Birzeit Society Magazine: Interview with SARI KHOURY, ARTIST

Q: What is your family background?

A: I was born in 1941 in Jerusalem to Ibrahim  and Adla Khuri.  At the time, my father was a prominent educator,  and headmaster of the Al-Nahda college.  When the 1948 war broke out in Palestine my family immigrated to Birzeit to live in the house we inherited from my grandfather Shihadeh.  Like all the other refugees, my family had left everything behind. I was only seven then.  My fondest childhood memories were of our Birzeit house were we used to play around Sidi Shihadeh’s grave.  In Birzeit also my late brother Basil, and I were initiated into country living.  He and I used to roam around the best vineyards of all of Palestine , and eat all the wonderful and juiciest grapes of the whole world.  After a short stay in Birzeit we moved to Ramallah were my father became a teacher at Abu Rayya’s school Al Kuliah Al Wataniah were I also received my Elementary and Secondary education.

Q: How did you become interested in art?

A: I became interested in art at a young age.  Talent was never short in the Khuri family.  Everyone drew or painted to one degree or another.  To ease the tragedy of our exile my sisters sang and drew, my brother and I created our own sculpture and toys out of simple wire and scrap wood.  My mother was a dress designer, and my father always taught us not to be ashamed to use our hands-- to make, to construct, to fix, and also how to till a garden.  That was the Birzeit spirit in him!  I started drawing at age eight or nine and haven’t stopped since.  In grade 7 I was drawing caricatures of my teachers on the blackboard.  My teachers pretended to be mad, but inside, they were impressed by my work.  Everything I learned about art at a young age was self-taught since the school’s only art experience was restricted to practicing Arabic handwriting, and drawing geometric shapes.

At age 12 I became interested in serialized comic strips and started creating my own.  To do this I had to learn to draw the human figure and to practice facial expressions.  As I grew older I became more preoccupied with serious themes, and I became more introspective searching for the meaning of life and human suffering associated with the Palestinian tragedy.  So I directed my energies in creating social themes.  Using oils and watercolors I painted people in suffering, old people, poor children, refugee camps, and political prisoners.  Some of these pieces I showed at the Sahhar Bookstore in Jerusalem , and at the Jerusalem Orthodox Club. 

It was at that time that I established my contact with the artist Kamal Boullata.  He and I used to walk the narrow streets of Jerusalem and talk about all the great artists and their accomplishments.  We provided great encouragement to each other.

Q: When did you arrive to the U.S. ?

A: At age 18 I began exploring possibilities of attending a university abroad.  I dreamed of going to Europe, Cairo , or the United States .  At that time, my father became disillusioned with the lack of opportunity for himself and his family and sought immigration procedures to the U.S. where my sister Mary was already residing with her husband David Salah.  She sponsored our immigration.  They arrived in ‘58 and I came a year later.  Arriving penniless to this country, I was fortunate to secure a full scholarship from a fine university, Ohio Wesleyan University .  The money for my scholarship was donated by another anonymous Palestinian.  What a miracle that was.  At that point I was determined to study art.

Q: Describe your U.S. Education.

A: I received my Bachelor degree in art from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1963.  The subjects of my concentration were in Painting and Sculpture.  I then went to study at  Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan were I received my Master degree in art.  Cranbrook is the most prestigious art schools in the United States , and provided me with specialization in my own expressive style.

Q: What does it mean to be an artist?

A: Upon my graduation I was concerned about my future.  My professors tried to encourage me to work as an artist in New York , and find a successful career.  But I knew I would find difficulty achieving my goals there.  I chose to follow a teaching career in a university.  First I taught art at Berea College in Kentucky , then I moved back to Michigan were I married my wife Suheila Ghannam and took a teaching position at Central Michigan University .  I have been in that position for twenty four years.  Now I am the chairman of the Art Department .  Mt. Pleasant became my new Birzeit, were I raised three boys.  The youngest is now sixteen.

My work as a teacher of art and as a practicing artist go hand in hand.  I teach to communicate my ideas and principles, and I paint to communicate my feelings.  Teaching and practicing art can be very time-consuming, but I try to exhibit my work in as many professional exhibitions as I can.   I have exhibited in all the major cities in the U.S. and at museums such as the Detroit Institute of Art.  Art is my life and I will continue to work till the end.

As a Palestinian artist working in the U.S. I have to reconcile the dilemma of serving my people and meeting the artistic demands of my profession.  Americans here will not understand art that has political content and I try to stay away from it.  If I had stayed in the West Bank , I would definitely be working differently.  My culture, however, is a strong part of my work.  I have a definite connection to the art of the Orthodox icon, and in other respects to the art of Arabic calligraphy.  No matter how abstract my work gets, those two influences remain in my work.  There is mysticism and spirituality in the art of the icon, and there is grace and fluency in Arabic writing.  They both appeal to me.

Q: What is your relationship to other Palestinian Artists?

A: I try to maintain contact with other Palestinian artists in the U.S. and abroad.  I have exhibited with Suleiman Mansour, Kamal Boullata, Vladimir Tamari, and Samia Halaby.  I also showed with a group of artists at the Alif Gallery in Washington .  I was one of several Palestinian artists who showed their work in a show called “It is Possible” with Israeli artists who seek peace and who support statehood for the Palestinians.  The exhibition traveled to many cities in Europe and the United States , and met with tremendous success.  Three years ago I hosted a group of ten Palestinian artists led by Suleiman Mansour. They were received warmly as they presented their work to the university students and faculty.  It was a successful event.

Q: How does it feel living away from the homeland?

A: Like all of us who are professionals, whether doctors, engineers or artists, I feel the pain of exile.  The pains of the events of the Intifada and earlier the war in Lebanon are doubly felt by being away.  You want to do something to help your people, and you feel frustrated by the distance.  As an artist I try to communicate that anguish in my work.  People seeing my work can see the turbulence of my emotions.  It is hard to paint pretty things when you feel grief or anger.

Q: What are your ambitions at the moment?

A: My main goal is to improve my artistic abilities.  As a Palestinian artist I try to prove to myself and the world of art that I can contribute my efforts and energies in art for the service of humanity.  I equally love my family, and aspire for their happiness.  Perhaps someday I can transfer those two occupations to the service of the homeland.  My life’s dream is that someday I might be able to exhibit with other Palestinian artists in Jerusalem or Birzeit or Ramallah... that we will have our country and our own permanent art museum.  Inshalla soon!