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La Jolla sculptor lets his hands speak about George Floyd’s death

Artist Nasser Pirasteh, friend Julianna Schuetz and his art inspired by George Floyd's death.
La Jolla sculptor Nasser Pirasteh and friend Julianna Schuetz pose with his artwork inspired by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
(Diane Bell / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Using Minnesota limestone, metal strips and a chain, artist Nasser Pirasteh expresses his outrage through art.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody May 25 elicited an immediate visceral response from Nasser Pirasteh.

The La Jolla sculptor didn’t take to the streets to protest, however. He went to his studio and grabbed a pencil and began sketching. Then he gathered art materials, picked up his hammer, chisels and welder and started to work.

Over the next two months, his cry of outrage took the form of a 5-foot-8 sculpture composed of limestone, iron and copper.

He abstractly depicted a police officer’s knee slowly choking Floyd, equating it with his own feeling of being under water and unable to breathe.

“That force ... that moment... what Floyd said, ‘Mama, I can’t breathe’... I just knew I would not enjoy my life if I sat quietly, neutral and did nothing. I would say, ‘Shame on me,’” said the Iranian-born Pirasteh. “I don’t know where it’s going to go. I don’t know who’s going to own it. I don’t know how it’s going to be ... I know none of these things.”

What he knows is that he used his voice.

Pirasteh views himself as a journalist, capturing the story of the moment as well as the history of oppression of Black people in America.

His artwork is loaded with symbolism, from the rough welded form of a human head at the statue base, the knee propped on its neck and the chiseled boot, up to a woman’s face by the words “Mama, I can’t breathe.”

Encircling it all is a worn and battered metal wagon wheel evoking the centuries-old yoke of slavery, a carved personification of the Mississippi “Old Man” River, numbers representing slaves’ brands, a rusty chain and an upward-reaching Black hand.

Pirasteh has a sculpture called “Tree House” on display at Scripps Memorial Hospital, eight others at St. Cloud State University, where he earned his master’s degree in art and taught for a couple of years, and one in a town square in his hometown of Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city.

But this piece wasn’t a commissioned artwork created for a client or gallery display. It was a protest piece from start to finish.

Pirasteh is no stranger to art that starts a conversation. Nearly 25 years ago, he sculpted an 8-foot-tall piece, ironically, in tribute to a Minnesota police officer who had been slain.

Brian Klinefelter, 25, was shot and killed Jan. 29, 1996, while trying to arrest three young suspects fleeing after a liquor store robbery in St. Joseph, Minn.

The statue, also carved out of Minnesota limestone, depicts faces of additional officers and stands in a park named for Klinefelter in St. Joseph.

Pirasteh’s La Jolla yard, a couple of doors from Muirlands Middle School, is a garden of whimsical, organic sculptures.

Four years ago, one of his yard art pieces — a concrete, rebar, wire mesh and tiled walk-in hut-like installation with imbedded glass and broken pottery — was challenged by San Diego code enforcement officials. It was deemed an unpermitted, uninhabitable structure in violation of the city’s 20-foot setback code. Unless it was moved, he was facing a $250,000 fine.

The artist claimed his hillside property was subject to a 6-foot setback and went to court in protest.

There was a community uproar at the time, with many supporters arguing that his installation was art and an inspiration to passersby and local schoolchildren and should be allowed to stay put.

Pirasteh lost his battle, though. He then spent $24,000 trying to move the heavy piece to another part of his property. It broke apart in the process and needed extensive repairs.

After an unsuccessful attempt on Oct. 29 to move the 10-foot, multi-ton installation in his yard at 6706 Avenida Mañana out of the front setback, artist Nasser Pirasteh announced the piece will have to be professionally dismantled sometime this week.

That instance, like this, he says, was an expression of his First Amendment rights. “The reason I am in the United States is not to have money or fame, but because I couldn’t have, in Iran, my First Amendment rights,” Pirasteh said.

Julianna Schuetz, 24, is a new, fervent fan who stumbled upon Pirasteh and his organic art in late May while using the smartphone app Randonautica. It maps random coordinates within a set space and sends adventure-seekers on nearby missions of discovery.

Schuetz glimpsed the artist over the fence in his home sculpture garden and was instantly intrigued and inspired by his artwork. He and his wife, Zari, welcomed her in, as they do most visitors, many of whom sign a guest book by the front door. (One note says: “Thank you for this blissful afternoon. Your work moves my spirit, stirs my soul, awakens my heart and frees my thoughts.”)

The young “Randonaut” and the Iranian sculptor became instant friends.

“We were both outraged by the murder of George Floyd,” Schuetz said. “Nasser is unable to scream the loudest or write the largest check; however, he is able to create art that will make the audience ask the questions necessary for progress.”

Pirasteh invited her to write “Mama, I can’t breathe” on the sculpture, then he carved the words into the stone.

She recently posted a video of his sculpture and what it represents on TikTok. It has logged more than 100,000 views.

“This is a newsworthy story about how two people from completely different backgrounds, who met by happenstance, have the same outlook on humanity,” Schuetz said. “And both agree that Black lives matter.”

The engraved metal sign above Pirasteh’s studio entrance sums up his message: “Without fine art, civilization will die.” ◆