This past weekend I grabbed my European Volunteer Service friends, and we popped over to Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, for an art tour provided by the Berlin Hotel. The weather was quite the foil to last week’s sunny, crisp sort, but the day was still so charming, made up of long, quiet, gray rides through rain and flat lands and punctuated by endearing men and women armed for everyday with paintbrushes and homemade wine.
The above picture is the table of the first artist, Hakob Hovahnnisyan.
He lives in a small village, Gusanagyugh, where he moved only a few years ago. The landscape surrounding his home was surely uninspiring with dull grey rocks, smudgy grass and endless horizon, but Hakob said he moved there for the “light”. The best light in all Armenia he said. I was instantly considering the typical Why’s of moving (re: the schools, the active lifestyle, the beach, the job market). Not many people pick up and follow ‘light’.
This is his room where he paints, sleeps, cooks, warms by the gas stove. It’s actually a good picture of what most Peace Corps Volunteer homes are like, except that Hakob covered the walls with off-white draft paper where he hangs his work and scribbles things like, “Պետք է ապրել այնպես, որ կարողանալ նկարել, ոչ թե հակառակը:” It’s necessary to live that way, which can be pictured, not the contrary.
I always wondered what it would be like to be that fabled kind of artist. What it would look like if I jumped off the face of the earth and landed somewhere totally unknown, like the moonscape country of Gyusanagyugh. To be totally devoted to my art. And now I know. It’s a lot of broken furniture, of light-following, of sparse rooms, of quiet.
And outside his home stands this tiny structure, a remnant of soviet pressures which so supressed Christian life. A few brave souls who could not find a church nearby constructed their own for lonely services. The inside of this place was crusted with candle drips and thick with wet air. A picture of Mary. A cushion worn out by the recurrant fall of knees.
Ah, but a mood can certainly pick up at the sight of such houses, surrounded by piles and piles of cabbage, don’t you think? I know it’s hard to see, but look around the houses. Piles and piles. It’s like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but … just cabbage.
The cabbage piles were followed by a visit to this structure, old walls of a seventh century fortress that jut into the sky at the crest of a hill. When you’re an American tourist, such vists always spark phrases like, “Well, we just don’t have anything that old in the States,” and “I don’t think our Starbucks will last this long.” And then we start thinking about the irony of American self-importance. And then we say things like, “Remember that time we were standing in a 1400 year old building.” Smile, then a bunch of ugly pictures (come on… you know they’re ugly), then back on the bus.
Now the next artists were my kind of people. Yesayi and Irina Meyroyan. These aethetes set up a snack spread as though it were a piece of art. They’re yard was speckled by rickety sculptures that doubled as summer tables and clothes pin holders, little works set up merely for their own pleasure, because very few other people would ever see them.
And finally, there was Vahan Topchyan. His art was my favorite. Whimsical, dreamy. Made me want to write a children’s book and ask him to illustrate it. Ooooh… maybe I will…
He was a strange bird though. Less of an upper lip than my own dad, a mustache that curled down into his mouth. He laughed almost constantly, and when asked by my friend Barbara if there were vacant apartments in the building, and how much they would cost, he replied, “If they are girls, they don’t have to pay rent. They just have to be gooood girls.” And… creeper laugh. But his art was phenomenal. I would absolutely buy one of his Noah’s Ark pieces if I had any dollars at all.