Haleh Fotowat, Longing for Life

Haleh FotowatHaleh Fotowat: For Dad, 2016. Ink, gouache and pen on paper. 30W x 22 H inches

Haleh Fotowat: Longing for Life

RIA Artist Project Room, Ottawa. Aug. 27 – Sept. 3, 2016.

The world is its names plus their cancellations, what we call it and the undermining of our identifications by an ungraspable residue in objects.  -Tim Lilburn 

There is nothing unusual about the coincidences and synchronicities in the story of how Haleh Fotowat came to exhibit her paintings at RIA. I met her by happenstance, just before she was leaving Ottawa. Hélène Lefebvre, an Ottawa performance artist I know through RIA, had talked to her at dance class, and found out that she was a neuroscientist, born in Tehran, with an active interest in art, music and dance.  And she was looking for a place to show her paintings. The lab she worked in, at the University of Ottawa’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, had recently lost funding from the Canadian Institute of Health Research. This meant that Fotowat, reluctantly, had to look elsewhere for work.[i] She found a research position at Harvard University in Boston, where she will begin working in October 2016. Before her move, she had wanted to show her paintings.

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Haleh Fotowat, On the way, 2015. Watercolour, gouache, ink on paper.

If you were to draw lines between links that create the intricate paths of connections between people, connections that range from the deeply personal to the fleeting, you might get an image that is somewhat similar to the paintings of Fotowat. Human interactions are part of the entangled mesh of life on earth. Her mixed-media works on paper reflect, aesthetically, the dynamic intertwining of life forms, and articulate a renewed awareness of the indissoluble human presence in this mesh.

Fotowat’s entanglement of all things natural and cultural dissolves the distance between the investigator and the investigated that empirical science requires. And so, her work shows that there is more to life than science can name and explain.  Longing for Life resonates with other exhibitions shown at RIA in the 2015/2016 theme Growing up Human , that have questioned the belief in our species’ superiority and in the rationality and autonomy of the human subject.[ii]  In this framework, Fotowat provides an opportunity at RIA to reflect on the different approaches to the world that science and art call for.

Neuroscientists have made amazing advancements in knowledge of the human brain, but they also know, perhaps better than anyone else, how vast the brain’s unmapped landscape still is. Fotowat studies fish brains.  She carries out detailed investigations of minute parts of the intricate, interconnected mesh of life: the brains of tiny, weakly electric fish.  I imagine that this is a demanding task, which requires a great deal of patience, focus, precision and human brain power.  For Fotowat, making her art creates a respite from the close observation and rigorous analysis that her “day-job” as a scientist demands. Art allows for a different kind of agency, one that requires imagination more so than the quest for truth demanded by science.  As she writes in her artist statement: “Each painting is a journey to an unpredictable outcome, of shapes and creatures coming to life as I add paint to those drawings.”

Multi-talented people such as Fotowat are the living proof that both art and science come from a singular human longing towards the world, a sense of other-directedness. As a scientist, Fotowat submits to the necessity of reducing her scope to the fish tank. Science writer Philip Ball writes: “… most of biology, particularly at the molecular level, is hideously complicated. In distinction from complex this means that the details really do matter: leave out one part of the chain of events, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.”[iii]  As an artist, Fotowat leaves the complicated-ness of identification and explanation in her lab, and marvels, aesthetically, at the wondrous complexity of matter, which the Saskatchewan poet and essayist Tim Lilburn, quoted in the above  epigraph, describes as the “ungraspable residue” that remains in things, even after they have been named.[iv]

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 Haleh Fotowat, For Dad, 2016.  Watercolour, gouache, ink, on paper.  (detail)

Fotowat starts her paintings by “taking a line for a walk,” to quote Paul Klee, who seems a kin in spirit. Sometimes she even closes her eyes, letting her mind float and her hands move unthinkingly. To the intuitive lines that appear, she adds flowing water colours that create spontaneous patterns. Occasionally the configurations appear to bring her back to events in her past life. She adds a word: “shared,” to one work, a sentence to another: “he was never in that house.” The letters are barely noticeable, their lines absorbed by a mass of amorphous scribbles and shapes. The memories they point to remain private, unexplained. Mostly “Untitled,” the works are wide open for viewers to create their own associations and let their own thoughts come to the surface.

The titled works, at times, playfully attest to Fotowat’s deep involvement in biological science: in Colugos, for instance, the spread of water-colours only needed the addition of eyes to suggest a pair of colugos (often incorrectly referred to as flying lemurs)(v). In Imaginary Creature with a Protruding Sensory Appendage, water expands lines and points to form a monkey-like creature but even in these titled paintings the match between word and image remains open to personal observations and interpretations.

The title of one of the works, Longing for Life, which the artist chose as the title for the exhibition as well, is pensive, somewhat wistful. Where a love for life with its intricacies and its wonders, shines through in the colourful, rhythmic patterns of all the works, the paintings also reveal humbleness; through their scale and openness to meaning they express the sense of not-knowing that we experience as an integral part of life. To turn once more to the wise words of Lilburn: “You crane forward into the world in appetite and enter it in sorrow knowing that this good desire that casts you out of yourself is right and must not be lost but is necessarily and sharply frustrated.” (vi)

Both science and art are born of such “good desire” to know life, to know the world in all its otherness. Longing for Life gives shape to this deeply human craving, through the intuitive, highly personal means of art. Finding this expression in the artistic work of a scientist, reminds us of the necessity of both the empirical and the intuitive approaches to knowing this world, in which we all grow up human and want to feel at home.

Petra Halkes, September 2016


[i] See Elizabeth Payne: “Disbelief as an internationally renowned lab fails to get funding from CIHR.” The Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 19 2016.   http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/disbelief-as-an-internationally-renowned-lab-fails-to-get-funding-from-cihr

[ii] See Growing up Human for details about previous exhibitions in this project.


[iii] Philip Ball: Nature’s Patterns, A Tapestry in Three Parts. (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press 2009) p. 17-18

[iv]  Tim Lilburn, Living In The World As If It Were Home, (Dunvegan, ON: Cormorant Books1999)p. 5                    

[v] National Geographic Live! – It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane … It’s a Colugo?  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIgv8Qw–kk

[vi] Lilburn, p. 5

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Haleh Fotowat, Imaginary creature with a protruding sensory appendage. 2015. Watercolour, gouache, ink, pen on paper.  13 x 17 inches, 2015

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Haleh Fotowat, Mango. 2016 . Watercolour, ink, salt on paper. 13″ x 17″

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Haleh Fotowat, Untitled. 2015. Watercolour, gouache, ink, pen on paper
17″ x 13″

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Haleh Fotowat, Colugos,  2015.Watercolour, gouache, ink, pen on paper.
30″ x 22″

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Haleh Fotowat, Untitled, 2015 Watercolour, gouache, ink, pen on paper. 30″ x 22″

Artist Statement: I am passionate about observing life from scientific and artistic points of view. I find life compassionate and cruel, beautiful and frightful, filled with common motifs and fascinating exceptions. Exploring life from these two perspectives, I hope to come closer, ever so slightly, to understanding its ways and meaning. 

I am fascinated by patterns that emerge randomly in nature. For example patterns that dust particles form on surfaces or the way paint flows on paper in the wind. As a neuroscientist I am particularly intrigued by what one can one see in seemingly random patterns of shapes and colors and spontaneous motor actions. The current series of paintings have all started with spontaneous and involuntary drawings of patterns with pen on paper. Each painting is a journey to an unpredictable outcome, of shapes and creatures coming to life as I add paint to those drawings. 

Haleh Fotowat  was born in Tehran, Iran. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering in Tehran before moving the United States to pursue her Master and Doctoral degrees in Neuroscience. Fotowat moved to Canada  in 2010 where she worked at McGill University’s biology department till 2014 when she was appointed  research associate at the University of Ottawa’s Brain and Mind Research Institute.  As research funds for this lab were withdrawn by the Canadian government recently, Fotowat will move to Boston in September, to work at Harvard University.

Art has always been an integral part of Fotowat’s life.  She played a musical instrument, called the Kanun, for the past 25 years.  Her training in art began in Tehran where she took courses in drawing and acrylic painting. More recently, she studied painting at the Ottawa School of Art.  Fotowat works in acrylic, oil, water-color and gouache. http://www.halehfotowat.com