“I believe taking the time to pause and celebrate successes is a crucial practice, and one that I still often force myself to do. Acknowledging accomplishments reassures me that I am capable and that achieving my goals is possible and within reach.” These are the words of the artist Lili Yas Tayefi, which set the stage for the intimate conversation that unfolds in the following.
Through the lens of Canadian film photographer Jo Concetta, we step into a picturesque landscape where art, nature, and raw human emotion intertwine. The chosen location, a natural rock formation south of the city, brings us closer to the elemental textures of the earth that deeply influence Tayefi’s work. Jo shares with us: “For this photo series, we drove south of the city to a natural rock formation to be with these textures of the Earth. I wanted to lean into simplicity — a simple story of walking barefoot on the rocks, the breeze blowing, sipping lemon water, and the glow of the sun on her skin.”
In this interview, we explore Tayefi’s artistic journey, the influence of her Iranian roots, and her embrace of sustainable materials. We are offered a glimpse into the dichotomies she navigates, as an artist expressing while achieving precision, and as a diasporic Iranian woman forming her unique identity. “I grew up to understand that I have to decide my own worth, values and principles in order to be the best version of myself, according to my definition of ‘best.’”
Lili, can you tell us more about your philosophy that “the sculpture builds itself” and how this approach shapes your work?
Sometimes I have a clear idea of how a sculpture will turn out, drawing from my meditation practice where inspirations manifest as clear visual downloads that I sketch and bring to life. Other times, I use the tactile building process as a meditative practice in itself. Working with clay is a delicate dance that relies on various factors. The clay’s condition, the way it has been kneaded or its history, especially if it’s reused, affects its behavior. Clay possesses a kind of muscle memory, and it tends to form into the curvatures it once knew. The environment also plays a significant role, whether it’s arid or humid.
I often find myself working outdoors, exposed to the sun, wind, and collecting water from a nearby river with all its sediments, all of which become elements or ingredients that influence my work. Without a destination in mind, I sit and allow the sculpture to form as it wants to. I start by forming a basic shape as a foundation. As I add layers, the piece may twist, turn, or bulge, taking on a life of its own. I consciously try to minimize my thinking and instead let my hands attune to the clay’s cues. Through this practice, I can process my emotions, quiet my mind’s narration, and surrender control to the tactile nature of sculpting.
You’ve talked about a ‘feel-first’ approach to your work. Can you tell us about this process?
Clay usually responds to how I am feeling. When I first learned how to work on the wheel, it was a great test of patience – the more I failed, the more I’d become irritated, and the more irritated I felt, the less likely it was to breathe through sculpting an object. I find I have to check in with how I am feeling first, and then allow the work to begin – knowing that if I’m feeling frustrated, the object will reflect that.
The process is a balance between the sculpture guiding itself and my intuitive feedback. For instance, if one side leans outward, creating a cantilevered curvature, I imagine it as a cue to create a counterweight for balance. The harmony lies in the collaboration between the sculpture and myself, and is what I imagine to be a feel-first approach. It’s an intricate dance where the clay’s essence blends with my inner guidance or subconscious understanding. Through this interplay, the sculpture gradually takes form, unveiling its distinct character and inviting me to explore my creativity.
“The most important thing in life? Freedom.”
How do you incorporate your understanding and appreciation of biodegradable materials into your work?
The most valuable lesson I learned from my Material Science specialization is that examining each ingredient of a product at its molecular structure will often reveal a natural alternative. For example, in our 2016 biodegradable plastic research, we discovered that cellulose, found abundantly in fallen oranges on the streets of Barcelona, acts as a natural fire-resistant agent. This insight led us to develop a 3D printable bioplastic recipe using additives like dehydrated orange peel and spent coffee grounds for water resistance.
When looking to the future and embracing emerging technologies like 3D printing and robotics, I think it’s crucial to incorporate the wisdom of traditional craft and materials, such as clay, which have shaped societies for millennia. I love working with clay because it’s a material that is incredibly versatile, creates virtually zero waste, is infinitely reusable until fired, and once fired it has the strength to last thousands of years. When working with leathers, resins, cretes, or paints, I often find myself on internet deep dives to explore alternatives like kombucha, hempcrete, and natural dyes. Whenever possible I try to produce less waste, for example shipping my products in biodegradable or compostable packaging materials.
Your works carry a unique balance of artistic expression and technical precision. How do you navigate this balance?
I think I’m still working to harness this balance – it’s an ongoing journey of growth and discovery. The transition from fine art to advanced architecture in my formal education is what helped me become more intentional.
I feel my artistic expression shapes the vision of a project, while the technical precision from practicing the craft carves the journey and brings it to life. Finding harmony between the two is a constant practice of knowing when to tap into intuition, and when to engage in intentional and resourceful design processes. I’m still learning to let go of control in creative projects and collaborations, trusting they will manifest while relying on my technical skills when necessary.
“I strongly believe that every person is born an artist, and we each embrace our path differently.”
Can you elaborate on the ways in which your art contributes to conversations about important social issues, such as the women’s revolution in Iran?
I hope to use my platform and creative energy to engage in the ongoing dialogue about Iran, including, and not exclusive to, the current uprising. Having left Iran at a young age and witnessed my parents’ sacrifices to prioritize a future of freedom for my brother and I, I am acutely aware of my privilege of my voice and mobility. As I share my art, people in Iran continue to sacrifice their lives, minds, bodies and spirits to very literally fight for a free Iran. I have, from an early age, felt it a duty to speak honestly and use my voice. This was felt through guilt when I was younger, and I find as I become more grounded in myself and my craft, I am able to articulate my diasporic perspective from an honest place.
After the protests broke out in Iran last fall, I was invited to exhibit a number of works alongside nine artists at a film screening of a local mural by artist Alex Kwong at Contemporary Calgary Gallery. I took this opportunity to curate a set of pieces with the theme of ‘womxn life freedom.’ On one of the vessels with ‘woman’ written on it in Farsi, I painted a QR code. This code led to a website I created to share information about the protests and the arrests that were heavily censored from Iran, and deprioritized by mainstream media channels, while celebrating music and other artwork that had sprung from the revolution.
I am currently working on an exhibition piece that explores my memories of visiting Iran as a youth and my immigrant lens in the West. It is based upon my experiences witnessing seemingly arbitrary, oppressive societal rules from my diasporic perspective, juxtaposed by my longing for the sounds, tastes, smells, familial customs, traditions and cultural beauty of my home country.
And in what ways does your identity as an Iranian woman shape you as a person?
I recently read a quote in the New York Times from therapist Orna Guralnik: “My patients, regardless of political affiliation, are incorporating the messages of social movements into the very structure of their being.” She said that discussing privilege and racism has inspired breakthroughs.
My art is an extension of who I am and what I value. The fight for justice exists in the fabric of my being and influences every conversation I have. When my family moved from Tehran to Calgary, I was five years old. I vividly remember being paired with another Iranian girl in grade one who became my best friend. She acted as a translator for me, sometimes speaking on my behalf. I could understand others, but felt I could not effectively communicate in response.
I endured more than a half year this way, absorbing everything that was new, thankfully managing to make a few friendly acquaintances. Suddenly in the spring, I began to speak perfect English with no accent. I remember my teacher looking at me with surprise. I believe this experience birthed the sense of perfectionism I often catch in myself when creating my work.
I grew up to understand that I have to decide my own worth, values and principles in order to be the best version of myself, according to my definition of ‘best.’. I learned to be honest, and grateful for the privilege to be transparent, and to demand my voice be heard in many spaces.
My experience and identity as an Iranian woman has inevitably shaped who I am, the decisions I make, the values I hold, and the conversations I have.
“When doubt arises, I refer back to my visions and moments of inspiration, reacquainting with why I chose this artistic path.”
Can you share some practices you use to navigate moments of self-doubt as an artist?
I still struggle with this on a daily basis, although I’ve discovered that my relationships are what I lean most on when I sense doubt. I’ve recognized the importance of surrounding myself with a supportive network, including fellow creatives who understand the inevitable doubts that arise in this journey. These connections serve as a lifeline during challenging days, both because they offer a sense of common ground that reminds me I’m not alone, and because they help me reconnect to the purpose and passion that drove me to begin. It’s powerful when they reflect back the inspiration I’d shared with them at some point, just a seed at the time, and remind me how far I’ve come.
Individually, I think it’s important to maintain something like a consistent journaling practice. This helps me stay accountable to my goals, and acts as encouragement and an emotional outlet. When doubt arises, I refer back to my visions and moments of inspiration, reacquainting with why I chose this artistic path.
I believe taking the time to pause and celebrate successes is a crucial practice, and one that I still often force myself to do. Acknowledging accomplishments reassures me that I am capable and that achieving my goals is possible and within reach. And finally, I embrace the notion of failing forward. It’s a concept I try to instill in my students as they encounter the inevitable failures of working with clay and gravity for the first time. If I fail, I have to remind myself that it is an opportunity for growth. This learning is what allows me to improve and strive for greater success in the future. You hear so often that life is too short, and therefore the only thing you may regret one day is not trying at all.
What do you perceive to be the role of artists in society, especially during times of change and revolution?
I find that artists tend to possess a deep sense of empathy, sometimes to their own detriment. This quality often propels artists to take a leading role in protests and create art that tackles important subjects,making them relatable and thought-provoking.
I realize this may not resonate with every artist, and I’m not entirely convinced that this should be the responsibility of an artist. It is an important role, yet a heavy emotional undertaking for any person.
In my view, art can simply serve as a means of expression. If an artist can express their inner vision, undoubtedly, other people will find resonance and connection in one’s art, and that potential to inspire is powerful
I strongly believe that every person is born an artist, and we each embrace our path differently.
“The fight for justice exists in the fabric of my being and influences every conversation I have.”
In what ways do the principles of sustainable living manifest in your personal life?
It’s a core principle that resonates deeply with me. I believe that every choice we make has an impact, not only on the environment but also on our own well-being and the communities we are part of. Ultimately, I think sustainability extends to my relationships, community, personal well-being and self-care rituals – how they align with my values and support the collective environment. I’m extremely dedicated to my friendships and connections because I genuinely believe that humans are social creatures and we need each other to thrive. It’s through these bonds that we create a sense of community and support, which is essential for our overall well-being.
Another way I practice sustainability is through conscious consumption. I love to eat out often and try new restaurants, cocktails, coffees and shops. With that, I make an effort to be intentional about where I eat, where I buy my coffee, and where I shop. This means being in alignment with the businesses I choose, like how they source their beans, slow food restaurants and slow lifestyle brands. Supporting small local businesses, particularly those I know and trust, is a priority for me. It not only fosters local economic growth but also promotes a more sustainable and interconnected community.
I also try my best to be mindful of the online spaces I engage with, although this is the most difficult point. I prioritize my mental and emotional health by seeking out positive experiences that are aligned with what I am looking to achieve.
The most important thing in life?