She secured a place on an American battleship bound from Mumbai to California; from there, she travelled east to New York, arriving in 1945. She never made it to Paris, but she did make it as an artist. Now 87, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (the second surname is that of her late husband) has been making art for five decades, and is widely recognised as one of the most influential artists working in Iran today.
She is currently having something of a moment: Monir, a doorstop of a book co-edited by Serpentine Gallery director Hans Ulrich Obrist, will be published in the autumn; and she is among 10 artists and designers nominated for the Victoria and Albert Museum's Jameel prize. Set up in 2009, the £25,000 prize is awarded to contemporary artists inspired by traditional Islamic design techniques; the winner will be announced in September.
Farmanfarmaian's art has encompassed many forms, from simple paintings of flowers and birds to unsettling "memory box" installations reminiscent of the oeuvre of Louise Bourgeois. But her largest, and most compelling, body of work combines two techniques from traditional Islamic design: mirror mosaic, in which fragments of mirror and coloured glass are laid in plaster to create intricate geometric patterns; and reverse glass painting, where images are carefully painted on to sheets of glass that are then viewed from the other side. These works are often large in scale and exquisitely beautiful, each sliver of glass catching and refracting the light like the teeming images inside a giant kaleidoscope.
Mirror mosaics have decorated the interiors of Iranian shrines and palaces since the 16th century. On the phone from Tehran – where she returned to live permanently in 2004 – Farmanfarmaian explains how she became fascinated with the technique. "Around 1971, I went to a certain shrine [in Iran]," she says, "and I became very awed with the way the mirror pieces were reflecting back images of the people there – the beggars, the holy men. It was so beautiful, so magnificent. I was crying like a baby."
Her first stay in New York lasted 12 years; she studied at Cornell University and Parsons School of Design, and worked as a fashion illustrator. It was an eye-opening time: she drew fully naked life models for the first time ("In Iran, the men always wore short pants," she says, "but at Parsons, the model was competely naked; he would always look at me and wink"), and fell in with a social group that included Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella. They instilled her lifelong interest in modernism – the influence of which sits fascinatingly in her art. "It was amazing [to know all these people]," she says. "I loved it. Even though I was just painting flowers and designing fashion, I loved these modern things."
In looks, Farmanfarmaian falls somewhere between Frida Kahlo and Audrey Hepburn; she was often asked to sit for portraits, and the composer John Cage once described her as "that beautiful Persian girl". Also among her friends was a shy young fellow illustrator named Andy Warhol, from whom she bought several sketches of shoes. In exchange, she gave Warhol a small mirrorball, which he always kept on his desk.
She returned to Iran in 1957, but after the Islamic revolution of 1979, which saw the vast majority of her works confiscated, sold or destroyed, she spent another 10 years in New York. During her years in Iran, she had to persuade craftsmen to work with her who were distinctly uncomfortable about taking their orders from a woman (though you imagine, talking to Farmanfarmaian, that she could persuade anyone through the sheer force of her charm). But she thinks her nationality has been more of an obstacle, at least internationally, than her gender. "In America, after the revolution, after the [Gulf] war, nobody wanted to do anything with Iran," she says. "None of the galleries wanted to talk to me. And after September 11 – my God. No way. Rather than being a woman, it was difficult just being Iranian."
Farmanfarmaian still works in her studio every day from 9.30am to 1.30pm, and wishes she could manage longer: "I'm old," she says, "but my mind is much younger." But she still appears somewhat bemused by the fact that she has found such success as an artist. "I never took myself seriously," she says. "I had no hope that I would be one of [the nominees for the Jameel prize], out of so many artists. But," she adds with a mischievous cackle, "maybe I do deserve to win it, when I am 87 years old."
• The Jameel prize 2011 is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 (020-7942 2000) from 21 July to 25 September; the winner will be announced on 12 September. Monir is published in the autumn by Damiani Editore.