Artist Watfa Midani interprets love, life and nature with colorful palette
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Watfa Midani's paintings are very personal, but you might not deduce that when looking at the explosively colorful stylized landscapes that convert the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University into a new Eden.
"Serenade for Spring," for example, includes a tree filled with cavorting birds, inspired by the "20 lively birds" that bring song and spirit to Mrs. Midani's home. They are also symbols of life, she says while reflecting on an exhibition that was five years in the making. Like Monet, she found inspiration by looking through her window for "Rainbow Over My Garden," a vibrant scene of trees, water and flowers rainbow-soaked in bands of color that overlay the composition.
But when asked if a particular painting is of a specific place she answers "No place. I am my place," reflecting the confidence that makes this work unique to this artist who is herself a reflection of the experiences of a long, rich life.
Mrs. Midani is a native of Egypt who has lived in Pittsburgh for more than 40 years. She is demure when asked her age but acknowledges she has been painting for more than 65 years. She studied in Cairo and later at The Art Students League of New York.
In 1970 and 1973, she was given solo exhibitions at Carnegie Museum of Art, and she has exhibited frequently elsewhere including in Tokyo and Ankara. Her work is included in private and corporate collections, and she was art commissioner for the City of Pittsburgh from 1985-87.
In her paintings, one may see the repetitious simplified patterning of folk or self-taught artists, the waterfalls of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, or occasionally in a foreground the realism of botanical renderings. Solidly colored shapes with ragged edges of white space call to mind Matisse's cutouts. Throughout are luminous moons, and the sun -- searing, wan, opening like a blossom, a presence of her birthplace.
"Egypt is a sunny country," she says. "The sun gives us this life, to be able to continue living. It's like a god."
But she is not an Egyptian artist, she says. "I am a universal artist. I don't belong to anybody. I belong to myself."
And so it is with her expression.
Her style is, in ways, naif, but the work is not naive. It is drawn from realism, but individual components, such as clouds, are abstracted and colors are expressionistic. The subject is narrative but also metaphysical.
"Nature's wondrous cycle" is an infinitely variable constant in this exhibition titled "Love, Life and Nature." Displayed are several incarnations of the four seasons, and one magnificent endeavor comprising a dozen large panels representing each month of the year.
Mrs. Midani listens to classical music while she paints, and Stravinsky's ballet comes to mind when reading the titles of an unusual five-piece season set beginning with "The Rite of Spring," followed by rites of summer, a dark and mysterious "Rite of Night," then autumn and winter.
That said, to relax she sometimes turns on the television to listen to more contemporary music, which inspired the painting and title "Bridge Over Clear Water." "I don't like 'Troubled Water,' " the artist says.
Even the darkest subjects -- winter, a threatening storm -- project peace and balance, effused with a wholeness that Mrs. Midani calls "the warmth of life's forgiving cycles."
"A painting should have feeling first. Composition. Space and color. These are the four things a painting should have," she says. She works in her studio eight hours a day, five days a week. "I am very disciplined in my work."
She paints with acrylic, on canvas or on acrylic, always with the same vivacious palette, which absorbs into canvas and reflects off of acrylic surfaces. She paints one piece at a time, remaining open to what the work is telling her.
"A painting should talk to the artist. I use all my senses, all my feeling. When I finish one, she [the painting] asks me to do another one."
Mrs. Midani's late husband, Akram, was a native of Damascus, Syria, who was reared in Egypt. He was a Syrian diplomat to the United Nations before accepting a position at CMU in 1965, becoming dean of the College of Fine Arts in 1972. He served the last decade of his career as professor of multidisciplinary studies until his death in 2001.
As she grieved, she began to make paintings for an exhibition to honor his life, which was held in 2004.
"My husband gave me a very, very rich life," Mrs. Midani says. "I came from a good family. I grew up with art all around me."
They were married for 53 years. There are 53 paintings in this exhibition, a coincidence Mrs. Midani hadn't realized until after the show was hung.
"Living by yourself in this country is very difficult," she says. But she is grateful to god, she says, for the gift of her work. While many women who have lost their husbands remain depressed for years, "It gives me a sense of living."
"After my husband passed away, I threw all the sadness behind my back. This is a happy stage in my life. He's not coming back again. I have to continue my life as an artist."
Mrs. Midani pauses, and looks around the room at the beauty that has welled from her heart and hands.
She was introduced to her husband, she says, when her older brother invited her to dinner to meet a friend of his. "I was very shy. I was 15, 16. I saw him first reflected in a mirror in another room, a very beautiful young man. He was wearing a blue shirt."
"Love" continues through Saturday at the gallery in CMU's Purnell Center for the Arts, 5000 Forbes Ave. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Admission is free. Information: 412-268-3618.
The newly launched website for the Warhol show that created a buzz over the weekend is www.warhol.org/exhibitions/2012/factorydirect/index.html. Find "Factory Direct: Pittsburgh" artist images and statements.
The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts is reviving the "Master Visual Artists: Preserving the Legacy" exhibition, initiated in 1991 and last held in 2005. The designation recognizes mature local artists (age 60 and above) who continue to produce excellent work and have had an influence on the area's visual arts. Nominations are being accepted until Aug. 15, from which 10 artists will be chosen for a 2013 show. For information, visit http://pittsburgharts.org or call 412-726-4229. Video interviews, recorded with each artist, will be archived at the Heinz History Center. The 50 artists so honored to date include Aaronel de Roy Gruber, Jerry Caplan, Clyde Hare, Jane Haskell, Henry Koerner, Thaddeus Mosley, Charles Pitcher, Robert Qualters, Harry Schwalb and Kathleen Zimbicki.
First Published June 27, 2012 12:00 am