PITTSFIELD -- Mosques, sites of prayer, can be ancient and beautiful buildings, or pop-up spaces in store fronts, or a run in a city square.
Williamstown artist Julia Morgan Leamon misses the sound of the five calls to prayer -- the sound of the voices, the Muezzins calling the adhan in buildings across the city and the sound moving from one building to another, echoing, so she feels it vibrating through the walls.
"The voices in Egypt are what makes a place a place," she said.
She recalled them as she stood in "Islam Contemporary" at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, looking around at photographs and calligraphic script, arches and blue tile, many-pointed stars, scenes from Michigan and New York and Springfield and Cairo, and artwork recalling traditions from Cubism to Persian miniatures.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Boston-based artist Ambreen Butt learned the Persian tradition of miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore. From Persia, miniatures traveled to the Mughal empire in India: an Islamic tradition of painting with human figures, intense color and sharp detail.
Hers have adapted for the 21st-century.
"Whatever I am producing now, you can't find a trace of miniature painting -- on the surface," she said, "but the way of working I developed, making one small mark at a time," her study of miniature painting has shaped all of her work since.
"I play around a lot with the experience of making a miniature," she said.
She may extract one element to focus on, like the female figure, a nayika, who often appears in the early paintings.
A nayika, always represented by male artists, seduces the viewer and draws the eye toward the action, but always at a distance, far from the reach of the heroes and monsters.
In Butt's paintings, the women are active -- they fight the demons.
Inspired by the heroic tales of Amir Hamza, famous for his courage, she wanted to paint a figure who would be contemporary, she said -- not a 14th century hero changed into a woman, but figure who has been "a woman from the time she was made" -- a lean, muscled woman in jeans and a t-shirt.
Morgan has taken Williams College students to Egypt three times now. They talk and make art with students at Luxor College of Art. "Islam Contemporary" includes a book of these images, "My Neighbor," images responding to this idea.
Her own students are amazed, she said. They feel the people they meet open up, wanting to show their side of the story. Among the students, the program adapts naturally, starting from scratch each time, and so feels genuine to her.
"There are many approaches to Islam," she said. "Americans often think of it as radical or ritualistic," but it has as many interpretations and ways of living as any faith, as many ways of keeping a contemporary outlook.
"In Cairo, there is such a range of ways people see themselves," she said. "There is a level of modesty expected in the street," for example, as a courtesy.
It disconcerts her to see visitors who are not aware of the courtesy or don't notice and wear skimpy clothing. It makes them stand out.
On her last trip to Egypt, she said, she felt moved by the goddess Nut, whom she first encountered at the Williams College Museum of Art in a Kiki Smith work. Traditionally, Nut has long arms, a long tubular body and long legs and feet, and within the tube of her body float red disks of sun. She swallows the sun at night and births it in the morning. She cares for the whole world.
Morgan felt stretched outside her culture and place, and she felt drawn to a woman asked to stretch across the sky every day.
It takes practice and focus in order to understand another culture, she said, like learning penmanship as a child. Most students who have taken the trip with her have begun to learn Arabic.
They become "open to something they would never have thought of."
Through art, artists studios, street paintings on cement barricades, and making art with artists who are students too, they learn to see Egypt more clearly as it is, without assumptions.
"It's an interesting time for Muslim artists now," Butt said. "I don't think people have found out what Islamic art is now, because that takes you back to what Islam is. Many artists within Islamic countries make art that does not address Islam, but is linked. Should it be considered Islamic art? Being Islamic is something else."
Her work has not had a lot to do with Islam, though she is known as a Muslim artist, and she welcomes the freedom to define herself as an artist and to choose, to let her work evolve.
She decided, she said, she has control of it in her studio and not outside.
She touches everything she makes with her own hands, she said. She draws and prints all of her own work, for enjoyment she receives from making the work, even if it deals with a difficult and painful subject, for the sheer pleasure in making it.
Addressing chaotic images, she feels at peace, reflective.
"Sufis see things that way," she said.
That calm in hard times recalls the words of a poet she loves, Faiz Ahmd Faiz, translated into English by Agh Shahid Ali (a Kashmiri poet who lived and wrote in Boston and died, she said, too soon):
"They cannot snuff out the moon
... if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
if just one moment anywhere on this earth."
Morgan finds Arabic script sensual. It doesn't pause for punctuation, keeps flowing, lends itself to exuberance.
That passion moves, too, in Butt's descriptions of her art.
Miniatures are meant to seduce the viewer, she said, and she was seduced by them before she began to make them -- "You fall in love first, then you work."