It’s truly a pleasure to host my sister-in-law, Zahida, this Friday morning!  I have known Zahida since she was around 17 years old and have watched her blossom in her creativity and other pursuits that she’ll share with us here.  So, let’s jump right in and paint the picture of Zahida as a child. 

Can you tell us what you were like as a child and what sort of artistic activities you enjoyed?

A good chunk of my childhood playtime revolved around art. I was a shy kid and not very sporty (unlike the adult version of me), so a lot of my playtime was to myself and my artistic activities. I used to love making cards for my family. I am pretty sure I was giving something homemade to someone on a daily basis, whether it be one of my parents or siblings. I remember how excited they would always be when I would hand them something. And I’m pretty sure that many of those paper crafts are still kicking around in keepsake boxes.

I also really loved the T.V. show Mr. Dressup, not because of his costumes, but because of his daily arts and crafts activities. When I was in Kindergarten, I’d watch Mr. Dressup in the morning, take mental note of what the craft of the day was, go to school and wait until it was “stations time” and spend the whole time in the art station, working on the Mr. Dressup craft with my best friend.

I always saw myself as an artist when I was a kid. I think a lot of it was because of the encouragement I received from my family, my teachers, and specifically, my uncle who’s one of the most incredibly talented artists I know personally. Once in a while I would actually draw pictures with my uncle and he’d give me pointers on drawing technique. Those were some of my most memorable art education moments. As a result, art was always a priority in my life growing up and through my school years.

Yes, you do come from an incredibly talented family and what really resonates with me as a mother is what you said about the encouragement you received.  I imagine our job as adults is to recognize these seeds of passion in our younger generation and feed them so they grow strong!

Image Credit: Zahida Jaffer

I’ve always known you as an artist.  But there seemed to be a point when I felt like you started taking your art “more seriously” for lack of a better expression.  Do you know what I mean? 

I wouldn’t say that I ever started to take my art “more seriously”. Art has always been a passion I’ve taken very seriously, but I’d kept it very much private for most of my life. I just needed to figure out that being a shy kid needed to stop. What I was missing was the realization that this expression of myself shouldn’t be kept solely to myself; the next step was to share my art more publicly. And that to allow the public the gift of knowing my art is giving something very beautiful. Art can mean so much more when shared with others, whether it is displayed in someone’s home, or publicly in a community gallery, for many more to enjoy and appreciate. Making my art public was never about selling it. In fact, while I’m always thrilled when I have a buyer, it is still very difficult to part with work because as a piece of self expression, it feels kind of like a piece of me. But yes, now things have changed slightly and it’s much easier to spread myself around 🙂 I’m not that shy kid anymore.

In terms of when I made this transition…over my university years, I had less time and mental energy to devote to my art, and I took a bit of a break. I think a part of me really suffered as a result in that time. After I completed my studies, I was back to my art, but now I had to find a way to juggle that with work and the growing responsibilities of becoming a “grown-up”. I had several encouraging friends and family members who saw what I had to offer as an artist. Many had ideas of me creating art to sell. But I knew deep down that I wasn’t quite ready for this. I just simply wanted to share my art and see where that would lead me. It would also be an excuse for me to create more art. If sales were going to come, I didn’t want them to come from me trying to sell my work.

My good friend Jess told me about an art event called The Drift which is a community showcase of local artists that new or “emerging artists” like myself could easily get involved in. This was my first official art event in 2008. And it was getting ready for this event that I realized all that I could be doing to support my craft, such as naming and framing my work, writing artist statements, creating a web site, business cards, the works. It all has evolved since then, and exhibiting and selling work is something I regularly do now.

I remember that exhibit being such a pivotal learning experience for you.

What were some of your challenges as you made the transition?

I think the biggest challenge of them all is the identity challenge. I didn’t go to art school, even though I wanted to. I wasn’t making my living as an artist; I hadn’t even sold a single piece. So what authority did I have to call myself “an artist”? What qualified me to hold that title? While I always knew inside that an artist was indeed who I am, I feared saying it out loud. What would others who did study art formally and who have exhibited and sold work think about me calling myself an artist when they are artists of a “truer” form?

Of course I realized that this whole idea was silly, but it took some getting used to. And so, I decided one day to call myself an artist; I started to tell people that I am an artist. I decided that what one does in their day-job is not the only thing that defines them. In fact, it’s what one does when they are free to do what they please that defines them as well (or perhaps even more). It’s what brings us joy and purpose that shows us who we are. That to me is my art, and so, I am indeed an artist. Once I was able to embody “artist” as my identity, and take ownership of my talents, everything else fell into place. I had the confidence to build my online gallery on my web site, share artist processes and the stories behind each of my pieces on my art blog , and work to market myself as an artist in the community. I sought every opportunity I could to showcase my work, meet other artists, and get involved in the community as someone who proudly called herself a “local Vancouver artist.”

Image Credit: Zahida Jaffer

This is fabulous!  I love what you said about what brings us joy and purpose shows us who we are – you are absolutely right!  It’s like when I ask my readers, what would you not hit the snooze button for?  What are you so excited about that you would choose to do it in your spare time?  That’s awesome, Zahida, that you have remembered what your purpose has been and are releasing that part of you into the world!

And so, how do you do that?  How are you participating in your art besides showing at galleries and selling your work?

For me art is more than just something beautiful. Beyond aesthetics is the potential to tell stories in ways that words cannot. And this is not just with the visual arts, but arts of all forms – music, theatre, dance, and so on. All forms of art have the power to impact change in our lives and our communities because they all are powered by our imaginations. If we’re unable to exercise our imaginations, how can we ever imagine how our lives or our world could be better than they are today? I see imagination and positive social change as being married together. So it’s no wonder that I’ve made a point of actively pursuing community arts initiatives to be involved in both internationally and locally. I worked on arts-based community projects in Colombia and Namibia that made me really appreciate the power of art. And now, I’m an active volunteer in North Vancouver for programs that make art, dialogue, understanding, and community a priority.

I have also used my training as a teacher and my experiences as an art student to develop and facilitate art workshops for adults. I haven’t taught one in a while, but I got great enjoyment out of encouraging others to create art, to get their hands dirty, play, and create something beautiful from their imaginations.

Hmmmm…I see joint creative workshops in our future! 

Art isn’t your only passion, though and so I want to switch gears a bit and talk about your amazing success in your athletic endeavours. 

When did your passion for running come to life?  What was the process? 

I first found my passion for running when I was about 22. I struggled with my weight almost my entire life and was never active. When I turned 20, I turned things around, lost a bunch of weight, and trained to run two half marathons. But it didn’t last. I didn’t really know anything about nutrition. I didn’t really have the self-confidence to take care of myself. I put all the weight back on, and then some.

About 3.5 years ago, I turned around my attitude, and I’ve never looked back. I began to take care of myself, get active, learn about healthy living, and my life changed. Once I started to lose weight again, I knew that I could one day be at a healthy enough weight to start a running routine again. The feeling of crossing the finish line at a big race is something that never leaves you. I wanted to experience it again. I ran a little here and there in 2010, but couldn’t go too far as I had two surgeries that required recovery. But starting last year, in 2011, the runner and athlete in me really came alive and found her groove. After losing 120lbs, I crossed the finish line at a half marathon in my fastest time yet – my first race of that distance in over 7 years. I’ve lost yet another 10lbs, am the healthiest and strongest I’ve ever been, and am currently training for my first ever marathon. Yes, I’m finally going the full distance of 42.2K.

I started my blog Run With Zahida to tell my story to others. I want others who have struggled with their health or with any other challenges in their lives to see me as one example of an ordinary girl with an extraordinary dream who does everything in her power to achieve it. And then one day, she achieves the goal and does so in a way she could have never imagined it. She exceeds her expectations. I firmly believe that we all have the ability to exceed our own expectations and realize our dream. We can be who we want to be and to change our own lives in the way we want to change them. We just have to be willing to take the necessary steps. But more importantly, we have to have the courage to believe in ourselves. And gosh, that’s some of the hardest stuff – believing in oneself. But really, anyone with a body can be an athlete. Anyone with an imagination can be an artist. Anyone who has a mind can be a change-maker. Anyone in the whole world can be one important person who changes the world.

In the same way I embodied the identity of an artist, I embodied the identity of “runner” and “athlete”. I’ll likely never make a living out of running. I’ll likely always need about twice as long to complete a race as an elite athlete. Professional athletes have been athletes their whole lives. I’ve been an athlete about 2 years. And I’m not getting any younger. But I decided I am an athlete because I focus on fitness and improving myself through sport. I am an athlete because running gives me joy and purpose. I am an athlete because I set goals in my sport and work toward achieving them.

Running has indeed changed my life. It has offered me many hours of training to get to know myself more intimately. But more importantly, it reminds me of a very simple life lesson, every run I take. Every run, every race, every day, every situation, every challenge, we must take it one step at a time. If I want to run a marathon, I have to take it one stride at a time to get to the finish line. Before even starting the race, I have to spend months training beforehand. In the same way, if I want to overcome a challenge in my life, a hurdle of some sort, there’s work to do to get there. I can’t expect immediate results. I have to work and train, struggle and learn, and someday I’ll overcome and grow.

I think what’s really standing out for me in this interview is that every process you have initiated has started out with a change in your own thoughts, your own self-perceptions.  So many of us need to get over our own underlying beliefs about what we can and cannot do, and what we can call ourselves etc.  Once that hurdle is squashed, we make so much space for the beautiful possibilities.  I’m really happy that this message is being shared with my readers!

And now, the nitty gritty.  What we all really want to know.  How in the world do you manage to pursue two demanding passions? 

It comes down to time management. I don’t mean just keeping a calendar with art exhibition application deadlines noted, race dates and training programs noted, work schedules, appointments, social engagements, and so on. I also mean prioritizing “personal time” in the same way as work time and time with loved ones. It’s often hard to find time for everything that we do, but it can’t be an excuse for not doing things. I’ll admit that now that I’m training for a marathon, I have less time for my art. And when I’m not training for a specific race, I’m creating more art. The important thing is not to allow time or lack thereof to be an excuse to let things fall to the backburner too easily. We have to always remember that nurturing our passions is part of what makes us alive and so we can’t neglect those parts of us. We need to respect that time we’ve set aside for ourselves. I’m a happier person when I’m active and creative, so I can’t let those things go for too long. But when we do have to let things go a little because of other life priorities take precedent, we can’t beat ourselves up about it. We just have to pick up where we left off as quickly as possible.

That makes sense – if something has to take up more space because of a deadline then everything else has to accommodate that…and everything eventually does get its turn if we are always mindful of it. 

Well, thank you, Zahida, for taking the time to share yourself, your art and your passions with the readers of Let ME Out!! 

My absolute pleasure!  I appreciate the opportunity to share my passions with your readers; thank you for that, and for always believing in both me and the power of my dreams.

Readers, you can find Zahida at her blogs, Art by Zahida, Run with Zahida and at her website.  Send her a tweet @artbyzahida

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!