On an overcast and humid evening on the Downtown Mall, multi- media artist Golara Haghtalab seems to fill the Mudhouse with light. She recognizes a barista from when she worked there “a long time ago,” and though Haghtalab can’t remember his name at first, she still strikes up a spirited conversation. With that same palpable, kinetic energy, Haghtalab reflects on her identity as a Turkmen, Iranian and Muslim immigrant.
“The mirror of who you are shatters when you immigrate,” Haghtalab says. “I came to America and the mirror of my identity shattered.”
Haghtalab repeatedly returns to this image of shattered mirror as central to who she is as a maker, scientist and Iranian immigrant. She feels drawn to the Japanese art of kintsugi, which is both a method of repairing art and a philosophy that celebrates what is broken. To fix a cracked piece of pottery, Japanese artists practicing kintsugi fill gaps using gold, silver or platinum-dusted lacquer.
“My philosophy of life is like this art,” says Haghtalab. “When something breaks, they fix it with gold to keep the experience of it, to nourish it and to make it more beautiful.”
Nearly seven years ago, while Haghtalab was in her third year of architecture school, the U.S. Department of State randomly selected her to win a diversity visa. Within six months, Haghtalab, her parents and siblings immigrated to Charlottesville. As lifelong advocates of education, Haghtalab’s parents chose Charlottesville for its proximity to UVA. In Iran and in the United States, Haghtalab says they remained “encouraging in every aspect of education.”
During her first few years in Charlottesville, Haghtalab felt “totally lost.” She found the “machine” of American culture isolating and “scary,” and missed the architecture, culture, stories and languages of Islamic and Persian cultures. After being admitted to and enrolling at UVA, Haghtalab “once again found [her] balance.” She fulfilled a double-major in chemistry and studio art and graduated in May 2017.
“The last three years have been the best in my life…I was able to figure out who I am,” says Haghtalab. “One of my findings through my rediscovery is that I love the arts and sciences together. I stand between these two.”
After graduation Haghtalab worked at BrightSpec, a local startup that specializes in molecular rotational resonance spectroscopy. The company developed a unique software that allows scientists to more quickly obtain the chemical makeup of samples. Haghtalab says her time at BrightSpec greatly impacted her art-making approach and processes, learning ”about chemistry, waves and mirrors, which started to make me feel curious about how to use these materials in my art.”
As a Tom Tom Founders Festival artist-in-residence at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative this past April, Haghtalab incorporated many of those elements in her exhibition “Who is your RGB self?” The solo show featured dance, paintings, poetry and sculptural elements like CDs woven together with metal chains. Haghtalab points out an interactive piece of the exhibition that rendered visitors’ shadows in hues of red, green and blue.
“You see your shadow go in three different directions,” Haghtalab says. “And when you interact with other people, it changes colors.”
After a two-month collaboration with Computers4Kids’ youth members, Haghtalab’s participation- and technology-based art will light up The Gallery at Studio IX for a First Fridays reception on August 3. Though the collaborative installation is titled “Seasons of Light: A Kinetic Experience,” Haghtalab refers to the roughly four-foot by three-foot piece in anatomical terms. The “skin” is a painting of a willow tree that uses limited pigments and might be what viewers see first, Haghtalab explains. Arduino programmable circuit boards, color-changing LED lights and sensors behind the thin painting make up the artwork’s “bones” and “nervous system.”
Haghtalab and mentees at Computers- 4Kids artfully fused each of these elements together to create the experience of watching a willow tree change through nature’s four seasons. As viewers approach the piece, the tree’s leaves go from green to red, orange and yellow. Lights in blue and yellow hues will also illuminate a body of water near the willow tree and the sun, and Haghtalab hopes the exhibition will include in-process images featuring Computers4Kids members.
She says she never imagined she would work with children to complete a piece like “Seasons of Light,” and now “all [she] wants to do is work with kids.” Haghtalab calls herself a STEAMer—an advocate for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. She believes that the future of education is in making those disciplines more inclusive.
“I don’t like to say we need to empower women. We are already powerful,” says Haghtalab. By bringing children together to experience the arts and STEM fields, “you remove the fear.”
“When you work hands-on, you bring everything together. It’s teamwork,” Haghtalab says. “The only indicator of your success is if a lightbulb turns on.”