Meena Khalili begins her explanation of why she became a visual artist:
“I blame Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
An artist and designer, she now understands the feats of engineering and creativity that went into putting together the kids’ TV series known for its bright colors, goofy characters and cool animation. But watching as a child, perhaps as young as 3, she remembers being intrigued and thrilled by the show, especially the short cartoons.
“There was entertainment. But it was kind of like a cross between real life – because it was shot in a kitchen – and stop motion animation and drawing. And it just blew me away. This was, I think, the beginning of my visual curiosity for aesthetics, entertainment and storytelling.
This path of visual storytelling would take her from her family’s home near Washington, DC, to where she is now, an artist and associate professor who teaches design and interaction at the School of Visual Art and Design by the University of South Carolina. She has won the National Award for Outstanding Professional Achievement in Graphic Design by the Southeastern College Art Conference and her pieces have been exhibited in museums and galleries across the country and abroad. She was recently featured in The Great Discontent, an international online and print publication committed to sharing the untold stories of artists and risk takers. Interviews with Khalili and another artist were translated into Farsi in the print edition of the magazine.
The language has a special connection with Khalili. Her work is influenced by the fact that she grew up as an Iranian-American; his father left Iran in 1970 and immigrated to the United States. Khalili remembers absorbing the spoken word in his youth, learning the English language, syntax and intonation, while listening to his father speak Farsi on the phone. At the same time, she began piano lessons at the age of 4, beginning to read music and translate it into sound.
“So at this point in my life, what I can reflect on and take away from that is that there are myriad systems working in tandem and the rules for those systems have been established, but we can always question. And that led me to a place in design, especially in design education, which I’m passionate about,” she says. “I started with this curiosity and I kept it.”
In the studio and in the classroom
She has “continued” with work that stimulates this curiosity through multiple mediums. Print design, animation, pen-and-ink illustration, motion graphics, and augmented reality — it’s all in his toolbox. It’s part of what she calls “unsiloed visual communication” where she uses many technologies and devices to create art.
It’s all on display in his light-filled studio in Columbia’s Cottontown neighborhood, where digital screens share space with fine art prints, and augmented reality coexists with stacks of moleskin notebooks filled with his instant sketches.
In the classroom, she teaches students how they prepare for careers in design while helping them understand their responsibility to create not just beautiful pieces, but designs that work well for people. It’s a field that’s rapidly growing in popularity, with the number of applications for the UofSC’s design program tripling this year, she says.
Khalili and his colleagues in the Graphic Design and Illustration concentration recently secured a grant from the McCausland Innovation Fund to start The Design Studio, a student-run design studio and incubator. The studio will pair top emerging student designers with faculty and a multidisciplinary community advisory board. It will provide experiential learning opportunities and train students who are both creative and business thinkers by connecting them with organizations in need of design services.
She is a firm believer in the importance of mentorship – with a list of those who have inspired her career and creativity – and she strives to pass this on to students and colleagues at the university. And she remains a champion of the importance of design education, recently concluding four years of service and leadership of the national AIGA design educator community.
Much of his work has to do with the dissolution of cultural heritage, telling the story of what “cultural weaning” looks like. “That’s probably the most important work that I personally do, telling these stories, showing what this dissolution looks like, what this change looks like. I call it entropic design. It appeals to this second law of thermodynamics to consider a system that is disturbed before it completely dissolves.
An example of this work and his use of technology to create art is evident in his work entitled “My Grandfather and the Ravine”.
It all started with a landline call to his father, Khalili asking him to tell him a story about his life in Iran. Khalili’s father described his father’s ritual of walking each day on a path he built over a ravine that ran through his land, then walking up the stone steps each morning to start his day.
She took the words and ran them over a phone line 15 times, recording them each time. The number of times the recording was copied changed her father’s clear voice to one that eventually faded into static and pops.
“It happens where you just can’t understand it, you can’t hear it all. It’s an audible translation of a sense of loss,” she says.
Then she printed her father’s words on a cloth and used the cloth to imitate a chador, the Persian blanket women wear around their heads and upper bodies. She put it on and wore it in the rain 15 times causing the fabric to fade and run ink.
“My goal with this work is to express what that sense of cultural heritage weaned from you might look like. I’m a visual designer. So how do we visualize that?” she says. “It’s an exploration of the loss.”
life as she sees it
Narration remains at the heart of all his projects. For example, the pen-and-ink sketches on expandable accordion pages in his notebooks are the basis of his popular practice known as “The Drawn Daily”. The stories present a glimpse of life where she lives it. Columbia’s notebooks are filled with buildings on campus, businesses in her neighborhood, or coffees and drinks at a favorite spot. She posts the drawings on Instagram and also puts prints up for sale.
These designs are not copied from photographs; instead, she quickly sketches what she sees in the moment. They are a nod to his upbringing, while also reflecting the importance of a sense of place.
During the height of COVID-19, this love of restaurants and the people who run them translated into the sale of prints from War Mouth, a restaurant in her neighborhood. She donated proceeds from sales to the restaurant to help her through the difficult days of the pandemic.
“My father had restaurants. He was a small business owner,” she says. “So I have a real love of small business.”