Framing Hagop Iknaian

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By Anna Yukhananov

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Hagop Iknaian emerges from the basement of his store, with the smell of paint thinner wafting, and carrying a large painting. It is from the workshop of Raphael, more than 400 years old, and framed in gleaming 22-carat gold. Iknaian sets the painting down and peers at the frame through his thick glasses, lightly touching the edge of the ornate mold.

“Still tacky. Ah, dust,” he says, and wipes at a miniscule dust mite. After days of work, the Raphael has been restored to its old glory.

But more work awaits. Local customers from Watertown, Cambridge, and even those  as far away as Virginia and New York, come to Hagop’s Art
Studio bearing historical documents, old paintings and modern artwork requiring the perfect frame. And Hagop takes them all in.

He has been in the business for 42 years, through three recessions, nine presidential administrations, changing customer tastes, evolving communities.
In that time, Iknaian’s priorities have remained the same: preserving the past heritage for future generations.

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In his workshop, Iknaian is constantly on his feet: fixing old frames, taking customer orders, poring over restorations. The paintings come to the studio like worn-out patients: dirty from candle smoke, rusty, scratched, with spots and holes.

Restoring a painting requires the surgeon’s meticulous precision and the artist’s intuition. And Iknaian is uniquely qualified to do both: he studied art at the Vienna School of Art, and has kept up on new techniques by attending yearly seminars.

“My business is like a doctor’s,” Hagop said. “You have to know, to learn, all the time.”

Careful framing and restoration means mastering countless chemical processes and techniques — from coloring and composition, to gilding and molding frames.
For the work of the old Masters, these techniques are necessary to bring forward the delicate facial glow of the subjects, Hagop said.

“You have to think through the artist’s eyes, and think about what they’ve done,” Hagop said. “I want to bring back the original look, so that people can feel and see and understand how the painting looked.

“You have to see what happened before, you have to know where you came from. And you must keep that knowledge for the next generation.”

Preserving the Armenian culture

The idea of preserving the culture of the past also motivated Iknaian’s work with the Armenian community when he first came to the United States.

He said the Armenian immigrants from the 1960s used to gather monthly, and plan cultural events for the community.

“We talked about what are we going to do, how we are going to live, how to keep the Armenian culture alive,” Hagop said. “We wanted to keep the family, keep the unity.”

He painted backdrops and scenes for the Armenian theater troupe, which used to travel all over Massachusetts and New England.

However, the new generation, which arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, had its own priorities, and was less interested in monthly meetings and cultural preservation.
“For the newcomers, everybody’s their own boss,” Hagop said. “America changed that way too in the last twenty years. Because of liberal thinking, you think freely. Now everyone accepts Armenian-Irish, Armenian-Italian marriages.”

The changes in immigrant communities have made it more difficult to maintain Armenian traditions, Iknaian said.

“Every nationality has problems with this. It’s like a drop of water, when you put it in a big pot, it breaks down. There’s no foundation,” he said.

Hagop said that he married a woman from the Armenian community not because of discrimination, but simply to preserve his language and traditions.
“My ancestors died for my nationality. Why should I throw it away in the garbage?”

However, even the first generation of immigrants no longer holds meetings. Armenians have moved away to other suburbs or states.

“Now, society’s changed, everything’s changed,” Hagop said. “So I do my work.”

Next week, he said he will be restoring Chinese panels.

“I don’t know how I’m going to do it. When you work, you learn. That’s how life is.”

Hagop’s Art Studio is located on 33 Belmont St.