Artists’ creations can be inspired by many different experiences. Traveling to a foreign city, meeting a new person, undergoing illness or even facing political upheaval can provide ideas for new work. For Iraqi-American artist Vian Sora, inspiration comes from a mixed palette of life experiences. She was born and raised in Baghdad and grew up with certain expectations as the oldest daughter and granddaughter of a Middle Eastern family. She witnessed displacement of loved ones and cultural tragedies during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even her marriage to an American attorney resulted in change, moving her to Louisville in 2009, offering new insight for her work. Not only does Vian glean inspiration from others, she also inspires them. In February 2018, the Louisville Orchestra debuted a concert series inspired by her personal story and featuring her art. This engaging woman has given a boost to the art world globally — and locally. Meet this week’s FACE of Louisville, Vian Sora.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I began painting and drawing when I was about 6. It was at that age, at about 6 or 7 years old, when I became aware of what I wanted to be.
What inspired you to paint?
My introduction to art was facilitated by my family’s network. My mom’s family owned an auction business where they sold artwork and antiquities, and my dad owned a gallery. I was surrounded by a lot of artists and had the opportunity to be exposed to certain styles that I couldn’t have approached otherwise. I was surrounded by mentors who guided me.
When did you have your first show?
I was 18 when I first started exhibiting professionally. When I was about 24, I had my first solo show at a very prestigious gallery in Baghdad. I drove with a friend to the gallery, and I had a small amount of paintings with me. I had my canvases in the car, and we just went there. The gallery manager came out to my car, looked at my work, and he fell in love with it. I just wanted to exhibit one piece of work, but he wanted to show more.
How did you feel during that show?
I felt very humbled and nervous. It’s very exciting to take a group of your paintings and put them on display. It’s very difficult, too, because every time I have an opening, I lose my voice for a week because I talk to a lot people. I’m known to be a hermit. I normally don’t talk a lot. I express myself more through my painting than through words.
Did you attend art school?
No, I didn’t. I like to work from a rule-free kind of mindset. Sometimes it’s very rewarding, and sometimes it has denied me opportunities. I feel like I’m more of a hybrid. I don’t feel you need a professor to learn art — art is the professor, really. That sounds radical to say, because there are some great art schools, but at that age, I was arrogant enough to say I’m not going to art school.
What images are depicted in your work?
The figures I’ve used, especially in the last ten years, have an iconography from the Middle East. I like to think of them as some form of abstract impressionism. I like to think of them as the aftermath of life, living through wars, living through certain stresses — what is the last product, what is the human coming out of that? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You might see figures that look repellant for some viewers. I’m trying to paint an abstract form of a life experience.
One of your paintings is “Landscape with a Moth.” Where did the inspiration for that piece come from?
Last year I got very sick, and I was bitten by some kind of bugs of Kentucky, and I had welts all over my body. I was on steroids, and I couldn’t sleep for two weeks, so I went to the studio and painted. I painted for about 18 hours a day. I was very happy with that work because it was very bold. It was very bold for me, because it was something different, and it led to a new collection.
How did your collaboration with Teddy Abrams [of the Louisville Orchestra] happen?
It was a beautiful coincidence. We were installing my show Displaced Narratives at 1619 Flux: Art + Activism in the Russell neighborhood. Teddy walked in, and we had the most amazing conversation. He saw my work “Apocalypse,” and he wanted to use that in his concert War and Peace. It led to the development of the piece called “Beyond Heaven and Earth” composed by Sebastian Chang.
How did you feel during the performance of the piece?
It was nerve-wracking and emotional. My mom couldn’t stop crying. It’s about our family and about certain struggles. It was a huge honor. I feel like it was special, because Teddy is a visionary who wants to push the boundaries of music, and I appreciate that, because I love pushing boundaries as well.
What’s kept you in Louisville?
There are many more Iraqi, Iranian and Middle Eastern artists in bigger cities, but there aren’t many in Kentucky who are actively working and dedicating a full practice here. There are a lot of great things happening in Louisville, and I want to be part of that scene. I’m more focused, because my recent work is about Louisville and the humans here. There are hidden pockets of interesting things happening in our city.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a total geek. I like martial arts. I’m also a computer engineer. My degree is in computer science.
Where do you like to hang out?
I like to go to Decca, which is in the NuLu district. It’s kind of like a farm-to-table restaurant. I love the chef, who is our friend.
Do you have any advice to share?
Travel. Go into places you’re uncomfortable with. Go beyond Trip Advisor. I feel that travel is what shaped my character, but it also made me stronger. It’s something I look forward to, besides art shows.
Besides faith, family and friends, what are three things that are important to you?
Art, travel and music.
Thank you, Vian! To learn more about the artist and her work, visit viansora.com.
And thank you to Christine Mueller of Christine Mueller Photography for the stunning photos!
For more inspiring FACES of Louisville, click here!