The two illustrations, here and at the bottom of the story, are about the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who worked to bring theater to remote villages in Andalucia in Spain, uplifting flamenco arts; he was later murdered by Generalissimo Franco’s fascist regime. By Zahra Marwan.

Some members of the Rio Rancho High School Class of 2006 may remember Zahra Marwan as a quiet, shy girl roaming the hallways or maybe as a gifted student.

It turns out that gift was in the arts, and, thanks to her success as a professional illustrator, she’s hoping she can be an inspiration to others sharing a passion for the arts: She’s offering a $1,000 scholarship of unrestricted funds for anyone pursuing the arts and currently a junior or senior at Cleveland or Rio Rancho high schools.

She recalls not hearing much encouragement about her passion while attending RRHS.

Zahra Marwan

“When the day came to meet our high school counselors to discuss our futures, I wanted to study photography, or hoped to be shown what is possible in the arts,” she recalled. “I was told, ‘Most students in the gifted program go on to become doctors or engineers,’ and was transferred to a different counselor who suggested I try ‘international business,’ since I was bilingual.

“I was completely unaware of the hundreds of serious and different career paths that existed in the arts,” she said, but soon had a couple opportunities to get a career started. “I wasn’t able to take out loans to study at the art school that had admitted me in Boston, (so) I maneuvered my way through UNM to study abroad in France, learning mostly from the museums in Paris and the brief art school program I attended, which are often equal to our in-state tuitions or free.”

She improved her art skills, but wasn’t sure that was a way to make a living: “(I) went on a rocky path trying to establish myself in the arts, not having had the proper support or advice while in high school despite being in the gifted program.”

She said RRHS arts teacher Matthew Lutz “let me do independent study with him after classes in my senior year, which was great. … (But) other than an uncle who was an electrical engineer who exhibited his paintings internationally, I didn’t see a viable way to make art for a living.

“I didn’t go to an art museum until traveling after high school,” she added. “Growing up in a suburb, I wasn’t exposed to art other than my high school art class — and an older brother who really believed in the independent arts.”

Proud of her Middle East roots, she incorporates her Kuwaiti tendencies into her daily life.
She would like to see others, maybe even having faced little encouragement, if any, to follow in her footsteps: “I hope this small scholarship will help give confidence to a young person eager to pursue the arts.”

Of course, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to have exhibits of their work in Italy, London, Kuwait, as well as Grand Junction, Colo., and Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as Marwan has. Nor that they’ll garner eight awards for their work, as she has, including one from the Frankfurt (Germany) Book Fair.

Her work has given her an international flair — and she did an artist-in-residency in her native Kuwait.

Illistration by Zahra Marwan

Drawing from the past

She recalls a time in her childhood when she envisioned being “an eye doctor or a fortune teller, maybe a music teacher.”

Then, she graduated from the University of New Mexico, cum laude in foreign languages and literature, with minors in philosophy and “Flamenco, concentration in dance.”

Because she successfully followed her dream, she says this idea for a scholarship will appeal to high school kids, “hoping they’ll travel to see art, buy supplies, take workshops and to give them a list of local resources. I was hoping that this would encourage young people in an environment which mostly undervalues the arts and humanities.”

Now living in the Barelas neighborhood in southwest Albuquerque, she’s found the Duke City values the arts.

“A lot of city officials in Albuquerque are encouraging creative practices,” she said. “I was selling at growers markets and the Railyards; I’ve done things for book festivals, cultural festivals — I feel so grateful to get jobs like that, and private commissions.”

Last year, the Albuquerque Community Foundation commissioned Marwan to create a piece for its end-of-the-year campaign.

“We asked her to illustrate hope,” said Denise Nava, senior communications director for the ACFR. “She is amazingly talented and a very kind person.”

Marwan said she was influenced in her art by several famed illustrators, among them Sir Quentin Blake, an English cartoonist, illustrator and children’s writer. With more than 300 children’s books illustrated, including 18 penned by Roald Dahl, he won the biennial international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2002 – the highest recognition available to creators of children’s books.

So she knows she’s in good company: “It’s incredible that it happened — it started slowly.”

She was slated to have a solo show of her work in Florence, Italy, “but coronavirus hit.

“My picture book is still in progress — it’s lyrical nonfiction, 32 or so (of my illustrations) in a 40-page book. I wrote it; it’s about 300 words long. It’s been an incredible process to work with an editor and marketing director. It should be out in late summer or early fall,” Marwan added. “It’s incredible — it felt like a dream to draw and write.”

And probably still an occasional nightmare for a counselor to suggest that she look for something else to pursue after high school.

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer