Artist follows his heart from Iran to Lawrence and finds his true calling
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Mehrzad Alison discovered long ago that jealousy could be a muse.
As a child, Alison, 57, envied a classmate who was always drawing and being praised by the teacher. Alison was so jealous of the attention the boy was receiving that he began drawing.
It worked. He gained the teacher’s attention. At the same time, he discovered his passion for art at a young age.
In recent weeks, Alison moved his business, Prairie Hills Art Gallery, from a strip mall on Iowa Street to 911 Massachusetts St., Suite B3. Now in a larger space, he has more room for his students to set up easels, plus an open space to display his vibrant landscapes and giant sunflowers.
Transitioning into the new studio has allowed Alison a chance to reflect on how far he has come from his boyhood back in Ahvaz, Iran. That’s where painting grew into a passion for him.
“It became who I was,” Alison said. “I concentrated on it all day.”
As Alison was leaving Iran 41 years ago to study in Kansas — first at Maur Hill Preparatory School in Atchison, then at the University of Kansas — his father sternly told him not to let his art get in the way of becoming a doctor or engineer.
Studying mechanical engineering and then computer science at KU, he tried to follow his father’s wishes. However, life just kept leading to paint and brushes.
Because of the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and 1979, his family couldn’t send him any money. He worked three jobs to survive. His favorite job was at Lawrence’s Roy’s Art Gallery, which was also a framing shop.
At Roy’s, he could interact with artists who were making a living creating. Again, those feelings of jealousy surfaced. He wanted that life. However, his father’s words kept him in school.
While fighting off the temptation, it became an even greater struggle as he observed such artists as Robert Sudlow making a living painting Kansas landscapes.
Sudlow, who died in 2010, was a well-known Kansas artist and KU art professor. He became Alison’s mentor. Together they would traipse around the countryside doing plein-air paintings.
“He was my role model and he redefined the word artist for me,” Alison said. Through Sudlow, he learned that an artist is one who eats, drinks and sees everything artistically.
Eventually, so emboldened by his passion to paint, and just 25 credit hours away from graduating as a computer programmer, Alison dropped out of college to pursue his art.
But, to appease his father, 7,000 miles away, he faked a college diploma. When someone came into Roy’s to have a KU diploma framed, he made a photocopy of it covering the name. He filled in his name and sent it to his parents back in Iran.
“I wanted to make their dream come true,” Alison said.
That was 1987, and he began working at Roy’s full time and painting. Then, 10 years later, he became the owner of Roy’s Gallery. His parents came to visit. He had not seen them in 20 years. He was determined to tell them the truth. But his father was so sick with cancer he couldn’t do it.
His father died before he could tell him he hadn’t graduated from KU.
Now, in Alison’s new location, students appreciate the larger space. As they work on their individual paintings, Alison walks around and talks to all the students about their work.
“He goes around, and this is his genius: his ability to go from one artist to the next and bring out the best in each painting, which can vary from a cougar to a portrait to a landscape,” said Kathryn Nolan, of Basehor. She always wanted to take painting lessons; however, she wasn’t sure she could paint at all until she started with Alison.
“Most people have the perception art is all about light and color; what I learned from Mehrzad is art is about shadow,” Nolan said. “He can approach each painting and see what’s lacking and wherein a few brush strokes turn something flat into something three-dimensional. He can turn something static into something dynamic, and it’s usually just a few brush strokes and it comes to life.”
Another student, Denise LaRosh, a retired English teacher, said she wished she had been taking painting lessons from Alison when she was still teaching because she would have incorporated his style.
“The difficult part of teaching is helping students move forward and not letting them feel they are doing it wrong. He has such a way of bringing out what you are doing well,” LaRosh said.
Today, the jealous child of long ago tells his students there is art in everyone.
Alison has had setbacks along the way, from divorce to bankruptcy, but he has always rebounded. He may not be a rich doctor or engineer, but that doesn’t matter; he is doing what he loves.
His signature on his paintings, “M. Alison,” is a tribute to his father, whose name was Ali.
“I wanted to dedicate my work to my father so I go by Alison, son of Ali,” he said. His legal last name is Zangeneh.
Eventually, he was able to tell his mother the truth about the college diploma. Her response surprised him.
“She said they kind of had a feeling,” Alison said. He learned from his mother that all along they just wanted him to be happy.