During the long, isolated months of quarantine earlier this year, Fort Myers artist Leila Mesdaghi looked to the sky to connect with friends and family around the world.
She’d been invited by the Alliance for the Arts to create a piece of art for Pop of Color, an exhibit that is part of the Art in Flight partnership with the Lee County Port Authority and is on display at Southwest Florida International Airport through May. “I had recently had an exhibition of all paintings, so they were thinking of me as a painter,” she says. “But I explained that I wanted to make something different—I like making new work when I have the opportunity.”
For the multitalented creator, who considers herself a thinker as much as an artist, it was a chance to embrace the community around her and connect with people in lonely times. “I started reaching out to people, asking them to look up at the sky, take a photo and send it to me,” she says.
Over the course of about two months, Mesdaghi contacted about 10 people a day, one by one. The Alliance started collecting photos for her project, too. Soon enough, she’d amassed hundreds of images of the sky as viewed from such diverse places as Iran, Brazil, Australia, France, Denmark and South Africa. “In Farsi, there’s a proverb that says, ‘wherever you go, the sky is the same color.’ There was a sense of being in it together,” she says.
As she sat down to work on the piece, feelings of loneliness dissipated. “It just made me feel like I belonged,” she says. The result was What Colour is Your Sky, a digital collage of 141 slices of sky captured around the world, all cropped to the same size.
Sharing the human experience has always been a driving force behind her work, says Mesdaghi, who was born in New York to a Colombian mother and Iranian father. She and her family moved to Iran in 1979, just after the Iranian revolution.
Although she was interested in art from a young age and took her first course when she was 10 years old, Mesdaghi decided to study law in Tehran at the Islamic Azad University Law School, while simultaneously taking classes from artists in her free time.
Eventually in 2002, after a difficult breakup and at her father’s urging, she followed other family members to Mission Viejo, California, where she started taking art classes at a local college. A few years later, after giving birth to her son, she moved to Orlando to be closer to her mother and eventually settled in Fort Myers in 2005. It was here that she embarked on a career in real estate, which ended up being the unexpected inspiration for one of her first major works.