Shahnaz (Shah) is the youngest child of immigrant parents, who left Iran to escape the woes of the 1979 revolution. Born in Toronto, Canada, she later moved to Atlanta, Georgia, at the age of seven, where her family settled and established new roots. Shah’s first memories are of doodling and drawing in her spare time. Her mother noticed this preference for creative expression, and she paved the way for her first real instruction in the arts. She visited Tehran, Iran, at the age of ten, for the first time to meet relatives and learn about her family’s past. Until that moment, Shah’s family’s history was completely alien to her. During that summer, her mother orchestrated the opportunity for her to take private lessons under the late-renowned painter, Abbas Katouzian, a protégé of Kamal-ol-molk (the court painter to several of the Shahs of Iran). Fortunately, Shah was well versed in spoken Farsi. It was the language of her household, so she could easily communicate with Katouzian during her lessons. He taught her oil painting techniques based on still-life subjects and portraits. Katouzian openly critiqued Shah’s every brushstroke in a direct way, which conditioned her to accept straight-forward and honest styles of criticism at a young age. Shah’s fascination centered on the richness of oil paint and she found the process of painting to be meditative. This summer experience in Iran served as a diving board into her artistic development over the next decade of her life as she continued to sharpen her technical skill. 

Shah developed an unrelenting ambition to create artwork, and she received various forms of recognition at state-level competitions through her years in school. During her junior year of high school, she was nominated and accepted as a finalist to attend a summer residency at Valdosta State University through the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program in the category of Visual Art. She was mentored by the artist, Harry Ally, who was highly influential in her decision to study art in college. Shah began her studies at Georgia State University in 2008, in the wake of a devastating economic recession. She cautiously chose to pursue a degree in studio art while taking biology and chemistry courses on the side as a backup plan. As time went on, Shah watched the economic turmoil of the recession unravel around her, and there was a great deal of uncertainty regarding what a career in art would look like given the challenges in the years ahead. Consequentially, she switched her major from Studio Art to Biology/Chemistry in order to pursue a more stable career, which was a stark contrast to what her life’s trajectory had been up to that point. It was a bittersweet moment when one of her art professors graciously agreed to write her a letter of recommendation to dental school, considering that was the final class that Shah would ever take as an art student. From that period onward, she focused all of her time and energy into obtaining her doctorate in dentistry, which she received in 2016, and then immediately began practicing dentistry full-time. 

In the years that followed, Shah slowly gravitated back to her passion for art and she started to experiment with various media, including tapestry-weaving, pottery, acrylic, and oil painting. In 2019, she submitted one of her works (a hand-woven tapestry) in an open call for a juried art exhibition at a local gallery and unexpectedly won the “Best In Show” award, which was symbolic of her reentry into the arts after a long hiatus. This recognition encouraged Shah to persist, and, more importantly, to forever seek the joy that comes with experimenting and creating her own body of work. Her philosophy is to use art as a mode to explore and depict the visual and conceptual elements that reflect the human experience as seen through her lens.

Letter from the Artist:

My current body of work revolves around portraiture. I chose this theme because it resonates with my never-ending and deeply rooted fascination with people, particularly the human face, and the endless nuances that surround, and make up, a person’s essence.  Every face carries a story — their story. A person’s inner essence, while certainly present in their appearance, runs much deeper than what appears on the surface. It is akin to a vibrational frequency that radiates from each person, like an aura of energy that can be felt better than it can be described. People are ultimately a byproduct of their upbringing and environment, and this can be just as much of a good thing as it can be terrible. My work is about singling out the individual, and fixating on the concept that defines or engrosses them in that moment of time. It's about highlighting the obvious beauty that every person possesses but also allowing that to become the gateway to shining a light on what may be a less than palatable truth.