Feeling the need for a design escape more than ever? Us too. For that reason, as our dev team works on the new PRINT website behind the scenes, we’ve decided to start releasing some of our brand-new columns and recurring features early. First up: Women Who Draw, a new monthly piece by Erin Couch!
Atieh Sohrabi illustrates the small pockets of life she sees around her in Brooklyn: cats. Trees. Flowers.
Women. But her observations of the city’s idiosyncrasies don’t come from a lifetime as a native New Yorker; they come from Tehran. In 2015, Sohrabi moved to the U.S. with her daughter and husband, and her illustrations have since largely consisted of vividly colored figures based on the people she sees on the streets, with direct connections to her Persian heritage. Interspersed throughout her body of work are quirky animations of her subjects, bringing to life features like snowfall, blossoms tumbling through the breeze or a bird giving someone a peck on the neck.
An industrial design graduate of the Azad University of Art and Architecture in Tehran, today she works for a variety of clients, including Pardis for Children in New York City, which hosts classes about the Persian culture and language. Her work has also appeared in a number of Persian children’s books and magazines, was featured in the Society of Illustrators Annual Exhibition and Illustrators 59, and landed her on Women Who Draw, an open directory of over 2,700 professional artists that aims to increase the visibility of illustrators who are women, women of color and LBTQ+. This space will feature an illustrator every month from the site—and here Sohrabi kicks off the series by discussing her work, her heritage and what it’s like to be a female illustrator in an industry dominated by men.
Tell us a bit about your childhood in Iran.My father was a professor of a university, and at the same time he had a small studio at home, and he created many things—many industrial things. My mother was working with many fabrics and made handcrafted patchworks. That is very traditional in our culture. So, the whole atmosphere that I grew up in was very creative.
Was it before or after you came to the U.S. that you decided to become an illustrator?After high school, I decided to study art, and then applied for art university. I was accepted in industrial design, but working with my husband [who is an illustrator and painter] encouraged me to work as an illustrator. And as I did that, I got many projects in this field. When we came to the U.S., it was a really hard time. Like many artists around the world, it was my dream to come to New York. I didn’t have any connections, so I just began working on some personal projects. … I found the Society of Illustrators here and showed my latest project to them to get some feedback. They ended up accepting it for their exhibition and also published it in their book.
How do you see the world in regard to your illustrations? How does it inspire you?It’s different things. For me, it was a big challenge when I came here. Because when you come from another country to a new—absolutely new—atmosphere, you should search for something to make you connect with it. Everything is new for you, and nobody knows you. It just made me focus more on myself and find some connections within me and my traditional cultural history in Iran. And here, my new life, and new experiences, and finding more people that are from different cultures—all of them mixing together makes me create something in the middle.
You draw a lot of female figures in particular.I have some passions about fashion design and making patterns. But all of my illustrations are about patterns on women, like a model, to make them very unique, and their form. After a while, I feel that there is me, as a woman, [having] something to show and tell about myself that is real. And living here, in my experience, just makes me face the many real women living around me, and they are amazing. It makes me feel like, OK, if you want to create some real images from real people who live here, around you, what do you do? I began to work. It was really making me very excited and encouraged me to work more and more, because I get many great ideas and support from the other women around me, and absolutely the Women Who Draw.
You mentioned you use a lot of patterns. How do you regard color and pattern?I think I’m affected by my Persian art. We have a lot of ornamental shapes that are mixed in our visual culture—in carpets, or paintings, or even in our architectural materials. [I also use] specific colors in my illustrations that are absolutely connected to my culture.
Do you have a dream client or project you’d like to work on someday?Of course. Like many artists, yeah. I have different things that I want to do. I’d love to work with The New Yorker or The New York Times. The other passion that I have is working on my personal projects … [such as my] paintings.
I wanted to ask you more about Women Who Draw, and their mission.Like in my country and the other countries, I think it’s obvious that women are in the minority. [Especially at major legacy media outlets.] The opportunities are more available to men. When I found this platform—actually, [co-founder] Julia Rothman introduced me to it—I found it really fantastic because you can find more people, and especially transgender people, in different cultures. It’s a really amazing place for [women] who want to have more opportunities. I get a lot of support from them, and I also want to support this community.
Absolutely. What advice would you give your fellow female illustrators?Based on my experience, the most important thing is to have rituals, [like] being active on social media. I came here, and I didn’t know anybody. I just made myself have a daily schedule with some personal projects. And the other thing—it may sound funny—is having plants. I think because you should do some ritual things for them also. These are really the things that help me continue on.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.