The Art Journey
Today I am 21. The journey to perfecting my art- and on a grander scheme, myself- is nowhere near over. There’s something about growing a year older though that makes me feel very reflective about the journey itself. I want to share with you the things that shaped me as a child- the sources of inspiration and nostalgia that influenced my art over the years.
Stage One: Elementary
In my last blog post, I mentioned a story of one of my first drawings, two killer whales drawn in pen. While that was my first, it certainly wasn’t my last. My elementary school days were marked by drawings of whales, horses, and Harry Potter fan art (why yes, I became a nerd starting in the 4th grade).
Art was never just about visual aesthetics; it was always about creating meaning. When I was a kid I took that to heart and would write stories to accompany my artwork. In the first grade, I used to write stories every day. I’d go to the craft station in the classroom and get a sheet of construction paper and lined paper (who remembers that grey lined paper with the red and blue lines that we practiced cursive on?). I’d write a story and then illustrate it. My teacher, Ms. Hujo, used to put my illustrated stories up on the wall and tell me I’d make a great author when I got older.
One day, she found a blank white book lying around her house, and she brought it to me the next day. She told me to fill it with a story. And so I did. I was obsessed with horses back then and I had recently watched a movie about a girl befriending a black stallion. So I recreated a story with those two characters in this book. It was my first completed book, and I was so proud of it.
A few months ago, I went back home and found that book stashed in a bin in the garage. As I flipped through the pages, I recognized the awful body proportions, the misspellings, and yet I also recognized the wild passion and enthusiasm I used to have as a child. I wish I could hug 7-year old me and thank her for making this. She reminded me of why I still draw and tell stories.
Stage Two: Middle School
The real gateway of inspiration started in the summer of 6th grade when I found Avatar the Last Airbender on Nicktoons. At that time, I was an avid martial artist. Seeing Avatar on TV, with its amazing fight sequences and art style, was life-changing. The storyline, characters, and themes of friendship, war, grief, hope, and coming-of-age gave this show a really special place in my heart. Even at the age of 21 I look back fondly at what it’s done for my mentality. I used to daydream all the time about bending, and sometimes even practiced water-bending as I washed my hands or took a shower. Sure, it seems silly in hindsight, but because of this show I had an active imagination and that was great for creativity. I don’t think I’ll ever get to experience that kind of childlike wonder and enthusiasm ever again. This show brought me immense happiness and creativity, and my sketches from that time reflect that.
And yet, as great as ATLA was, my intake of inspiration in middle school was far from over. Dragon Ball Z Kai came to Nicktoons, and that unlocked a WHOLE new world for me. After Dragon Ball came Naruto, and by that time I swore I was going to be either a manga artist, animator, kung fu instructor, or a Super Saiyan/Ninja. I collected mangas and stayed up every night to watch several episodes of anime. I was obsessed with kid Goku, Gohan, Sasuke (I’m pretty sure I wanted to marry him when I was 13), Zuko (pretty sure I wanted to marry him, too), Katara, and Sakura. In the span of 3 years I was bombarded by constant sources of inspiration. Remember when I talked in my last blog post about how our reactions to inspiration define us? Of course, my reaction to these shows eventually transferred to paper. By the 8th grade, I had my own idea for a storyline. I merged Avatar, Naruto, and Dragon Ball to create an original comic/manga about a girl named Sora.
Sora was my alter-ego. She was brave, strong, and had hidden powers. Her stories were full of adventure and heroism, with obvious elements of Avatar, Naruto, and Dragon Ball’s storylines and characters used as inspiration. I often thought of her when I tried to escape the classroom through my daydreams. She appeared in a lot of my sketches, to the point that I was able to fill up a binder with them. I still have that binder in my room, and every now and then I pull it out and just marvel at the things I was able to do that I can’t do now. I don’t mean that in terms of artistic ability. What I mean is that at that time, despite having no artistic ability to compete with professionals, I still drew. I made several comic pages of her origin story using just sharpie markers. I am ten times better now, and much better equipped with professional tools, but I have a standard that prevents me from attempting comics at the moment. I still have storylines, but I’m afraid to just start because I don’t want to do the art an injustice. The older I grow the more things I achieve, but that comes with more limits I place on myself in certain areas. Looking at the comics I made for Sora brings back a melancholic nostalgia. I realize that this is an area I must improve on regarding my attitude. This blog post is a testament that I will try. Somehow.
Stage Three: High School
In eighth grade, I auditioned to enroll in a really good high school for the arts. I got in. I also applied for the International Baccalaureate program in another high school, and got in there as well. My choices came down to picking academic or artistic pursuit. My parents pressured me into the former option, so freshman year I started in the pre-IB program in Gateway High School instead of the art school. I have no regrets about the high school nor program I enrolled in, and I think I made some pretty incredible memories and friends. I had a rough time in my art journey, however. I think the first couple of years of high school was when the child in me started to fade. I didn’t feel creatively stimulated. Being in IB meant I had to focus most of my time on my studies, and even the classroom fell under the constraints of standardization and the seriousness of schoolwork. I stopped watching anime. Barely read any books for fun. I no longer sketched as much. I took a basic art class in freshman year, but I was never satisfied. At this point I’d say I felt a little empty.
On another note, there was a charismatic, Lebanese Christian boy in my freshman class who used to provoke me all the time with loaded statements about Islam. I always debated him in front of the classroom. I felt this urgent need to refute the things he claimed, in fear that the people listening would believe him and think of me negatively. He once brought pamphlets that stated “50 Reasons Islam is a Bad Religion” and passed them out to my classmates. Sometimes my counterpoints silenced him. Sometimes his points left me in frustration and I’d have to go home and research the ridiculous things he claimed (like whether or not Muslims in the middle east actually drank camel pee). Even though I’ve been wearing hijab since I was 11, I remember the hijab and my identity as a Muslim came up a lot as a struggle in this particular period. A proud one, at that. I say proud because I stood my ground and I know my classmates respected me more for it. At this state of life I was growing more conscious of myself in this world, and that started to impact the things I daydreamed of or envisioned.
In my junior year, I enrolled in a Higher Level IB Art course. We had to pick a central theme and create 20 artworks to be displayed and evaluated. After debating several ideas, I ended up choosing Hijabi/Veiled women. Doing this required me to research art techniques, Muslim artists, and reflect on every piece with my own experiences as a Muslim. I think this is the point where my artistic abilities really started to advance. I was constantly experimenting and observing the other kids who were better than me in art, sometimes asking questions about their techniques so I could apply them to my own stuff.
In the summer between junior and senior year, I started watching anime again. Up until point, I’ve ONLY watched Dragon Ball and Naruto, but a friend recommended I watch Sword Art Online, and uh, by the time I finished that series it was too late for me to realize that I was falling into a blackhole. After dealing with the stress and trauma of academic work, anime became a merciful escape and a major coping mechanism. Despite senior year being the most stressful and demanding, I managed to watch between 30-40 anime series in that year alone. I don’t know how I did it. All that matters is that it helped. I still got my IB diploma and graduated as 5th in my class of 600, and I managed to keep myself mentally intact. Out of gratitude, this period of my life was dedicated to a lot of anime fan-art once again.
Once college started, I constantly alternated between anime fan-art and further advancing my collection of hijabi art. I even managed to come up with an idea for another storyline for an anime about a hijabi protagonist, something that I have yet to see in any animated shows in the West or East. I’m starting to notice a trend in this whole art journey. No matter how different my interests are, I somehow manage to attempt combining several things to attempt something completely different. I think this is how we find our style and exercise creativity. I think this is how we can make a difference. I read somewhere that if you observe what everyone else is doing long enough and keep doing the things that interest you, you’re bound to find the holes, and the goal is to fill them with your individuality. At least, that’s how I view my current dream of making my comic idea about Laila Saleh a reality. Alas, as I’ve said before, I haven’t been able to bring myself to start the actual comic in fear that I won’t do it justice. I want to learn more art skills to feel confident, or at least wait until I get the opportunity to work with a team to create the whole storyline and draft the comic book. In the meantime, I’m exercising my art skills by creating more illustrations and paintings featuring hijabi subjects in a range of genres like surrealism, abstract art, and comic-style.
Stage Four: Filali Studios (Present)
You wanna know a secret? Filali Studios started on accident. 2 years ago, a friend from high school asked me to create a couple portrait to give as a gift, and offered to pay for it (you real for that, Ash). That was the first time anyone ever wanted to pay me to create art. I didn’t even know what to charge him. I used to make art just because I liked it, and never did I think there were people out there who would pay someone like me for it.
Anyway, I made the artwork and posted it on Instagram as usual. Next thing I know someone else DM’s me and asks for a custom piece of their own, this time of an anime character and video game character side by side. Then another commission order came. And another. And another. And that, kids, is how it all started. A year ago I uploaded this website for everyone to see. It’s only been a year, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come and thankful for the opportunities that have come my way. I’ve created and shipped more than 30 commissions across the USA, and sold prints/stickers to almost 50 cities. And yet, I’m unsatisfied because I haven’t done enough. Filali Studios is personal, but my goal is to create and engage with art that’s more communal. I want to use my skills to network and make a difference in communities, not just with shifting their perspectives through art, but a tangible difference. I’m not sure how I’ll get there, but I have confidence that I will, one painting at a time.