, and a renewed commitment to our ecosystems. I guide occasional nature connection art walks in Miami. If you want to join one you can follow the Lab on Instagram or Facebook for announcements.
My Water Radio project is a series of participatory performances during kayak outings along Miami’s canals. Participants travel, share stories, listen, and respond to the sounds of nature underwater. I think about Timothy Morton’s book Ecology without Nature a lot. But I still use the term nature because it serves as a useful shortcut for people understand that my current work is about how humans can cultivate stronger social relationships with other species and with Earth. It’s mostly about affective experience, but being informed about science is part of it too. I want my work to contribute to the political resistance against ecological crisis.
3. How do your identities shape your work?
Our identities shape everything we do. In my art work, my identities inform the work even if an audience doesn’t notice it expressed in a straightforward way. Art shifts people’s perceptions. As someone whose identities are misunderstood or marginalized, I think about perception all the time. Some of my projects are more directly about my identity as a first-generation American, an immigrant from Iran. But those aren’t my only identities. People have certain expectations of the kind of art someone like me is supposed to be making, and it’s limiting. Everyday I do the quotidian work of being me, of holding my multiple identities, of juggling all my differences. The way I am perceived by others and how I navigate interiority and exteriority is always in the background of everything I do.
4. How does philosophy connect with your art work?
My first meaningful encounters with philosophy were in an English class in college, which focused on analyzing literature through critical theory that was largely informed by continental philosophy. The same texts are really important for contemporary art too. The most significant concept is probably the critique of representation. As artists we act as mediators between people and objects, or people and experiences, and we need to understand how to do that in context. If we don’t know philosophy, our art and media literacy is impoverished. I never took any philosophy classes, I was just thrown into some advanced texts. But with time and patience, I was able to connect and I fell in love with philosophy. There are huge gaps in my philosophical knowledge. But that’s ok because it means I get to explore and be exposed to new ideas. We are meant to be in conversation and dialogue with philosophical writing. Philosophy constructs worlds and metaphors and experiments that are very similar to the methods of art. Philosophy is a really important tool for artists who want to make smart work that engages with issues and aesthetics in a critical way. It helps artists to identify and communicate the significance of our work to ourselves and to our audiences. I find it very inspiring as I consider the intentions and outcomes of my own work. It’s also part of analyzing other people’s art work.
5. What art do you recommend in Miami right now?