In some ways, the painting that leans against a window of the Dana Gallery in downtown Missoula seems utterly familiar.

A nearly life-sized woman reclines across the canvas, her arms and legs crossed in a relaxed pose. With her hair pulled up above the plunging neckline of her ankle-length dress, she might seem a bit overdressed for such an intimate moment; but her casual demeanor bespeaks a carefree confidence that undermines any sense of formality.

With its judicious use of negative space, graceful forms and bold colors, the painting bears more than passing echoes to the paper cutouts of Henri Matisse, the French artist beloved in part for many of his own portraits of women in casual repose.

Yet scrawled all across the image are marks of an exotic world that most of us know nothing about.

Here and there, the face of an old Persian man, his face framed by a thick beard and tall hat, appears staring intently at the viewer from both background and foreground. The graceful lines of the Persian alphabet spell out the news of the world in Farsi, the primary language of Iran, along the woman's arms, in her hair, above her head.

The painting is the work of Rashin Kheiriyeh; it is also a window into her world.

Born in Khoramshar and educated in Tehran, Iran, Kheiriyeh came of age in a country viewed by the rest of the world as a hotbed of political conflict under the rigid religious rule of Muslim clerics.

Kheiriyeh knows that most Americans view her country through such a lens. She acknowledges that the formality of public society and the volatility of Iran's politics serve as a constant backdrop to life in her home country.

But she also knows what happens beyond the headlines.

"I didn't want to paint about the politics problem in Iran, just paint women (who) don't like to pay attention to the news," explains Kheiriyeh, who is in town this week for the opening of the exhibition at the Dana Gallery. "I use newspaper in my traditional women, but they just lay down on the ground and want to have fun and be relaxed, listen to the music, leave the newspaper behind."

For many artists, Kheiriyeh's own life would seem almost like a fantasy. At just 31 years old, she has already compiled a lifetime's worth of achievements and honors.

Her paintings have toured across the United States as part of a group exhibition organized by the Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. The illustrator of 36 children's books, Kheiriyeh's work can be found in bookstores around the world, from France to South Korea, translated into several languages. Just this week, she learned that one of her animated short films has been accepted into the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival.

If her name doesn't ring familiar around these parts, that's understandable, even to her.

"Many people here in the U.S., they don't know anything about Iran, even don't know we have galleries or they don't know we have animations. They think we ride camels in the streets or something," she says with a laugh. "So I want to try to be a good ambassador of my culture, and show people that we have a good culture beside this bad news.

"I want to paint peaceful things, and show the beauty of Iran," she adds. "I will try to paint something about hope."

***

That's exactly why Nancy Matthews decided, earlier this year, to bring Kheiriyeh and her art to Missoula.

Matthews herself isn't exactly a local. For 25 years, she worked for Meridian International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building international understanding through cultural exchange.

During that time, Matthews focused in part on curating cross-cultural tours of art. One of those projects, an exhibit of contemporary Chinese art entitled "Ancient Threads, Newly Woven: Recent Art from China's Silk Road," visited Missoula in 2005 for a showing on the University of Montana campus.

When the exhibition came, so did Matthews. And, like so many visitors, she didn't want to leave.

"I immediately fell in love with Missoula," she recalls.

Matthews soon found an excuse to come back. Working with former Missoula gallery owner Geoff Sutton, she helped put together "Out West: the Great American Landscape," an exhibition of paintings by contemporary Western artists that toured China in 2007.

The following year, Matthews retired and promptly moved to Missoula, which she now calls home.

Though she left her official title with her job, Matthews now hopes to continue her past work, albeit on a smaller scale, by bringing exhibitions of international artists to her new home.

Earlier this year, Matthews brought an exhibition of work by the Russian photographer Dmitry Vyshemirsky to the Dana Gallery.

Matthews first met Kheiriyeh while organizing a group exhibition of young Iranian artists, entitled "Wishes and Dreams: Iran's New Generation Emerges," which traveled the United States during 2007-2008. To organize that show, Matthews traveled around Iran with Kheiriyeh, who - unlike most of her contemporaries - speaks excellent English as well as Farsi.

Since then, the two have remained long-distance friends. When Kheiriyeh came to the United States this year to study at New York City's School of Visual Arts, Matthews jumped at the chance to bring her and her paintings to Missoula.

"I think art is such a powerful way to foster connections between people," says Matthews. "I've worked in art in so many countries, and every time I've just been overwhelmed by the talent that is out there beyond our borders. I just want to help other people around me see that."

 

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