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Drivers find place for spiritual, philosophical growth

Artist, philosopher, and auto mechanic Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalabad set up shop near Fresh Pond in Cambridge.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Artist, philosopher, and auto mechanic Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalabad set up shop near Fresh Pond in Cambridge.

CAMBRIDGE — Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalabad, artist and auto ­mechanic, often tends first to the spiritual needs of those who pass through his shop.

“You are not lost,” he told a recent visitor calling for directions to his auto repair business and art gallery. “Look up.”

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The Aladdin Auto Repair Gallery, behind the multiplex in the Fresh Pond Shopping Plaza, is as much a place to contemplate ­philosophy and faith as it is a garage and art gallery. Rezaei-Kamalabad, known in his circle simply as Mahmood, seizes any opportunity to turn a situation into a spiritual lesson.

He will have a lot to impart when he opens his gallery and garage to the public as part of North Cambridge Open Studios Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m.

The evening will include refreshments with the artist and viewing of the art. Mahmood crafts big, symbol-laden sculptures from steel as well as more conceptual pieces, such as a book that combines elements of the New Testament, Old Testament, and the Koran. He also plans to demonstrate his “Sense of Unity Healing Machine,” a large gyroscope that mimics the earth’s rotation, equipped with car seatbelts with which he will strap himself in for a spin.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Artist, philosopher, and auto mechanic Mahmood Rezaei-Kamalabad set up shop near Fresh Pond in Cambridge.

It is hard to classify ­Mahmood. Sure, he is a sculptor; his works are as packed with mystical emblems as a ­tarot card. The healing ­machine can be seen as performance art. So can a plan to travel the world with a handmade flag emblazoned with a Sumerian symbol for unity.

But he does not talk about his art the way an artist does, with a passion for technique or with an overlay of metaphors. For instance, the “Sense of ­Unity Healing Machine” is not a metaphor for healing; ­Mahmood believes it really can heal you.

Although he has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts College of Art, Mahmood is an outsider artist in another way: He says that he has not sold any work.

“If you can change something for the better, that’s the meaning of art,” he declares over a cup of tea, always available at the garage. “Not selling something.”

The message is more important than the medium, he adds. “If my philosophy has no meaning, then the work is really not worth anything.”

His philosophy involves bridging differences, loving one another, and looking up, specifically to the North Star. “It’s stationary, connected to the Earth’s axis,” Mahmood says. “That is the healing point.”

Mahmood wears a mechanic’s blue slacks and shirt and heavy boots. Although his hands are blackened with grease, he enthusiastically shakes a visitor’s hand, and ­often, in conversation, lifts his palm in the air for a high five. Expressing his ideas, he is earnest, but warm and humble.

“God is the number one artist,” he says. “Artists are very close to God. They receive information and pass it on. I’m trying.”

When you visit his website, you may find a photo of him in work clothes, with the motto: “God is in the detailing.”

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mahmood’s steel sculptures are behind the shop. “They’re monolithic, timeless, kind of spooky,” said Karen Boutet.

Karen Boutet — co-owner of Zeitgeist Gallery, an alternative art space in Lowell — says she tried to exhibit one of ­Mahmood’s sculptures, but it was too heavy to move. “We would have needed a flatbed truck,” she says. The sculptures are large and abstract, oddly flat, and packed with symbols from Sumerian cuneiform, an early system of writing, as well as from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

“They’re monolithic, timeless, kind of spooky, like something you’d come across amid the pyramids,” says Boutet. But she has more to say about the man than the art. “Having him as a mechanic is like a spiritual experience,” she says. “He’s an antidote to our go-go-go capitalistic mindset: Wait, stop, ­rearrange for a minute.”

Although he does not pursue many options to show his work outside his garage, a few years ago Mahmood hauled one of his sculptures down to Manhattan and displayed it in Times Square. He put a sign on the trailer, wishing peace for ­Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

Mahmood grew up in Iran, as a Shia Muslim. He immigrated to the United States as a young man in February 1978, and arrived to find the Northeast buried by a great blizzard.

“My brother came and converted to Christianity,” says Mahmood. “My cousin told my father, and he started to cry. He was disappointed. That was the beginning of my thinking, was to take this kind of pain away. To heal my father, my brother, my community, and to bring them together.”

He is keen to heal divisiveness. He considers the bombing suspects with a sigh. “Those kids were in pain, too. If only they had guidance,” he says.

Mahmood no longer sees himself as a Muslim but has ­developed his own faith, for which his compound holy book is the guide. He calls himself “a Lighter.” His prayer posture is standing, raising his arms exultantly upward.

“The way we as humans can prevent a lot of difficulties is to love each other, and the way to do that is to love yourself,” he says. “And to do that, you must look up.”

Cate McQuaid covers the local art scene for the Globe. She can be reached at catemcquaid@­gmail.com
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