Working for the World: A Conversation with Meena Khalili

by | Jul 16, 2009 | ART

I first encountered Meena Khalili’s art last winter, in an experiment done with what she called “entropic typography” – she would create designs and typography from found objects in her trash, and then document their disintegration and decomposition in the wind and weather. I had never before encountered the work a graphic designer who seemed less interested in what was being said than in HOW it was said.

I first encountered Meena Khalili’s art last winter, in an experiment done with what she called “entropic typography” – she would create designs and typography from found objects in her trash, and then document their disintegration and decomposition in the wind and weather. I had never before encountered the work a graphic designer who seemed less interested in what was being said than in HOW it was said. It seemed almost counterproductive that a designer, someone whose livelihood depends on communicating a message to people, would deconstruct that message and delve headfirst into the semiotics of the written word and question the entirety of visual communication. In my interview with her, I was struck by how she manages to both further the business of graphic design and seek out some kind of artistic truth in her illustrations.
Matt Ference: Tell us about your background and how you ended up doing illustration.
Meena Khalili: Well, it seemed a natural progression from the doodles I was doing in my high school notebooks. I graduated high school in ’99 and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I applied for VCU without any major intended, and realized, “Oh my God, what am I doing? I have one of the best art schools here at my fingertips,” and I applied for AFO, and then I got in, and then I applied for CA, and then I got in, and then — illustration was it for me, you know? My life was — it was obviously the right progression, the right track for me.
Do you feel more comfortable doing, for lack of a better phrase, art for a purpose rather than art for its own sake?
Oh, totally. I know there are people out there doing it, and I guess it has its place, but personally, for me, it’s not the way I roll. Anything that I’m doing, whether it’s art or music, whatever it is, the purpose behind it – THAT’S what keeps me going.
There is this stigma associated with doing commercial art, as opposed to…
As opposed to starving art?
To be completely honest, you’ve got… Listen, I’ve already been through the starving artist thing, and I did it for three years, trying to make it work, and realized that at some point I needed to get a job. (Laughs) Case in point: a friend of mine, Kelly Redling, works over at Play on 18th and Cary. When she and I started out, we weren’t making any money. We finally decided to go ahead and get design jobs. We did that, but we were missing that creative spark, that excitement in our lives, saying that what we were doing wasn’t for The Man, but for The World. So we started up this design blog and grouping called White Rabbit. We called it “just another excuse for good design.” These places, like certain public schools in the area, small businesses, people who didn’t have a logo, who didn’t have money, needed to promote themselves — we worked for them for free, as long as we could put the art in our portfolio. So, that’s where I think we melded the starving artist and the commercial artist. We had the money, but we needed to find something that made us feel good – so that’s where White Rabbit came from. That’s since defunct, and we’re doing our own things now.
So what are you doing now in terms of design? Are you freelancing?
I am freelancing, yeah. I’m pretty much on call whenever anyone needs me. I just finished up a job for Play downtown. I’m freelancing, and also working on my MFA at VCU.

Is that where your professional aspirations lie? To be a graphic designer?
To teach and to practice, yes. That’s my goal; I have a strong desire to teach, which is fueling that starving artist drive in me, and to practice, which fuels that commercial need. There’s a line I try to walk as an artist, not to call it “selling out,” but to have my feet firmly in both worlds.

Do you want to keep doing that in Richmond?

Oh, I would love to! I’ve been here for ten years, and I really want to stay. As long as there is someone in Richmond who wants me to teach them, I will be here.

Let’s talk about your art. One of the things that struck me was that you work in radically different media, but you still have this cohesive style throughout your work. Do you have a medium or media that you prefer working in?

I really love working in monoprint. I would say that my biggest inspiration in monoprint would be Gary Kelly; if you go into any Barnes and Noble, the mural that you see on the wall, that’s his work. I studied under him at the Illustration Academy, which was at that time held at VCU, and I think it’s now in Sarasota, Florida. Monoprinting is such an interesting medium, because it’s so unforgiving. I have a place in my heart for any medium that makes me say, “All right, you push me, I’m gonna show that you push me.”

Tell me about monoprinting, actually. It’s not a medium I’m very familiar with.

I’ll tell you how I do it; there may be different ways. I take oil-based printing ink, I put that on a brayer, and I brayer that onto plexiglass. You can draw an image onto that plexiglass, on that oil-based ink using your finger, using a rag, a dry paintbrush, anything. After that image is put onto that plexiglass, you flip it over and you burnish it onto cotton-rag paper. You pry it apart, let it dry, and that’s it. You can make ghostprints from that, and again, that’s another thing that I love about this medium – it reacts to how to you treat it. There is no faking – you can’t bullshit your way out of it. It takes a lot of skill to pull it off. Another thing I’ve done in this show is a series of polymer prints. I take photo polymer plates that are sensitive to UV light, I expose an image that is reversed out on them, I then wash the plates, and all of the polymer comes off that is not hardened by the UV light. You put that through a letterpress, crank it out onto a cotton-rag sheet, just like the monoprints, and there you are.

That sounds incredibly complicated.

Well, it really, really isn’t, and I think the reason I’ve been drawn to these two media is because of their unforgiving nature. The oil ink, too, is unforgiving – you smear it, and it stays. There’s something interesting that I find about working with it – you can’t cheat your way out of it.


The first thing that struck me about your work, both from your portfolio on your website and in the work for this show, is that you have some of the harshest line work I’ve ever seen – just hard-edged vertical lines everywhere, regardless of the medium, almost like a woodcut. Knowing that you’re also a designer, my natural assumption is that — that might have something to do with your dealing with typefaces and fonts and words and letters.

It might be the opposite, actually. Since my base is in illustration, I think I might be drawn to design, actually, because my artwork is so heavily linear.
If you’re an American artist, it’s pretty difficult to break out of the American scene. Looking at your bio, you’ve studied in Florence, and your father is Persian. Have you absorbed things from Italian or Persian art? Do your experiences with those cultures color your work at all?

I think so, yeah. As far as the Italian influence, being there taught me that — this is going to sound really cheesy — that there is art all around you. I mean, you’re walking down the streets there, and you’re seeing frescoes everywhere, you have the Duomo, the Uffizi right there, and there are all of these wonderful statues, and you start to appreciate little things when you’re over there. The way cobblestones line up, those types of things. And then I remember coming back to America and feeling so shocked by the lack of — well, the lack of frescoes. (Laughs) But what I found myself doing was finding that same type of energy, that same artistic energy, randomly here in Richmond. You’ve got the beautiful architecture downtown, like the train station, and things like that. My experience in Florence taught me that there is really art everywhere, even in the less arty-seeming places, and you can draw inspiration from anywhere in your environment.

The Persian side of it taught me to really appreciate negative space. A lot of the Persian designs you see that is in Iran, the artwork is filled – every last little place! – with some sort of ornament in it, on a page or a piece. I mean, those mosaics, it’s like Tetris! They fill every possible inch with these incredibly busy and incredibly beautiful flourishes. And looking at that artwork growing up taught me to really appreciate how well done that is, and it also helped me grow to love negative space.

What has been your experience with technology in your work? In the last ten years, five years especially, there has been such a huge shift in how art is created and distributed.

It’s important for the artists that are coming out of school now to really be Jacks or Jills of all trades. I think as far as social networking and websites, there is no better medium to get your name out there. I had a website six months before I graduated with my BFA. Aside from that, the way that we actually use technology in creating the artwork – I had to buy a Wacom tablet. These are just things you’ve got to do, to start picking up these new media and using them. There’s no time for hate. You have people out there who are saying, “Tradition, tradition, tradition,” who don’t use the new medium, but they’re directly competing with people who are utilizing both the synergy that comes from the new stuff and the knowledge and experience that comes from the old stuff. One of my mentors moved from working with scratch board to doing everything digitally now, with a Wacom. He brought that harsh line-work from his scratch board art to working directly on a computer. It’s important that the artist harness that synergy and use it to help them with their career.

How has that changed the way you deal with your professional career? Has there been a leveling of the playing field that you’ve had to adjust to?

Well, personally that’s something I’ve never dealt with, but I’ve heard many older colleagues telling me about it, people who have been in the illustration field for much longer than I have. The globalization that the Internet brought with it – somebody who is doing design out of NYC or is illustrating in NYC and being there, in the middle of the industry, was getting good-paying jobs that way, talking directly with the art directors, was on exactly the same level as someone working out of Tulsa, OK, who could do it from their computer, and just fax in, or scan and send PDFs to the art directors, at maybe a lower rate, or maybe a different type of style. I haven’t had to deal with that shift, since I’ve been dealing with it all along. We got the Internet when I was 14. From what I understand, it has really touched illustration and made it adjust its way of working, but now you have up-and-coming 20-something, 30-something artists who have never known another way of doing it.

So tell me specifically about this show, ink.paper.print.

This show came about two years ago, when I was doing a show with Richmond Illustrators Club. They were showing at the library then, and now they’re at Ghostprint. The library came up to me, and said, “Hey, we really like your monoprints. Would you be interested in doing a show with us?” So I showed them my work, they said “yes”, and that’s how it happened. They schedule exhibits two years out, and the timing just happened to sync up with me being in the middle of my MFA process. Because this is my first solo show, what I’m trying to accomplish is to show my work with monoprints and polymer prints, because I don’t see a lot of them out there. I want to show people what these outcomes look like. And I have two oil illustrations that I really enjoyed making, and I just really enjoyed the whole process of making these and putting the show together, and I hope that people will enjoy the show, too.

ink.paper.print has its opening on First Friday, August 7th, in the Dooley Hall of the Richmond Public Library (101 E. Franklin St). Meena’s portfolio can be seen on her website, 

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

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