75-year-old Jafar Mogadam, the only American  artist working in tiles who draws upon the Islamic and Persian heritage, in his studio. Photo by Emily Grosvenor.

Once Upon a Tile

The tiles created by Iranian-American artist Jafar Mogadam are exploding fractals of color, gigantic puzzles of competing symbols and forms drawing on artistic traditions from around the globe.

But compared to their creator, his works border on the staid.

Mogadam is a hybrid of Iowa and Iran. He wears a trucker’s cap. He listens to mystical Sufi music. Together with his wife Lynne, he restores prairie on their Riverside, Iowa farm. But he spends most of his time painting tiny worlds of geometric shapes and lines, meticulous Persian and Islamic designs on tiles, sometimes taking half a year to complete one work.

In many ways, Mogadam is the go-to guy for Islamic art in Iowa. He lectures on the subject at venues across the Midwest and his works adorn public buildings and spaces in the eastern part of the state.

Mogadam, according to the Tile Heritage Foundation, is the only American artist working in tiles who draws upon the Islamic and Persian heritage of his homeland, Iran. But his tiles also reveal his deep connection to Iowa, where he has lived for almost half a century.

At 75, Mogadem is a firecracker, a compact bundle of energy darting in and out of the rooms of the former Amish farm that he and his wife share with their parrot, two canaries, a cat, a puppy and a goat named Shangul.

But it is in his studio where he lives, working 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day, surrounded by the photographed faces of his two children and his grandchildren and his friends. In one corner of the room sits the back seat of a Ford van where he props up his completed works, some of them replicas of famous Persian and Islamic designs, others displaying a layering of competing stylistic genres that is all his own.

He has worked his whole life to perfect this style.

Born in Tehran, Mogadam experienced the Iran of the Cold War, a country testing the boundaries between tradition and modernization. He says his early impressions of the United States were far from good.

“The United States used Iran like a gas station — fill ‘er up and get out,” Mogadam says.

He painted realistically as a child. He was schooled at the Kamal al-Molk Academy of Fine Arts in European painting styles, sometimes sneak away to practice figure drawing.

Mogadam experimented with impressionism and cubism while trying to find his niche. For close to a decade, he has worked almost exclusively in tile. As with many immigrants, his heritage didn’t interest him until he came here.

“Persian tiles are special and unique,” Mogadam has said. “I didn’t really appreciate them as an art form until I had lived [in the United States] for a while.”

Mogadem gets his tiles from a ceramics company in Italy, and paints on them with glazes he gets for free from the American Art Clay Company, or Amaco, for whom he has also created instructional leaflets.

“I think I have enough glaze to paint for the rest of my days,” he said.

To create the intricate design patterns that grace his tile works, Mogadam employs a system of adding and subtracting from popular geometric designs in the public domain. They require a mathematical precision that allows for no errors.

He begins with an idea, sketches it in pencil on the tile; then he layers the glazes one by one, correcting color, perspective and scale. He usually works on six to eight tiles of a larger piece at a time, fires them, then uses this sample to adjust colors for the rest.

“They will be perfect. You can’t make mistakes,” he says, pulling out a magnifying glass and a paintbrush just two millimeters wide. Any glaze seeping outside of the lines will be scraped away with a razor once it dries.

Mogadam’s eyes glint when he talks, his hands gesticulate wildly. Though small in stature, his personality is almost preternatural. It is as if his tiles are the materials he uses to rein himself in, impose a pattern on his world.

At the Children’s bone marrow ward of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, 10 works donated by the artist display the cacophony of color that is Mogadam’s trademark. His masterful weaving of Persian and Iowa symbolism comes into clear focus in these works.

Mogadam’s Birds of Iowa is an intricate latticework of vines sprinkled with goldfinches, cardinals, and sparrows, a work whose sheer energy and gigantic scale contrasts sharply with the sterility of the hospital’s corridors.

Another work, called Children of the World explores questions of identity. It consists of a Grant Wood landscape encircled by Persian designs and faces from eight immigrant groups.

Mogadam says that he has grappled with a conflict between his identity, his abandoned homeland and his adopted country.