World Traveler 

Local painter S.A. Habib’s long and unusual journey has brought him from Pakistan to Nashville to the coast of Italy

Local painter S.A. Habib’s long and unusual journey has brought him from Pakistan to Nashville to the coast of Italy

S.A. Habib grew up in Tennessee, but his passion for art was born on the other side of the world. His father, a psychiatrist from Pakistan, and his mother, a psychiatric nurse from California, met and married in America, then moved to Pakistan in 1950. Habib was born there, in the coastal city of Karachi, six years later. “British rule ended in 1947, so Pakistan as a nation was very young and roguish then,” Habib says.

Rather than practice nursing, Habib’s mother immersed herself in the new nation’s 6,000-year-old culture—taking her son along with her. “The Indus River is one of the first places nomadic man stopped wandering and created a civilization,” Habib says. “The art of the area is incredible, and my mother began to take patterns she saw on tombs and other archaeological sites and translate them into textile designs. As a kid, I’d see her drawing and making her own interpretations of these old designs, and I thought to myself, 'Hey, I could do that.’ ”

By age 11, Habib was designing textile patterns for his mother’s business—and winning gold medals in international design competitions. His career path as a textile artist seemed certain until war erupted between Pakistan and India in 1971. One of Habib’s most vivid final memories of his birthplace is of rescuing his frightened dog from the flat rooftop of his home as an Indian MIG swooped down in a bombing run directly overhead. Days later, he and his mother evacuated, leaving most of their possessions—and Habib’s father—behind. As a doctor, the senior Habib was barred by the ruling military dictatorship from leaving the country. He managed to rejoin his family three years later under the pretext of accompanying a patient on a medical emergency out of the country.

The family settled in Oak Ridge, where Habib’s mother had family. Habib completed high school there before going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in fine art at Middle Tennessee State University. An internship with a Nashville firm during his senior year in college helped launch his career in commercial advertising design. After a 15-year stint with Buntin Advertising, he opened his own advertising design shop, Locomotion Creative, in 1998. The firm counts Cracker Barrel, Tractor Supply Company and Vanity Fair among its clients. “I always knew I’d be a graphic designer,” Habib says. “But at the same time, I was always making art that wasn’t design-oriented.” While Habib created drawings, silkscreen prints and painted wooden furniture for his own pleasure, he didn’t focus seriously on a fine art career until a few years ago. “I ran into Michael Shane Neal, who used to work with me at Buntin and is now a portrait painter,” he says. “I took lessons from him for four or five years, and he taught me a lot.”

A great admirer of John Singer Sargent, the English painter known for his bravura brushwork, Habib began to paint impressionistic still lifes and take them to art fairs around the Southeast. “There’s a whole underworld of these festivals out there, where you set up your tent for three days and sell your art,” he says. “I painted large-scale chocolate and strawberry pies and though I loved doing that, the public was slow to warm up to them. I heard people say a million times that they couldn’t have my paintings in their house because looking at them would make them fat.”

Searching for subject matter that wouldn’t inspire weight gain, Habib settled on the sea. “I love the water and grew up going to the beach in Pakistan,” he says. “I did a series of beach scenes from Florida [where the artist has a second home] and then started painting Italian scenes a few years ago.” On his visits to Italy, Habib makes sketches and takes photographs that he uses as visual references when he returns home to paint in his Nashville and Florida studios. Recent images include fishing boats at rest in a misty Mediterranean Sea beneath Mt. Vesuvius, a solitary yellow boat on the canals of Venice, and the resort town of Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast. Whether dancing across the ocean’s surface or warming the stone walls of an Italian village, light plays a key role in the artist’s works, as does the loose brushwork typical of the impressionist style. “I like the idea of using as few broad brushstrokes as possible,” he says. “I’m not into detail and would rather leave it to the eye and mind of the viewer—who can interpret much more than the brush can.”

Locally, Habib’s paintings are available at the Caldwell Collection on Bandywood Drive in Green Hills. His latest works will be featured there Oct. 9-11, with the artist painting on site during the show.

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