The Power of Rage

An interview with the artist Cheryl De Ciantis

By Dr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak

We are proud to Introduce our new member Dr. Mahmood Karimi Hakak, an educator, poet, author, translator, theatre director, and filmmaker on our projects. He has created over 70 stage and screen productions in the U.S., Europe, and his native Iran, most of which are focused on intercultural dialogue, peacebuilding, and reconciliation.

His extensive experience and diverse background make him a valuable asset to any creative team. With over 70 stage and screen productions in the U.S., Europe, and his native Iran, Mahmood’s focus on intercultural storytelling has provided audiences with a unique and thought-provoking perspective.

Mahmood’s ability to navigate different cultures and languages has given him a keen understanding of how to communicate complex ideas and themes to a wide range of audiences. His work has been praised for its ability to break down cultural barriers and promote understanding and empathy. Whether he is working on a small independent production or a large-scale commercial project, Mahmood’s contributions to any creative team are invaluable. 

Artworks made by Cheryl De Ciantis

In many cultures, roses are a traditional symbol of spiritual light and renewal, and of the fragrance of heaven, as roses tell us there is heaven on earth. Roses are an especially potent symbol in the venerable and profoundly poetic Persian civilization and culture. Each woman’s rose petals are a different color, in honor of her individuality.

Cheryl De Ciantis in her own words:

I have loved to draw since childhood; and any medium I use—oil painting, mixed media drawing and sculpture, or anything that comes to hand, is a means of exploration: into an idea, into a story, into a face—and all faces are marvelous. Recently I have returned to one of my first loves, portraiture, of both real and of mythical beings. I am beyond grateful for all the examples and influences of friends—fellow artists, architects, historians, researchers, poets, filmmakers, theater artists and simply exceptional people—in developing the confidence to spend a life doing what energizes me. I also endeavor to use the wisdoms I have received in mentoring and teaching younger people, and receive learning from them in turn.

My interest in human systems led me to become a Senior Faculty member of the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), an international not-for-profit organizational leadership research and training institution, where I have spent a large part of my public career. As Director of CCL’s Brussels campus, and, more recently, co-founder of Kairios, I have co-designed and delivered creative leadership development programs for dozens of organizations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe; and creative, values-based coaching to hundreds of people. I have had the opportunity to publish articles and three books on my researches; and I am co-creator of the Kairios Values Perspectives online survey.

I earned my B.A. at UCLA in Art History and Connoisseurship, and a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, which houses the Joseph Campbell Library and archive. A significant part of my research is the study of myths found in cultures worldwide that celebrate the mysteries of physical embodiment and the human desire to live a good life, create, and come to peaceful terms with the ultimate mystery, death.

I live near Tucson, at the foot of the Catalina Mountains in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, with my husband and creative partner, artist and educator Kenton Hyatt.

The Interview

Mahmood Karimi Hakak: You’ve been drawing portraits of women since 2015, nearly 7 years, and you’ve created more than 100 of them. What got you started? What does it mean to you? Why do you do it?

Cheryl DeCiantis: I have always loved portraiture and have been able to make a likeness; not always perfectly, but it seems to be something in my brain, just perhaps as abstraction comes naturally to some artists who create openings for meaning through their receptivity to the possibilities of pure color and marks. I initially got started partly because I was seeing a proliferation of images of women, and we were looking forward excitedly to our first female U.S. president. I started reflecting on all the women who have inspired me and why. The images I was seeing at that time were most often by artists who did not prioritize the making of a true likeness, who were probably using image to make a mark to direct our attention: “Look, here is someone significant, someone you need to know about.” I love that; but I also feel strongly that making a likeness in which the person would hopefully recognize something of herself is also extremely important. One of my most respected teachers, Betty Edwards, warned us, “Be careful what you choose to draw, you’ll fall in love with it.” I absolutely find that to be true. I try to feel my way into the woman’s spirit—in doing that I must give credit to my life partner, the painter Kenton Hyatt, whose paintings and photographs, though never sentimental, are very emotionally evocative, which is of first importance to him, and he stays true to it in his work. Inevitably some of the portraits say more about me, and though lives can take strange turns and we can never know the deepest heart of someone else, I will not make a portrait of someone I cannot respect. One of my latest portraits is of Liz Cheney, the American conservative politician who has put her career on the line to speak truth and stop the takeover of her party—and our now-fragile democracy—by Trump.

MKH: How do you choose whom to draw? (and why women, not men?)

CD: I want to draw women because I am a woman and I needed, and need, to see images of women. It’s become very popular and that’s fantastic, because we all need to see images of inspiring, powerful, fascinating women. I do wish that real men were more celebrated and thanked, men who are doing the right thing, and there are many, many of them. I have granddaughters and want them to know about women they might not encounter these days, people who inspired me. I am interested in the lives and accomplishments of artists of all kinds, women who have advanced the sciences, women who have served society, women who have awakened our imagination; serious women, wild women. The gift of the internet is that women who were formerly invisible can now be found and celebrated.

Mahsa Amini, age 22, was arrested on September 13, 2022 in Tehran for “wearing inappropriate hijab” by the morality police responsible for enforcing the dress code of the Islamic Republic. As reported thanks to female journalists now imprisoned, she was severely beaten and died in police custody three days later. Her death has sparked some of the largest protests in Iran since 1979.

MKH: Why is it important to get a good likeness of the women you draw?

CD: The images that are out there can seem very cartoonish to me. I think they are valuable, and I recognize a lot of artists have been putting out images intended for young girls, which is great. But I also think that a good likeness gives the person the dignity they deserve, and it makes us want to look more closely at the woman as a person. I try to get as close as I can to getting what seems to me to be the likeness. Sometimes I do better; sometimes I feel perhaps I’ve gotten the spirit. For me, a good likeness means something of the essence is there. The woman comes across as real.

I know almost none of the women I’ve drawn, and many of them are no longer living. I collect as many photos as I can off the internet, so that I can not only choose the one that I want to make a drawing of, but to sort of triangulate the available information. How does she look from a different angle? In different light? With different expressions? At different ages? In the case of some women I want to commemorate their youth; others feel to me to be powerful elders no matter what they did earlier in life, and we need positive images of elders who have made something of their lives. It’s significant to me whether a woman is shown smiling—sometimes, as was the case with Sandra Bland, the young woman who died in Texas in police custody in 2015, a woman’s smile can be politically manipulated. She had a great, goofy smile, which was used by racist trolls to discredit her, to persuade people not to take her seriously, in order to minimize the awful impact of her death at age 28. It was important to me to find an image of her looking serious, which she was. She was on her way into a career of social service and advocacy, helping others, when her life was cut short.

MKH: Why have you chosen to make portraits of Iranian women?

CD: I have always been aware that Iranian women have been forced to endure unthinkable repression under the four decades of the Islamic Republic. I was so struck when I heard about the protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, and that women were in the streets, burning hijabs and demanding the end to the rule.  immediately wanted to know what was happening, to find out. It’s so hard to get news of important events in other countries. Here, we are still so insulated, and I also know many of us are numbed by the trauma of Trump and the serious threat of fascism in this country. We are so traumatized. So, seeing the news of protests I was galvanized—and you raised my awareness in this as you have in the past; because of you I have always a vivid sense of the beauty and depth of Persian culture. I have always felt sympathy for Iranians left in the wake of a heroic overthrow of the shah’s government that was propped up by the West, being overtaken by the religious fanatical men, and women crushed. Your recent writings have helped me to see the historical currents—I’m grateful that both of us are “old”—it gives a perspective that is so different from what it was in youth. It’s not that we are not still idealistic—we are also now realistic, and have seen an arc of history, and can see what may be ahead. It’s not good news.

Sarina Esmailzadeh, age 16, severely beaten on the head by security police September 23 in Karaj. They claimed that she committed suicide by jumping from a roof, and her family was pressured to stay silent.  In a recent video post she said, “Nothing feels better than freedom.” In her last video on Telegram, she said, “My homeland feels like being in exile.”


The repression of women is as old as history, which tells us it’s way older than that. Most of us internalize it—our mothers teach us—and worst of all, too many women are actively complicit. It seems like half the new politicians in this country are women who support the power grab by the GOP. That to me is sickening. I feel rage toward women who “collaborate.” That’s one reason why I feel so passionately that the women who resist need to be recognized, supported, their names and struggles kept at the forefront of our fickle attention spans.

I have drawn falling rose petals around the faces of women who have been killed while protesting the killing of Mahsa Amini. To me, the petals signify the hope and the passion of each of these women, and the choices they made that led each to sacrificing themselves. We must honor them and keep their names alive. The colors of the petals are a little different for each because each was an individual with her own dreams and convictions. I hope not to keep drawing rose petals.

Women in Iran, for example the sister of Hadis Najafi who was shot protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, have started to say, “We are no longer afraid.” It’s terrifying to hear this, but I so hope that they may prevail, after so many prior attempts. You have pointed out that this is different, it’s a protest led by women, and I’ve heard that people from all classes are rising in indignation against the savage violence of the Morality Police. Permit me to say that the women members of this cadre are the worst of the worst. I have no pity for them, only rage. I will not draw women I could not sympathize with and I will not draw the women I deplore, whether they are power grabbers themselves, or simply cowardly. Women are terrifically strong, as you’ve made a point of saying, and I appreciate, and we are stronger in solidarity.

MKH: What do you want other people to get from these images?

CD: I want people to feel these women as real, as unique, as powerful, as worthy of our respect and attention. I want people to be curious about them, to find out about them, especially if one or another image resonates with them in a special way. I want them to be drawn in by the likeness; some people will respond to certain images, others will feel some connection with entirely different ones. That’s one reason I simply keep going. The more I look, the more I find. I hope that for people who see these, especially as a body, a growing body, of work and devotion, that they will be inspired to think of who inspires them, and why. I want them to think of themselves as capable of being in the world in a way that inspires others, to see themselves as powerful. How often men, and women, have said, “Women have not made history, they have not contributed like men.” That’s total bullshit. Look and you’ll find. One thing I love about the chaotic internet is that the more you look for images of women who have made a difference, the more you will find. The more women, especially young women, see women as capable of making a difference, in every field of human endeavor, the more they become capable of seeing that potential in themselves.

MKH: Why are these images important for you, now?

CD: We are hearing of demonstrations, and hearing about the courage of demonstrators even though the authority has curtailed the internet. Their lives, their names, are important to me, and they are important for all of us to know. A woman friend of mine here in the US, someone I respect very greatly, said she was aware of demonstrations but said, “I don’t know their names.” If I do this work and give her and other people names and faces, then more of us know what is happening. The work depends on others, to share what information we can find, to research, and to get the information out there however we are able. I can contribute artistically, to give a name, and to the best of my ability to give a face to the women who are being cut down but also to those who are persisting in the face of violence and death. We owe them our attention—as we owe the men standing beside them and being cut down, and my hope is that putting their faces out there will get more people concerned, to call out their humanity. And we need to see the courage they are showing—we all need courage now, especially women, to stop the wrongness. There is wrongness in Iran, there is wrongness in the U.S. and it needs to be stopped.

Mahmood Karimi Hakak is a poet, author, translator, and theatre artist whose creative and scholarly works are centered around intercultural dialogue and peace-building. His upcoming book, Shakespeare in Tehran, recounts his experiences living under the government of Islamic Republic during the 1990s. Dr. Hakak has taught in the U.S., Europe, and his native Iran, and presently serves as Professor of Creative Arts at Siena College in upstate New York.

MKH: We as artists know that art is a gnosis, a profound way of being in the world, of seeking wisdom and understanding, even when we cannot understand trauma and injustice. What have you learned?

CD: Some people seem to think that artists are not capable of objective judgments. That’s pure hogwash. Putting creative manifestations into the world involves conscious choices and judgments all the time. At an earlier point in my life, I had to give myself permission to call myself an artist. We all suffer from thinking our work may not be worthy, not good enough, not significant enough. I’m sure people who don’t think of themselves as artists, but who pursue meaning in other ways, for example writing, also receive from the practice of their discipline the opportunity to self-question and to learn to self-trust. Not to trust oneself unconditionally, but to remain open to the possibility we are wrong, and the possibility we are right. Socrates described a fellow philosopher who would go home from the Academy at night and do the equivalent of watching TV. This man asked himself no questions (and because Socrates noticed, this is the only reason we still know the name of this self-satisfied sod: Hippias). Socrates instead would go home, and there in his solitude, away from the distractions of disputation with his colleagues, the voice inside him would pipe up, asking him: “Do you really mean what you said today?” “How do you know that is true?” This voice never seems to stop.

Unidentified Tehran Street Demonstrator, September 2022

Injustice is wrong. How we perceive it and come to judgments is complicated. We need to do something I call “stopping time.” It’s almost a magical power. It’s when we shut out the noise around us and allow that voice to rise: “How do you know that is true?” “What will you do?” “What consequences will it have, to you and others?” “What do you do when you learn you are mistaken?” “What is it that is given to you to do, that is your responsibility alone? How will you fulfill that responsibility?” We are each unique, and we have a responsibility to give ourselves to the world, as best we can, and never stop. What have I learned? I know that the suppression of women in Iran is wrong. I know the suppression of women in the U.S. is wrong. I know my rage against it energizes me and that is a positive thing. People rightly say: “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”

MKH: You talk about rage. What should people do with their emotions when confronted with horrible truths about the world?

CD: First of all, pay attention, to others and to yourself. Second of all—and I’m talking to myself too—try to be as objective as possible. Look for reliable information, ask questions, don’t believe the first thing you hear or read, check it out. Use both your heart and your head. When bad things are happening, especially to people we feel sympathy with, whether they are close to us or far, we need to learn to find the wellsprings that will help all of us keep going. Share the facts you learn with others, and refuse to let people blindside or gaslight you. Keep informing yourself and trust your truth.

Speaking as an elder, for that’s what I am: this is a dark time. Did you know by the way, that homicide is one of the very most frequent causes of death for pregnant women? (NIH Call it out for what it is! It’s the consequence of hateful, vicious, misogyny and always has been. Yes, I speak of rage—it’s a self-protective instinct among other things; and in fact has driven me to do things to protect others that put me in situations where I might easily myself have come to harm, and once at least saved me from having my throat cut by a mugger. There is power in rage. We need to honor our rage, cultivate it with care and awareness, and use its energy to drive us toward standing forcefully against injustice. Anybody who is not living in a state of total denial in the U.S. can see that the rule of law is in grave danger. In my decades of teaching about values, I also know that societally we’ve been taking it for granted for far too long. I believe in judicial process, but I also know it is being cynically subverted by the worst actors, who seek only permanent and absolute power, at any cost. These people may not be reachable, but many others are. We have a friend whose father was part of the Resistance to the Nazi occupation of Norway. The Resistance members took a lifelong oath never to reveal what they did; but her father did give her some lessons. The Resistance went everywhere in Norway to give and get information, and everywhere there were “good Norwegians and bad Norwegians.” They had to learn at the risk of their lives who was which. But, she said, “ultimately, even the ‘bad Norwegians’ came around” to recognizing the seductive evil of fascism. We cannot take justice for granted, we cannot assume someone else will stand up for what is right and call out what is wrong. We can’t be passive. We need to call out the people and institutions that are subverting human rights and never, ever stop doing it, out loud.

MKH: What can we do as artists, especially in our time of obvious divisiveness, struggle and violence?

The arts are absolutely vital. We imagine ourselves to be a rationalistic society, but we are continually blindsided in our supposedly objective assumptions, and instead choose to amplify some “facts” over others, with a decidedly unobjective and biased view, mostly based on seeking and consolidating power over others, whether in large ways or small. We must all exert our power, which is vastly different to exerting power-over others. Anyone who uses the word “Truth” with a capital T—and that very much includes religious fundamentalists—is fooling themselves and, as we see every day, abusing others. Artists have access to truths. Most of these truths are readily visible when we take off our blinkers of self-interest. For example, the fact that Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. Nothing is more obvious. You have pointed out the lies of the Iranian clerical rulers who tell themselves they need to resort to lies to keep their religion in power. Christian nationalists in the U.S. are exactly the same. Ironic, isn’t it?

People to whom I would give the name artist work very hard to preserve the personal freedom that allows them to see and to express those truths—that by the way includes amazingly courageous people who may be confined by walls and very often by violence, like Golrokh Ebrahimi a prisoner of conscience who has spoken out passionately against the barbaric killing of women by stoning for supposed religious offenses and continues to do from prison; but it’s not an accident that artists are considered to be dangerous to authoritarian states, for example Shervin Hajipour, the songwriter arrested in Iran for composing Baraye, “Because Of,” which became the anthem inspired by how people reacted against the killing of Mahsa Amini and that is now heard in the streets, not just in Iran but everywhere.

Holding to the truth, and holding up to vivid and compelling scrutiny those who harm others by lying and abusing, is the one thing we can do. What we do as artists surpasses our individual reach, it travels farther and reaches more minds and hearts than anything else. This is because, I think, we all want to see, it’s fundamental to our humanity. Too many people work hard to kill their own humanity, struggle not to see, and confine their lives and those of others to an increasingly tight and ultimately paranoid knot, like the book-burners. How can such people find value in life? How can they live?

MKH: Is there hope?

CD: There is always hope. We have to live in hope, even with our eyes open to the horrible things we are seeing. I have great hope in younger people. I am 70, and I’ve lived long enough to have seen a lot of changes—and to change my mind countless times about many things; and to know that I must always question my own perceptions. That does not mean refusing to trust, but to keep my eyes open and live as much in accordance with what I see as I possibly can. But truthfully, it’s not my world anymore, it’s the world of the coming generation. I have a lot of hope for them, in spite of threats on every side to the continuance of humanity, whether because of climate change or whether we simply give up on being human and let the authoritarians decide for us—that is, until things change again, as they always will. I love that young people, certainly in this country, are more accepting of difference, more accepting of themselves. And as you have pointed out, Mahmood, they have the advantage of youth’s invincibility and immortality. Clearly, there is some evolutionary value in that, and we must be thankful for it.

Ghazal Ranjkesh, a law student, was shot in the eye on November 15, 2022. After being operated on, she posted on Instagram: “I was returning home to rest after 4 hours of class and 9 hours of work. The last image my right eye recorded was the smile of the man shooting at me.” In November 2022, 140 ophthalmologists in Iran wrote a letter reporting that many people treated by medical centers had been blinded in one or both eyes after being deliberately targeted by bullets and paintballs. Her subsequent posting of a glamorous selfie displaying her injury is a statement of resistance.

I hope most of all because humanity is creative. Creativity comes from beyond us, and through us, it’s unstoppable. For all those who crush their own spirits for the sake of crushing others, there are many more who look about themselves with wonder and love for this life and everything and everyone we share it with. That is what may make it possible for us to survive and someday, even thrive as a species among our teeming neighbors on the planet and in the cosmos.

MKH: Thank you, Cheryl, and thank you for what you are doing!

Tucson, Arizona USA, October 16, 2022

More of Cheryl’s work can be seen at