Artist bids California a fond farewell in Sebastopol exhibit

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, September 8, 2021


Artist Aatika Rehman with one of her paintings from "Saying Goodbye," a show honoring her time in California. (Photo Cecilia Senocak)

Artist Aatika Rehman’s painting series, “Saying Goodbye,” showing in an exhibit at Retrograde Roasters in Sebastopol until the end of September, celebrates her 13 years living in northern California.

Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, she’s lived in a lot of places along the way to Santa Rosa, California where her life changed. “This is how I’m going to represent my love and respect for California,” she said, with memories of Doran Beach, Bodega Bay, Goat Rock Beach, Salmon Creek Beach, Carmel and other places washing over her canvases.

“This collection is sort of like an homage to my time spent here, my home here, my life here, how it has evolved. I had three more kids here, I grew a stronger relationship with my husband here, I made so many local friends, different faith, different color, different values,” she said.

The Pacific Ocean had a profound impact on this chapter of life soon to close. There isn’t an ocean where she’s going next, moving to Colorado before the year is up.

“I think the main thing that feels like California in my paintings is I always started with a blue color, representing the ocean,” Rehman said, primarily using blue, yellow and magenta to birth other colors. “I would never know how soon I was going to finish that painting,” she said, explaining that her abstract art surfaces through layers.

“Sometimes, a painting would be done in five layers. Sometimes, I will be on the 20th layer and I wouldn’t know where this painting is going. So, it’s very intuitive work,” Rehman said. “I would just stare at it and if I can’t stop staring at it, I feel like, ‘Oh, now I’ve hit the sweet spot and it’s finished now.’”

Rehman described the mixed emotions of anxiety, happiness, excitement and sadness of departing California. “I always felt like this is where we are going to stay forever. We are going to get old here, we are going to get retirement here, see our kids grow up, get married or do whatever they want to do,” she said.

A move of some kind has been coming for some time now, though. Around four years ago, her family outgrew the small apartment that housed Rehman, her husband, her in-laws and her four daughters. Since then, they haven’t found other local housing their budget could sustain, she said. “And we just couldn’t manage it. Even though my husband’s job is really good, still, it’s unaffordable for us.”

While the family stayed in Santa Rosa to savor her husband’s job security, he is now being relocated to a new lab his company is building up in Colorado Springs. The family will move there around Thanksgiving, Rehman said.

Rehman and her husband Sami moved to California from Peoria, Illinois in 2008, she said. Previously, they lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she had her first child.

“We saw a lot of racism in Peoria, Illinois. People used to throw comments, just driving around, ‘Go back to your country.’ Charlotte was a really big city, I really enjoyed living there. There was diversity. But Peoria, Illinois was literally a place I would never want to go back,” she said.

Rehman was excited about the move to California and a bit anxious about the earthquakes, “but we moved with a really open mind that we were going to start a new journey here,” she said.However, Rehman continued,“When I came to California, I was a very narrow-minded person. I was very judgmental. I used to judge people with different opinions or different values,” she said.

Rehman recalled being friendly, approachable and social when she met neighbors, teachers and the mothers of her children’s friends because she didn’t want people to dislike her and decide it was because of her ethnicity or religion, being Muslim.

“In the back of my mind, I always had this thought that I had to be a certain way to represent my religion or my country,” Rehman said, “But I really had a hard time opening up to the warmness of the people here because of what I experienced in Illinois. I was like, ‘Why are these people nice to me?’” Rehman recalled.

For a few years, Rehman said she assumed people who acknowledged her identities were making fun of her. Later, she said she realized she categorized others the way others stereotyped her, assuming that white people are racist and don’t like her or other people of color.

“There are bad and good people everywhere. There are racist and not racist people everywhere,” she said. Rehman found people asked her questions out of curiosity, opinion and what they read in the news, “so, I need to answer them just as I would answer a small kid. Just try to explain to them as much in simple words why I am — or who I am — or whatever they have questions for.”

Still, “Over the years, I would experience people’s openness to me, with all this,” she said, gesturing to her hijab and dress, “here in California, that really opened my eyes. That really made me open-minded, that really made me let go of judgment for others, start letting go of any ideology that a good human being should consist of this, this, this, this, a checklist, you know.”

She met people with other faiths and values through her children’s school community who respected her and appreciated her different opinions, which led her to examine some of the beliefs she grew up with that didn’t accept people who think differently. “This needs to go before my kids start growing up because I don’t want to pass on these values to my kids,” Rehman said.

In Sonoma County, the painter said, “I want people to see that among them, there is a Muslim family, there is a Muslim woman who is running a business, who has the support her husband, who’s practicing,” a woman who isn’t oppressed and who chose for herself to wear a hijab.

Doing henna art at birthday parties and festivals like the Gravenstein Apple Fair and the San Francisco Ice Cream Festival, Rehman had saved income from her business, Lavender Henna, to attend art school in February, 2020 as she dreamt since childhood.

But the pandemic reared its head and forced her business to close. Rehman was able to finish art school with unemployment benefit income, or else “I may not have continued my art journey,” she said.

Getting a house in Colorado Springs is sure to bring joy and a stable, steady sense of home, but, “I think I will be sad for a long time, going out of here,” she shared. “Right now, it feels like it’s going to be a long journey to bring closure to this goodbye.”

She may be able to sneak back to the area once a year with her husband managing labs in Colorado Springs and Santa Rosa, though “sometimes it’s easier said than done,” she said openly.

Unsure if she’ll feel the same pride in Colorado as she feels to be a Californian, Rehman said, “It’s not a goodbye forever, but it definitely feels like that.” She said, “It feels like California will always have my heart and I’ll always feel home here.”

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