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Encinitas artist who fled Iran revels in creation

Lily Pourat poses near her statue during a recent exhibit at the Encinitas Library. “If I’m not creating, it feels like I’m not living,” she said.
(McKenzie Images)

Growing up in Iran, Lily Pourat knew she wanted to be an artist. But that dream came to a grinding halt at the age of 15.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in the closing of universities, a crackdown on art and a rise in religious fundamentalism threatening Jewish people like Pourat. The government regularly discriminated against her family, and one day, the Jewish school she went to was set on fire.

“Everything in life can go away like that,” said Pourat, who lives in Encinitas. “I saw it. So do what you love.”

Today, Pourat’s a sculptor and glassblower, influenced by nature and classical Middle Eastern art. She’ll lead a workshop at the fifth annual Encinitas Arts Festival, noon to 4 p.m. on March 13 at the San Dieguito Academy Performing Arts Center. This year’s festival explores the sights and sounds of World Music, and it features workshops from local artists.

After graduating high school in Iran, most universities were closed. It seemed Pourat’s only option was to become an accountant, an undesirable career path considering she hates sitting in one place too long.

Fortunately, she was able to attend an arts program led by laid off college professors. But art seen as challenging the political landscape or religious norms was subject to censorship, or worse, punishment. Pourat knew she had to leave the country, yet the government granted few passports to young Jews.

“I wanted to do art freely and have a better life,” she said.

Ironically enough, a shot at a better life came at the age of 22 when an Iranian Revolutionary Guardsman arrested Pourat for failing to wear a hijab while she was out hiking. On the way down the trail, Pourat befriended the guardsman, who told her she could appear as a non-Jew by forging a birth certificate and passport.

She took his advice. Several months later, Pourat was at the airport and poised to board a U.S.-bound airplane. But officials arrested her on suspicion of illegal activity. Pourat begged to be released, and just before her airplane left, they let her go.

“There are moments in life you never forget,” Pourat said.

A few years later, she settled in Encinitas. By then, Pourat had a husband and two kids, but sculpted whenever she had time.

“I always have a little bit of clay somewhere in the house,” she said with a laugh.

She also enrolled in art classes, picking up new techniques. Having so much artistic freedom, though, took some getting used to.

“It takes a while for that culture to leave you,” Pourat said, adding she feels as though her art has gotten more experimental over the years.

Still, much of her work stays true to an Iranian tradition of including subtle messages or symbolism in artwork. Pourat believes overt commentary quickly becomes cliché.

“You have to have something to say, and I believe the only way to get to people is very, very subtly.”

Many of her larger sculptures have Farsi inscriptions influenced by Rumi, a 13th-century poet and philosopher who advocated for tolerance, love and charity.

Pourat, who was immediately drawn to Encinitas while driving through in the 1980s, cited the city as another influence. In recent years, she has created mermaids and ocean-centric artwork, a direction Pourat doubts she would have pursued if she didn’t live here.

Jim Gilliam, the city’s arts coordinator, said her ceramic work “makes a cultural statement and is striking in its beauty.” He added that he looks forward to Pourat’s workshop at the Encinitas Arts Festival.

Pourat will teach kids how to make “light travelers,” small ceramic animals that children are encouraged to pass on to others. How it works: Those who come into contact with a light traveler are asked to input a serial number on the light traveler at lilythepotter.com, as well as leave a positive message on the website. That way, people can follow the light traveler’s journey and see the various messages. From there, they’re encouraged to leave the light traveler somewhere special for the next person.

“I’m excited to see where they go.”

She created the Light Traveler Project in the hope that “light travelers can help strangers become friends through this forum of love, hope and positivity.”

As for her own art, she has no plans to slow down.

“If I’m not creating, it feels like I’m not living.”

Visit lilythepotter.com to learn more.


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