By Erin Bank
In October of 2015, Asima Arif ended an engineering project in Wyoming. Just two months later, she opened Earthfire Arts Studio on the corner of 10th Avenue and Judah Street in the Inner Sunset. This may seem like a fast career transition from scientist to artist, but Arif had, in some ways, been preparing for it her entire life.
“My career has always fluctuated between the arts and the sciences,” Arif said.
Arif was born in Lahore, in the Punjab region that crosses India and Pakistan. Her parents moved every three years as diplomats, bringing the family across the Middle East and Africa to Europe. Arif moved to the U.S. at age 18 to attend college. She moved from Ohio to San Francisco 24 years ago and is a proud resident of the Outer Sunset.
Arif has always been passionate about art, even though her formal education is in chemical engineering. She smiled broadly when she talked about her own art, remembering art projects as a preschooler in Algeria.
“I painted a big elephant on butcher paper, as big as me, and I remember these ladies in French saying, ‘Oh, look at that!’”
Arif’s own preferred mediums are painting and calligraphy. She creates her work at home in her spare time, although some is displayed in the shop: a great blue heron she would often see on her walks in Golden Gate Park; a scene of the ocean; and an intricately drawn design of letters and shapes. She has never sold any of her pieces. It’s something she does for herself.
When Arif began to think about opening a small business, it was important to her to create a space that built community around art, rather than solely a transactional business. Her passion for providing accessible art started when she worked as the fine arts director for the Boys and Girls Club chapter in the Excelsior District from 2001 to 2006.
Although Arif was not a ceramicist herself, she was immediately drawn to the idea of a ceramic painting studio. She loved that painting a piece of clay is beginner-friendly and allows everyone to be creative in their own way. Although there are different painting techniques, there is no formula for what to paint.
“If you don’t like it, you can just wipe it off,” she said, while demonstrating on a small ceramic dog. “It’s so simple, babies do it, sitting on dad’s lap and just going for it.”
In the years immediately following the opening of Earthfire, the studio enjoyed steady business from office team-building activities, families in need of a pastime for a wide range of ages, and birthday parties and other celebrations. In addition, Arif and her staff taught at local schools, hosted open studios and workshops, held kids’ art sessions, and even provided a space for small concerts.
“It’s a cultural center. It’s a little bit of everything,” Arif said.
The resulting environment is a cozy, welcoming place. In every nook and cranny of the studio there is a current or future work of art. Scattered around the studio are unpainted mugs and tchotchkes, tubs of paint, finished pieces on display and a workspace with colored glass ready for melting. The walls serve as gallery space for other local artists.
“It’s just really accessible art; you can just walk in. It’s for the public,” Arif said.
When the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders came down in March 2020, Arif scrambled to cancel the large reservations she had on the books. She was able to get a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan but didn’t have a way to keep activities going in the studio space itself. Instead, she took the opportunity to boost the studio’s online presence and started selling to-go kits through her website. Customers can view unfinished ceramic pieces and paints online, select what they want, and then pick up the kit complete with brushes and tips so they can paint at home. When finished, they bring their art back to the store where it is glazed and fired in the kiln. There are also options for embroidery, clay molding, canvas painting and paper crafts.
Although her studio can now welcome up to 10 people indoors, Arif thinks she will keep the to-go kits. Another pandemic creation is the monthly “Quarantine & Create” themed art boxes with painting, crafts, ceramics and a surprise project. Baubles and paints were spread across tables ready to be packed into fancy packaging for May’s boxes in honor of Mother’s Day.
Arif is thankful to be holding summer kids’ camps again this year. Last year, the camps were for children of essential workers. This year, anyone who wishes to register is invited for the half-day programs of instruction and creative space to explore.
“I have a community of painters. I’ve felt really supported,” Arif said.
She said “It’s a time overall when people extend themselves” to support local businesses. She set up at local farmer’s markets to let people know she was still in business. On Mother’s Day, there was a constant flow of people back again, a sign of things returning back to normal.
Arif does incorporate elements of her engineering background into some of her own work, but she seems satisfied to have her business intersect with her passion.
“I just love it. I get to talk about art all day!” Arif said.
For more information about Earthfire Arts Studio, go to https://earthfireartsstudio.com or call (415) 213-5579.