“This has been a consistent problem among artists who move between cultures. You can’t really do either of them so you have to develop something different,” Mogadam says.
One way that Mogadam keeps a connection to his past is through his frequent visits to schools. For several years, Mogadem has brought his knowledge of tile art into schools with an Iowa Arts grant.
Occasionally he sells a tile wall hanging, but he lives to share his work.
“It is a labor of love — I don’t make any money from it,” Mogadam says. “This is what I grew up with in Iran and it is now part of my life in this country.”
In 2000, he had an exhibition of his work at DePaul University in Chicago. The exhibition was one of the first recognizing the contributions of Muslim immigrants in the United States across different media and disciplines.
Still, the fruits of Islamic culture are so rarely understood by people in this country, he says.
In an age where Muslim culture is often criticized for its historic iconoclasm or condemnation of images, Mogadam often finds himself defending his depiction of people to Muslims. His images range from depiction of faces, people and animals, to Arabic calligraphy praising Allah.
“There are no deviations allowed in Muslim culture,” Mogadem says. It is often the Muslims here in America that misunderstand this part of his work, he says.
Besides, he sees his art not as an outpouring of his faith, but rather an extension of himself. Although raised a Shiite, Mogadam has long ceased practicing Islam.
A retreat from faith is just one part of Mogadem’s journey from Iran, to Iowa. He came to this country in search of opportunities, emigrating from Bonn, Germany, where he had been working at a factory after a scholarship he had been awarded to study agriculture ran out. His first view of America in 1962 was of the polluted Hudson River.
Speaking barely a word of English, he relied on the help of a German couple to make his way to the Midwest, where he studied painting for two years at the Art Institute of Chicago. A few years later he earned his degree in Art Education from the University of Northern Iowa.
There, he met Lynne.
Mogadam’s wife of 42 years is a beauty with long blondish hair tied back at the nape of her neck, a self-proclaimed hippie sympathizer who calls her husband her “little Sean Connery.”
“He fell in love with me because I refused to call him ‘Jerry;’” Lynne says. Many of the international students of the time anglicized their names. Lynne wasn’t buying it.
Growing up in Iowa in the 1960s, Lynne took belly dance and listened to Egyptian and Turkish music records her mother bought her for 50 cents each.
Despite her worldly outlook, Lynne couldn’t picture their family living anywhere else than in Iowa.
Their home is a menagerie overflowing with life. Mogadam’s detached studio sits in a rolling landscape populated by pheasants, rabbits, and hawks. It is flanked by a shack that is home to Shangul, a goat he bought years ago but never slaughtered.
“Do you want him?” Mogadam asks. “You can have him.”
The Mogadem home is a virtual gallery of Jafar’s art, including a massive 6-by-8-foot acrylic mural made of miniatures that detail the history of Persia, the former name of Iran.
Lynne, a retired Veteran’s Administration hospital biomedical technician, also works in tile, preferring to employ bright-blue Iznik designs popular throughout the Middle East.
Together, they have offered art seminars in their home. Some of these have attracted artists from throughout the country.
“He gets so excited about his art,” said Suzanne Bradley, an Iowa City artist who has taken Mogadam’s tile seminar. “His work is just great — it really shows how he has blended his whole life.”
Mogadam is proud to do work rooted in styles uncommon in this country, and he scoffs at those who would deride his art as being merely a craft.
“I have no need to be modern. If the work is excellent in itself, in the idea, the content, and its execution, what else more do you want?” he asks.
The major piece he has nearly completed is a 16-tile work called Allegory to Mystical Love, which depicts the 12th century Persian fable, Layla Majnun, written by poet Ganjavi Nizami. Some scholars believe this influential Middle Eastern legend may have inspired William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“We just keep writing the same stories over again,” Mogadam says.
Indeed, Mogadam seems to have a Persian fable for every occasion: for the lovelorn, the destitute, the conflicted leader, the doubting friend.
Mogadam stands with his hands at his hips, his feet his firmly planted, his eyes staring off into the distance. He knows he’s good. His aim is perfection. Anything less than that isn’t worth doing.
The world is far more beautiful and complicated than it appears. His work reflects that.
He points to the table where Allegory to Mystical Love lies half-finished.
“That’s going somewhere 1,000 years from now,” he says.