Kimia Ferdowsi Kline, "Burning House" (2020), 16 x 17 inches, ink and thread on papyrus (all images courtesy Marrow Gallery and the artist)

SAN FRANCISCO — In Kimia Ferdowsi Kline’s show, Mother Tongue, at San Francisco’s Marrow Gallery, the colorful pieces like “Flight, Fight, Freeze, Fawn” (2020), “Burning House” (2020), and “Blood Line” (2021) incorporate pearls, beads, thread, and glitter, and are a response to her recent experiences with motherhood and living with her family.  

Kline made the work during the past year, when she left New York and moved in with her parents in Nashville. Kline, who is Iranian, said she experienced racism growing up in Nashville and had never wanted to live there again, but she has a toddler and needed help with childcare. She says being there made her work more personal.

“Moving back into my parents’ house brought a flood of memories and triggers and unresolved issues,” Kline said. “Because of COVID there was nowhere to go, and it was something I had to sit with and process and face, so all of that I put into the work. Carrie Fisher has this great line where she says, ‘Life will break your heart — put it in your art,’ and that’s what I always try to do.”

All the pieces in Mother Tongue are on papyrus, which Kline finds flexible to work with and evocative. A jewelry maker in college, she found her old jewelry box back home with a string of pearls inside, which she decided to sew into her paintings. Kline also previously worked as a bookbinder and made sculptures out of discarded wood, but she thought of her oil painting as her “real art.” Now, she sees this latest work as the coming together of all her practices.

Before, Kline’s paintings focused on looking out — how women’s bodies are portrayed in media, as well as on Iran’ s landscape. That changed when she was pregnant.

“You turn inward because you’re focused on this new life that’s housed inside of you. It’s also a work of art, like my body was building a spine, my body was building eyes and feet,” she said. “The other part was that it was so uncomfortable. […] I was forced to reckon with being stuck in a body in a way I never had been before. I would describe it as physical torture, I really would. That experience is what gave me an outlet to do work about what I was going through. And then it’s magical too! Your vagina is a portal that a human being comes through — are you kidding me?”

Kimia Ferdowsi Kline, “Flight, Fight, Freeze, Fawn” (2020), 19 x 17 inches, ink, oil pastel, and thread on papyrus

In the works in Mother Tongue, there’s a sense of the messiness of human relationships and how hard it is to be close. In the title piece, the central figure rests her chin in her hands and her feet fold back in towards her body, while many faces, some anointed with glitter and beads, circle her. In “Flight, Fight, Freeze, Fawn” — four responses to trauma — four heads are stitched together, while they all look out away from the others. The papyrus material of the works makes you think of the ageless difficulties of being part of a family.

Klines’s first language is Farsi, which she’s teaching her daughter. That’s partly where the title of the show, Mother Tongue, comes from — the language we learn from our mothers. But it means something else to her.

“I was thinking about how a mother’s tongue has the potential to be a weapon,” she said. “I think we all have memories of something our mother said, maybe off handedly, that has stayed with us our entire lives, and we’ve built an entire neurosis around.”

Kimia Ferdowsi Kline, “Clear Knowing” (2021), 19 x 14 inches, freshwater pearls, glass beads, glitter, ink, acrylic, thread, and oil pastel on papyrus
Kimia Ferdowsi Kline, “Mother Tongue” (2021), 49 x 49 inches, ink, acrylic, freshwater pearls, glass beads, lava fire glass, glitter, abalone and thread on papyrus
Kimia Ferdowsi Kline, “Twin Flame” (2020), 43 x 43 inches, ink, oil pastel, and thread on papyrus

Kimia Ferdowsi Kline: Mother Tongue continues at Marrow Gallery (548 Irving Street, San Francisco) through June 26.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...