UMD: A Globally Connected University

A conversation with 2017 Sendak Fellowship winner Rashin Kheiriyeh

Rashin Kheiriyeh, who teaches drawing at the UMD School of Art, is an award-winning artist, illustrator and writer.  She has authored and illustrated more than 60 books of children’s stories,, many of them based on Persian historical tales and fables for children, which she has brought to life for a new generation of readers. Kheiriyeh was recently awarded the prestigious 2017 Sendak Fellowship, which is given to outstanding artists in order to foster talented illustrators who “create work that is not vapid, stupid, or sexy, but original. Work that excites and incites.” Kheiriyeh spoke with the Office of International Affairs about her work and life. 

Tell us about your life growing up and your education

Well, I was born city of Khorramshar which is located in central west of Iran, 30 miles from the Persian Gulf, near the Iraq-Iran border. I was one-year old (when) the war between Iraq and Iran happened and the Iraqi army bombed Khorramshahr, so my parents lost their house and everything and had to escape to the capital Tehran. It was a disaster but fortunately I had a happy life in Tehran, that war took 8 years to finish. My mom taught me how to paint, she was a painter and discovered my talent so when I turned 16 I entered the art school in Tehran which was the first art school for females in Iran. We had really great teachers and I discovered that I am good at illustration for children’s literature. In my 19's I started to work as an illustrator for different magazines and children’s book publishers inside and outside of Iran. I continued my education in graphic design for BFA, MFA and Doctorate Degree in Tehran and I got a scholarship to study in Paris for a while. In 2011 I decided to go to New York for studying painting in [the] School of Visual Arts. 

How did you find UMD and end up here?

Long story. I was studying Painting in the School of Visual Art of New York where I met my husband. That actually changed my whole life and instead of getting back home to Tehran I moved to DC with him. Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz, the director of (the UMD) School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures (SLLC) and chair of Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, invited me to give a lecture about Persian book designing in the Library of Congress. Dr. Nahal Akbari, director of the UMD Persian Flagship program invited me to teach (in her program), then one thing leads to another So, last year, William c. Richardson, who is the chair of the UMD Department of Art, invited me to teach drawing course at the art department.

You’ve written over 70 books: what is your creative process like?

I start with reading the story by other authors if I am only supposed to do the designing part. I took my time to live with the story and even dreamed about it. After couple of weeks, when I created the main characters of the book in my mind I start sketching them with gesture lines. Then I worked on the compositions and layout. Then I make a dummy book with drawings and texts. I share it with the design team of my publishers and after a lot of back and forth the final dummy will be approved. I try different techniques to get the best result. I paint with acrylic and oil, ink, carved Lino technique, and collage. After scanning the final art works I am ready to lay out the book in the computer.

Your most acclaimed work is "Two Parrots". How did you come up with the idea for that?

"Two Parrots" was my first book published in the United States. My idea was revisiting the classic Persian literature and I ended up with one tale from Rumi that I thought it might be interesting for American kids too. That is a story of a bird which wants to regain its freedom. Lucky me that this book received good reviews and kids loved it.

What is your latest work focused on?

Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books has bought “Saffron Ice Cream”, my first picture book as both author and illustrator. The book juxtaposes my trip to the beach on the Caspian Sea in Iran against my first trip to the beach on Coney Island in New York City, pointing out the similarities in sights and sounds as well as the differences. Publication is scheduled for 2018. I am also working on a new book project for Simon & Schuster, which is going to publish in 2018 too.

How have your books been received in Iran? Do you have a strong connection to your home country?

Very well. I was working with best children’s book publishers in Iran. And I published over 35 books there. Most of them received several national and international awards and have been reprinted and translated to many other languages. I would say that I am very connected to my country and still I am working with my Iranian publishers. I travel to Iran when I get a chance to visit my family and get connected with my colleagues in publication area. Iran is always inspiring for me and I love that.

How do you feel about being awarded the Sendak Fellowship 2017 this year and what are you planning to work on?

Excited! It really means a lot to me and I am so glad to have been selected for this amazing fellowship. Maurice Sendak was one of my favorite writer and illustrators since entering the world of children’s books. He was also well-known artist in Iran and I read the Farsi translation of “Where the Wild Things Are” when I was in art school in Iran. It was very inspiring and I loved it a lot. I hope this great opportunity of four-weeks residency would open new doors to me and I am very excited to experience working alongside other amazing artists, such as Terry and Eric Fan and Eliza Wheeler.

What are your creative inspirations?

Just like other artists I am inspired from my roots. The Persian literature is full of wonderful fables. Rumi, “The 1001 Nights”, [The] “Shahnameh” and other folk tales have greatly influenced my colors and style. That’s why there is a fable-like quality to my illustration.

What do you hope to teach children through your stories?

When I was in Iran my goal was to show the world to Iranian kids who has no chance to travel outside of Iran. You know we don’t have much diversity in Iran so I wanted to introduce other people’s culture and stories to Iranian children, but when I moved to the U.S my goal has been changed. I realized that there is lack of Persian books in the bookstore for children and I was surprised to see how little Americans know about Persian literature and Iran. So I decided to make picture books from classic and contemporary literature of Iran. I wrote “Two Parrots“ based on a classic story and "The Saffron Ice Cream" which is a story about a kid in contemporary Iran. I have had a great experience working with different publishers and curators around the world. Each project has been an opportunity for me to learn about families from other cultures, and to introduce the Persian culture to them.

What were some of your favorite books growing up?

I grew up with “The Adventures of TinTin” by Hergé, “The Little Black Fish” by Samad Behrangi. I also loved “Father and Son” by E. O. Plauen.

What are your plans for the future in terms of your career?

My plan is working with the best publishers around the world and making amazing books for little ones.