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On with their heads

After winning a one-year artist residency at Studio 18 in Pembroke Pines, Miami artist NFN Kalyan moved into his rent-free studio in September. Already, he's sharing the space with "Nelson" (as in Mandela) and "Kim" (as in Kardashian).

The former South African president and the reality TV star are the most-recent subjects of Kalyan's carefully constructed, three-dimensional portraits. After completing a drawing in ink, he uses a computer-controlled laser to translate it onto about 25 layers of glass placed half an inch apart. Each one contains part of the subject's fave.

"I separate each layer by guesstimating what part of the face would be at each relative depth," Kalyan says.

The ghostly, eerily lit portraits resemble heads floating in tunnels. With sheets of glass supported by steel bars, each piece rests on a wood base and weighs about 200 pounds.

This isn't the only kind of work Kalyan does. "Mother" includes a sculpture of a lifelike, nude male baby made from silicone, paint and hair. The infant sits atop a gilded pedestal inside a dodecahedron, which has 12 pentagon-shaped sides. "Moksha," a word Kalyan translates as "freedom from birth," is written in Sanskrit on the baby's chest.

"Plato said that a dodecahedron was the shape of the universe," Kalyan says. "This is a portrait of me in the future, reincarnated."

Kalyan, 30, keeps elements of his background a mystery. In college, he legally changed his name to Kalyan, his surname, and dropped his first name. To differentiate himself from other Kalyans, he goes by NFN (as in No First Name) Kalyan. When asked about the college where he earned his bachelor of fine arts in 2005, he explains that he typically declines to mention the name of the school because he's annoyed with the art department.

Born to a philosopher mother and mathematician father, the Indian-American Kalyan says he worked hard at drawing as a kid, but later lost interest, even while earning his BFA, and strayed from the profession he now sees as his calling.

After marrying and becoming a father, he quit designing graphics and jewelry for a high-end jewelry company and began drawing again. "I was trying to focus on something I could build into a full-time career and live on," he says.

So he began creating three-dimensional portraits that take months to complete. He prices most of them at $20,000 to $40,000.

In addition to Mandela and Kardashian, Kalyan's subjects include President Barack Obama, Miami Heat player LeBron James and photographer and artist Chuck Close. All appear in a series titled "Nature of the Beast."

"We cartoonize the famous," Kalyan says. "We turn celebrities into caricatures of human beings and judge them. But they do not really exist for us. Just their fame, which is only our own daydream. They are figments of our imagination.

"In this way, we can ignore our own nature," he adds. "If another person is great, we turn him into a god. He is not like us. If he is weak, he is useless. He is not like us. If he destroys, then he is the devil. And most certainly not like us."

He sees his series as a request to consider others as simply human, rather than to elevate or to degrade them.

While some people have questioned his choice of including Kardashian alongside the Dalai Lama and Obama, Kalyan confesses that such judgment is the reason he included her. While he admires some of the subjects in his series, he doesn't do extensive research on the "glass heads," as he casually refers to them. He chooses the subjects based on people's reactions to them. "I know nothing about [Kardashian]," he admits.

The artist reserves his research energy for other projects, including a series he's doing on theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and a giant drawing he says will pick up where Italian Renaissance artist Raphael's "The School of Athens" left off. He plans to use the painting, which depicts Aristotle, Socrates and other great thinkers, as the template for a work that will include more-contemporary philosophers.

Will he ever turn himself into a "glass head"?

"I've thought about it," Kalyan says. "Sometimes, I think maybe I'll just do the last one, but I'm not sure."

Colleen Dougher operates the South Florida arts blog Arterpillar.

NFN Kalyan

When: Studio 18 is open 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1:30-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

Where: 1101 Poinciana Drive, Pembroke Pines

Cost: Free

Contact: 954-961-6067,,

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