BEIRUT: When dispatched to meet an artist whose primary occupation is teaching mathematics, one forms certain expectations: geometric patterns, cool, crisp lines, an unnatural precision.
But upon entering May Hamdan’s apartment those expectations are obliterated. Vibrant colors, a multitude of textures, playful patterns and images adorn the walls and soft furnishings of the Lebanese American University professor’s home.
Although one room in the sprawling apartment has clearly been designated her work room, Hamdan says cheerfully, “All of my apartment is my studio.”
Everywhere one looks there are paintings, furniture, quilts, cushions and bags that Hamdan has created.
Perhaps the single most impressive feature of her apartment is the installation above her dining room table: The array of colorful baubles hung at various heights is inspired by the solar system, Hamdan says.
Art and mathematics were always two things she had a natural proclivity for in her youth.
“I had inclinations for both,” Hamdan tells The Daily Star, but “math can’t be a hobby. It’s easier for art to be a hobby.”
More recently, however, Hamdan’s art has evolved from simple hobby to part-time profession. She has exhibited her work a number of times in recent years and at the moment her painting “Perched Judges” is on display at an American University of Beirut alumni exhibition.
As a student, while pursuing a degree in math, Hamdan honed her skills in her second passion.
“I started [art] with very shy attempts. As an undergraduate I did some, in graduate school in Syracuse [New York] I did more. I took a class in coloring but as an auditor only and I loved it.”
“I did a class in ceramics ... and I liked it but I didn’t pursue it. And then I just experimented on my own with paintings,” she says. “I toyed around, I experimented on my own in my graduate years, and then I didn’t stop.”
Hamdan migrated from hobbyist to artist, if the timing of such a development can be pinpointed, when she decided to host an exhibition of her own work in March 2007 – an exhibition which, she reveals, her husband described as “nicer than our wedding.”
“I was overloaded with things and I wanted to share and sell and let them out of the box,” she says of her motivation for arranging her inaugural exhibition at home.
“It [the exhibition] was so festive, very festive and we decorated the whole house and there were paintings everywhere,” she says. “It was a very happy event. And I sold like crazy. I didn’t believe it. I sold so much.”
Since then Hamdan has experienced some difficulty in successfully bringing her work to Beirut’s art scene.
A collective exhibition with two friends – a papier mache artist and a person who makes paper jewelry – was, Hamdan says, “OK,” admitting that it was neither advertised well enough nor was the location wisely chosen. “We exhibited in a dark room, the lighting wasn’t so great,” she says.
The artist has also tried marketing her pieces at one of the capital’s Christmas fairs, but this experience revealed certain unsavory attitudes toward work that walks the line between art and craft.
“I put a little stand with some bags and cushions,” she explains, “[but] maybe I shouldn’t have been there. I didn’t like the way it was commercial.”
Customers asking for cushions to be redone in different colors or enquiring whether they could borrow paintings to see if they matched living room color schemes irked Hamdan.
“It’s really a bit not nice how people look at crafts,” she says, gesturing to one of her cushions – an affair of multiple textures and colors with birds delicately but playfully embroidered on it. “Definitely I know that this took me more work than a painting ... It’s a piece of art, not a cushion only.”
“I think historically painting is at a certain echelon and handwork, craft, is somewhere else,” Hamdan adds.
“Like for example, people dare to say to you at an exhibition ‘tell me how you make this.’ They want to learn [how to do it themselves]. But they don’t ask you ‘how did you paint the painting,’ they would never, although some pieces [paintings] are easier to explain.
It’s sometimes easier to explain “how to paint a painting rather than how you thought of putting this lace with that color and that trimming,” Hamdan says.
“There are a lot of details,” she continues. “It’s a palette of objects instead of it being a palette of paint. And it requires a lot of work.”
In her actual studio, Hamdan keeps a huge selection of materials, from paint to ribbon to lace to various fabrics. She describes this collection as akin to a poet’s vocabulary.
“You have to have a big vocabulary to make a poem,” she says. “[Likewise for this] you have to have lots of things to put together.”
But while Hamdan takes the production of her art seriously, it is also one place where she abandons the pursuit of perfection.
In mathematics being exact is essential, but in art she hates such precision.
“I am not a perfectionist actually in this domain,” she adds. “I hate it.”
“When we want to do a quilt that is exactly 5 by 5 [feet] with a margin of half an inch, I can’t work like that. In math you do, but this is where I don’t want to do these kinds of calculations. And there is so much room for imperfection, why torture yourself?”
Indeed, sometimes it is imperfection that leads to innovation in Hamdan’s work.
Taking an upholstered armchair entitled “Mirror, mirror on the couch” as an example, Hamdan explains that the tiny fragment of mirror serving as the eye in an otherwise black leather bird was in fact a fluke, made after she had unwittingly cut a hole in the leather.
“I don’t start with a plan,” Hamdan says of her art. “It just kind of goes on its own and I follow. In math you don’t do that.”
Yet for all the dissimilarities between the two enterprises, Hamdan says she would never abandon teaching math: “I love teaching it, especially teaching it because it’s like a performance sitting in class. I love it.”
“I try to take the students with me, to show it to them not in a linear way, like the neat book presents it, but to say that this came as a generalization of that and people thought of this before they tried what they tried, you know [to show them] this is the first step in a bigger picture.
“So I tried to connect things for them, unlike what you see in a book when you just read it on your own.”
In fact, she goes so far as to say that one role nurtures the other.
“They kind of come together. They nurture each other. One thing calls for the next and you feel that you’re inspired in all domains and dimensions,” she explains.
For more information on May Hamdan’s work, visit mayhamdan.com