PORTLAND – Ahmed Alsoudani came to Portland in 2001 with faint knowledge of Western society and minimal training in art.

He left four years later with a degree from Maine College of Art and the confidence that he could make his life as a painter.

Alsoudani, who grew up in Iraq and now lives in New York, sells his large oil-on-canvas paintings depicting the horrors of war and violence for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He is an artist of international stature, and widely considered among the most important artists of Middle Eastern descent.

He has been chosen to represent his native country at the Iraq Pavilion at the Venice Biennale next June, and Sotheby’s just sold a painting of his for almost $500,000.

Alsoudani has said he owes much of his success to the training he received at MECA. This week, be returns to town to repay the favor.

He will give a public lecture at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Osher Hall at MECA, and meet with students for discussions and critiques throughout the day on Thursday and Friday.

Alsoudani has also shipped a handful of paintings, which will hang at Aucocisco Galleries on Exchange Street. He is showing with Gail Spaien, one of his MECA teachers. The two will celebrate the exhibition’s opening with a reception as part of First Friday Art Walk.

Gallery director Andres Verzosa recruited the pair to show together because he liked the idea of an exhibition about mentor and student, especially given Alsoudani’s success since he left Portland.

“I am hoping the work creates a dialogue between two artists,” Verzosa said. “Their work is very different, but I think there will be a nice back-and-forth between the two.”

He is calling the show “Between.”

Spaien and Alsoudani create very different work. Spaien takes the natural world for her subject, creating dense watercolors of beautifully detailed flowers. Her paintings are not exact in a botanical sense, but they are precise and deliciously optical.

Alsoudani’s paintings depict suffering, rage and brutality — the opposite end of the life cycle from Spaien.

Taken together, the two artists accent the difference between life and death. One is quiet and soft; the other loud and hard. One is full of reservation and restraint; the other full of energy and upheaval.

“In a lot of ways, this exhibition does make sense,” Spaien said. “We both deal with mortality. I do it in a mundane sort of day-to-day way. My references are the natural world and the natural life cycle. His references represent death as an interruption to the natural life cycle.”

Spaien remembers Alsoudani from his introductory painting class. He was eager and serious — and committed.

The two are friends, and Spaien has taken her painting students to New York to visit Alsoudani at his studio.

But this week’s visit offers much more.

“Ahmed hasn’t been back to Portland since he left,” Spaien said. “He has not seen the college and all the changes. So this will give him a chance to see friends, and I think for him, it’s probably going to be nice to look at his past, especially with all that has been happening for him. Ahmed is grateful for the things that have happened to him, and grateful to Maine College of Art.”

Don Tuski, MECA’s new president, said Alsoudani’s visit presents a great opportunity for the college to highlight the success of a graduate who has achieved tremendous professional accomplishment.

“In terms of his stature in the art world, you can’t get much higher than Ahmed is right now,” Tuski said. “He will share stories with students, talk about the creative process and the importance of sheer hard work.

“He is a great role model for the MECA students about what sheer hard work can do. We feel honored that he has carved out time in his schedule to come back for a few days and share his story.”

With all the attention focused on Alsoudani, it might be easy to overlook Spaien’s professional accomplishments, but that would be a mistake. She just received the Piscataqua Region Artist Advancement Grant, worth $25,000. The grant is awarded annually by the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Piscataqua Region.

She’s in a good place in her life and career.

“I am the first Maine artist to get this grant, which is huge,” she said. “I’m having this show with Ahmed, and so I feel that I am being acknowledged for my effort, which every artist hopefully gets at some point — and not only for my painting, but also my teaching.”

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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