Legendary Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli had never had a museum show in the United States before the Davis Museum at Wellesley College came out with a retrospective of the 77-year-old artist's work.

"He’s like a blank spot on the radar of the U.S. consciousness and the arts," said Davis Museum Director Lisa Fischman. "That’s unthinkable. It’s unforgivable. So here we have this amazing opportunity to redress the situation."

The situation is that Tanavoli is regarded as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists and certainly the highest-selling Iranian one. For 60 years, he’s produced sculpture, painting and jewelry all rooted in Persian myths and culture. 

"Parviz has been collecting tribal materials, handicrafts and artisanal wares for decades," said Fischman. "What he’s demonstrated through that activity is the kind of richness, the visual richness, the material richness of the common landscape of daily life in Iran."

For as long as he can remember, Tanavoli said, he’s been enamored with poetry and music. It became his wellspring as a child growing up in Tehran and today it colors his descriptions of his work. Cages are a recurrent theme. 

"For most people, cage is like a jail, like a prison, but not to me, no," he said. "In my culture, poet talk about the chest as a cage. In that chest, there is a nightingale singing all the time, gets agitated and  that’s what causes the poet to write poetry."

There is an optimism and beauty that has infused Tanavoli’s work even when it wasn’t present in his life.  The Iranian Revolution forced him to become an absent artist.

"There were a lot of difficulties to make a sculpture," he said. "There was no fuel, no power. Very little could be done in my studio. That’s why I studied mostly reading and researching, and traveling around the country. But when I think about it, it was very fruitful and much learning for me."

Throughout war, Tanavoli continued to make something out of nothing. "Heech" is the Farsi word for nothing, and in the 1960s, Tanavoli began interpreting the word as it exists in the form of Arabic script. The Heech is now a project 50 years running.

"I just give a body to it because that’s drawing and intriguing," he said. "That was only the sort of it. Then I realized that was a great discovery because it was very elastic and was very adaptable with other objects."

Today, Tanavoli produces his work from studios in both Vancouver and Tehran. Although he’s currently embroiled in a suit with Iranian authorities.

"The mayor of Tehran who was a cultured man, he expressed his love, to turn my house into a museum. And I accepted it. I thought that was a great idea. But then, soon after, Ahmadinejad became the mayor. He wasn’t a cultured man. He didn’t like any of that and he closed my museum. Then I had to fight for nearly six years to get my house back, but my artworks were taken away."

Even so, for his lifetime of prolific output, Tanavoli remains an iconic figure in Iran. His optimism is just as pervasive, and he has no plans to slow down. 

"The age hadn’t change me," he said. "I work the same as I used to do 20 years ago, 30 years ago. I don’t get tired of my work."