One of a few key messages that I gained from a conversation with Aquil Virani, a local artist who turns 30 years old today, is that the year 2021 presents opportunity. He’s celebrating his birthday by writing 30 letters to be sent via post to 30 people who have inspired him. Printed in classic typewriter font “to avoid the email vibe,” he explains, each letter also has a visual art piece on the reverse side that is inspired by the recipient. Some letters will be public. Others will remain private. But this “Birthday Art Project” (as he refers to it) hasn’t been without challenges (more on those in the Q&A below).
Stemming from a concept Aquil initiated in 2015 for his 24th birthday (when he created 24 pieces of artwork in 24 hours), he has continued to create annual birthday projects since. They manifest in many forms, including artwork derived from self-imposed time limits (100 works of art in a week for his 25th birthday), adjectives from A to Z that describe inspiring women (26th birthday), a 27-second mini-documentary, 28 thank yous, and 29 messages of healing and solidarity on the third anniversary of the terrorist attack on a mosque in Quebec City. These projects are often inspired by his other work (see his website for a closer look) that usually incorporates deeper themes of community and activism.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed for brevity.
Apt613: What inspired you to do this project?
AV: Any project is the intersection of a bunch of different factors. Number one is the yearning to connect with people in a time of social isolation. Zoom is not the same. How do you infuse a bit of delight into the process? You send a letter. You send a cool thing. Something the person wasn’t expecting.
There’s also the instinct to reflect. Writing letters and going through the process of figuring out “who has inspired me?” is very rewarding; you’re thinking about your values and who has helped you get there. I’m also trying to keep more in touch with people, as a personal goal. And the exercise in writing. To communicate in a way that isn’t only visual. You can make someone’s day by sending them a letter. It’s a very simple gesture.
As an artist, I think about it a lot. Artists deal with ideas and meaning as adjacent concepts. The stories we tell ourselves infuse normal actions with more meaning.
Apt613: Having a good idea is easier than putting it into action and accomplishing it. What challenges have you faced on this one?
AV: Trying to pick is always hard. There are more than 30 people in my life who have helped me. I can more easily articulate how I feel about some people, so I pick them to write to first.
Another struggle is not biting off more than you can chew. 24 pieces of artwork in 24 hours (he refers to a previous project), while fun, was a bit too much. I always want to do more, but it’s a balance and important not to stretch yourself too thin.
Finding contact information for some people was also tough. Famous people, athletes (whether still working or retired). I didn’t anticipate it would be so hard to find contact info for people.
When deciding whether to make the letter private or not, I want to share everything, but some people prefer something more private. Of course, I respect that because it’s for them.
Apt613: Of the 30 individuals you are sending letters to… are they all favourable connections? Sometimes we learn the most from people who give us hard lessons in life.
AV: I’m not necessarily writing to people “oh my gosh, you are so inspiring and cool.” One is a professor who doesn’t really know me. They asked [when I was about 17 or 18 years old, in an undergrad class] “who is proud to be Canadian?” I was the only one to put their hand up. The professor made an example out of me. They asked “why are you proud to be Canadian?” and “how do you reconcile genocide and colonialism?” I felt kind of attacked, but 10 years later, I think it was a good point being made and caused students to be more reflective.
Apt613: Would your answer to that question be different today?
AV: It would be more nuanced. You can love something so much that you want it to be better. You can like or love something yet also see the faults within it.
Apt613: What advice do you have for others if they’re inspired by your work and wish to take something like this on?
AV: Start small. Instead of overwhelming yourself, start with a single letter.
Apt613: Anything you would have done differently?
AV: I would have started earlier! But it’s been rewarding, even before I send the letters. Some people might write me back, but all of that is a bonus. I’ve been able to take the moment to reflect on what I value and what I appreciate about other people. It’s a nice place to be and it doesn’t matter what happens after. My goal has been achieved.
Apt613: Anything you’d like to add?
AV: I don’t want to risk sounding preachy, but times are really hard right now. I’d like to say: There are delights waiting for you just around the corner. Hopefully you have enough time—and energy—to find them. Seeing the world through the eyes of a kid is super helpful at the moment and to find joy in simple things. That’s the overall sentiment of the project.
Check out past projects and other work by Aquil Virani on his website.