A Beautiful Mind: Artist Seeroon Yeretzian Lives for Love, Art and Creating

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03 Arno Illustrated

By Christine Soussa

GLENDALE — There are many opportunities for Armenians to unite, especially as we prepare for the Armenian Genocide Centennial. One such opportunity was beautifully displayed on the morning of the first day of 2015 as the American Armenian Rose Float Association Inc. debuted their first float in the 126th Tournament of Roses Parade, titled “Cradle of Civilization,” which won the President’s Trophy.

When looking at the float, my eyes were immediately drawn to a beautiful tree, a three dimensional representation of an illustration by Seeroon Yeretzian titled “Pomegranate Tree” known as the “Tree of Life” on the float. I met with Seeroon and was instantly moved by her strength, vibrant personality, dynamic background and all she has done to bring together our community. Seeroon’s artwork represents power, energy and strength of mind. She suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a progressive neuro-degenerative disease. It results in difficulty speaking, swallowing and eventually breathing. Even in her severe condition, she manages to crack jokes and her willpower, love for beauty and expression are captivating.

When I first entered Roslin Art Gallery to meet Seeroon in Glendale, I was moved by the power of her artwork. Her pieces truly stimulate the senses; some pieces showcase dark imagery, while others are vibrant in color. The obscure pieces have commanding features and signature elements include nudity, eyes, skulls and children. The more vibrant paintings include animals and gorgeous intricate lifegiving and religious symbols like the sun, flowers, peacocks and pomegranates. Seeroon says, “My works are Sunshine and Moonshine. The gloomy pieces are about the Armenian Genocide and human suffrage. The theme of bodies and heads represent the displacement of the Armenian people. While we may have been displaced, we still carry on. The Sunshine pieces, I typically did during the day at the gallery. They represent the ability for us to carry on and rise to success, knowledge and beauty. The darker art, I would paint in my home studio at night after all were asleep.”

On the one side of the gallery I noticed one of my favorite Armenian artworks, the colorful and globally recognized Armenian “Splendor of Aypupen.” That painting is probably in every Armenian household worldwide, either as a poster, bookmark, calendar etc. I always assumed it was a historic Armenian painting; I had no idea it was a painting by a modern female Armenian artist.

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Born in 1951, Seeroon was born in the Tiro refugee camp in Lebanon. Her Father was an Armenian Genocide survivor who crossed the Syrian Desert and settled in Beirut. “Rats, mice, mosquitoes roaches, flies and slugs were blood brothers and constant companions,” she said of the refugee camp. When she was 17, her father passed away in an accident. Seeroon, the second oldest to a family of five siblings, began providing for her family financially and emotionally.

Art comes easily to Seeroon as she has a deep love for it. However, as mentioned in her book, Seeroon Yeretzian, “My mother taught me as she was taught: ‘It is dishonorable for girls to study art and paint nude figures. A girl should marry and have children.’” So, Seeroon did just that; she married her husband Haroutioun Aram Yeretzian in 1974 and had a son in 1976. When the war happened in Lebanon, they fled and came to Hollywood.

After she was married, she began formal training in Fine Arts at UCLA and Otis-Parsons where she graduated in 1985. Soon after graduation, she developed earnestly as an artist.

The following is an excerpt of my interview with Seeroon. (Note: She answered each question through an electronic eye-controlled computer that allows her to communicate with her eyes.)

How did your parents influence your art?

Seeroon: I grew up in a poor refugee camp, which was completely composed of deported Armenians who were Genocide survivors. Every day I used to listen to them recount their sad, heart-wrenching experiences.

My father, at age 6, crossed the Syrian Desert. He stayed alive by eating undigested seeds from horse waste and drinking horse urine instead of water.

He had learned to play music and to write in the orphanages where he grew up. The sounds of his music were the only refuge we had in the refugee camp. Our house was built with discarded musical instrument parts, from pianos and drums, etc. He was the sculptor of our valuable “Paradise Lost.”

Each year he taught me different instruments and our house was a museum of instruments. We were allowed to draw and paint on the walls, anything we wanted. In that environment, my mother and father turned our shack into a valuable institution with music, art, fashion, weaving, knitting, writing and poetry. That poor environment was my rich base of knowledge where I learned of life’s mystery and mythology. I was taught about value and wisdom early in life. My father spoke with me about sex education at age 16. He used to tell me how to use each organ of my body from my brain to my sex organs (a taboo topic at the time). My life knowledge and philosophy came from my parents.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Seeroon: I get my inspiration from my surroundings. My personal “Once Upon a Time” life, (before being diagnosed with ALS) and from my ancestors that blend together Christian and pagan images beautifully. Fused together, I enjoy revealing the beauty that comes with combining religion and evolution, elements of water, land and sky.

As an artist, I went back in time. By researching our ancestors Petroglyphs (rock and carvings) and by bringing them to life, giving them color, movement and music through my paintings, I began to almost get in character, wondering what circumstances they were painted in. Surely they weren’t in an art gallery painting like I was with tubs of paint and lush paint brushes. I wondered if they ever thought that their artwork would have such an impact and that one day years later a woman named Seeroon would bring their creations back to life in the 20th and 21st century from a modern art gallery in Glendale, California, a country that didn’t exist at the time the artist were painting on rocks.

Throughout my time as an artist, I have created 17 complete alphabets in the Armenian ornate initial style, inspired from my ancient and super-talented male illuminator artists, by recreating and creating my own new ornate initials. All the initials are composed with animals, birds, fish, “Humanimals” (a word I have coined), imaginary creatures and trees in different forms. The most important images are the religious leaders and with any other type of male or female characters, sometimes merging or combining different creatures to create a single ornate letter.

What words of wisdom can you offer our current Armenian generation?

Seeroon: My advice to the new Armenian generation is: Get rid of your incurable “woundology” of the Armenian Genocide. Feeling victimized has not cured our scares for 100 years.

Nowadays, I notice that the new generation is absent from reality because they are “Phone- aholics.” They use only one finger and eyes to watch other people’s achievements and they find new ways to gossip about everyone and everything. By using Smartphones, the new generation is losing their smartness and turning into robots. They walk the streets without noticing their surroundings, only focusing their attention on a small screen.

My message to the new generation is: Be in the present and don’t waste time because when you get older, you will meet the reality of time — life’s evaporation into the atmosphere. Don’t use only one finger on your smart phone, use all 10 fingers by learning any musical instrument that you love and create new musical instruments. Teach your children how to use them. Be witness to your time by watching around you. Write and document your surroundings and be present in the real life stories that you have the blessing to be a part of. Turn your life writings into movies and plays. CREATE! When I watch movies, I wait for the end to read the credits and I am always proud to read Armenian names. I wish we had more Armenians involved in the art and film worlds. Be exemplary in your life and engage with your surroundings. Be present. Be aware. Be vigilant about your surroundings and Be face to face instead of being on Facebook.

Do you have any words of wisdom to women specifically?

Seeroon: My message to “Womanity” is now that we have achieved “equality,” we have to do the same achievements that men did. Do not rise on man-made, high stiletto shoes, which are dangerous and unhealthy, but rather, rise higher with your knowledge and skills. Be smart and creative; invent. Be visionaries and look ahead of you. Don’t look at your life through a rear view mirror. Life on Earth is a mirage complete with repetition of happiness and loss. Be conscious of time. Turn with the wheels of time and use and abuse every second of your life; it is yours. Don’t give any attention to “What will people say about you?”

What is your life philosophy?

Seeroon: All my life I have been an egalitarian, humanitarian, altruist, evolutionist. I have used every second of my existence by using each minute to create, through art, music and writing. I would daily go to Downtown Los Angeles to meet with my “homeless friends.” I would help them by giving them food and water. I would talk to them about their alcohol and drug addictions. I would talk with them about how they became homeless. Many were war veterans. One day, when I was parking my Jeep in downtown, I noticed a woman who resembled my mother. She was carrying garbage bag after garbage bag. I exited my car and tried to help her and she refused. I immediately grabbed my Polaroid camera and took many photos of her. She moved around a lot so I wouldn’t get a clear image, but I was stubborn. Finally she stopped and looked at me with a gaze that said, “Here is the photo you want, now leave me alone.” I thought she was hiding from “humanimals;” she had thrown herself into the same garbage bags she was carrying. That night, when I got home, she was on my mind. After the family went to sleep, in the middle of the night, I went to my downstairs studio and did my “Moonlight” painting. I painted her on canvasses and in different poses.

My philosophy of life is not to waste any second or even half a second of our valuable time- life; it’s too precious. Give help to needy families and in general to other beings in need, humans and animals.

How does faith influence you?

Seeroon: I grew up going to church every Sunday with my mother. Sometimes I have questioned my faith: escaping the war in Lebanon I wondered where is God? Growing up in a refugee camp, with so many who were Armenian Genocide survivors, I wondered where is God? Was he on vacation? There continues to be so much pain, hate and killing in the world, where is God? Now ISIS is devouring the Middle East and the world. In God’s name so many perish – where is God?

My father was an atheist; he used to tell me that non-believers were more likely to be pacifists. His only concession to the existence of God was in love — according to him love is the only pathway to God because it leads us to experience ethereal heights, which in turn become earthly Heaven and we embody God.

In the past four years as I struggle in my prison of ALS disease, I realize God…God is Love. My family, friends and fans who support and love me, that is God. In every good deed God is present. God is Love and He is with us all the time, even if we question Him sometimes. I pray that each of you who read this embrace “God Love” to yourself and everyone around you.

I would like to say thank you to my precious friends and family who have been dear to me during this time. Thank you, Harry Vahan Mesrobian, Lena Hartounian and my son Arno Yeretzian.

Tell me about the Rose Parade Float experience.

Seeroon: I have been a big fan of the Rose Parade and had planned to apply for float design. I was going to compose my design with illuminated alphabets in different languages to showcase the multicultural beauty of Los Angeles using different colors of flowers, animals, birds, trees and people.

However, unfortunately, that dream, like many others I have, cannot be a reality because for the past four years I have been crucified with the ailment of ALS. This illness gradually killed my muscles and super healthy mind. My knowledge “bank-head” sits on top of my useless dead body. I am unable to do anything. All I can do is write with my eyes on a superb device, Dynavox. Now, readers, do you see the absolute importance of not wasting time and embracing each and every second of existence!

Seeing the Rose Float this year was a very proud moment for me. I am delighted that my “Seeroon Darer” book inspired the designer of the Armenian Float. I dedicated 25 years of my life to that book and seeing it come to fruition on a global platform made me very happy.

The designer of the Armenian Float used my “Pomegranate Tree” painting as the centerpiece and crown of the float. I had illustrated this image three years earlier for a friend and eventually I turned it into a square greeting card and ultimately it turned into a three- dimensional tree that sat on top of the first Armenian Float. It is a delightful journey for me to see how my artwork inspires not only me but those who see it.

Before interviewing Seeroon, I (Christine) saw the float firsthand with my mother, 90+ year old grandmother, toddler and infant. Standing before the stunning float with four generations, I marveled with pride at the strength and beauty of our cultural heritage and history—what a rich culture we have! What a remarkable opportunity this was for Armenians to educate others about our Armenian language, music, arts, religion and contributions to society in all areas because the Tournament of Roses was a true global stage with a wide broadcast reach.

My (Christine) interaction with Seeroon was probably the one of most powerful encounters I have ever had and one I will always cherish. After reading this piece, you can understand why.

 

To learn more about AIWA, visit www.aiwainternational.org. To get involved with the AIWA SF affiliate, please visit www.aiwasanfrancisco.com or send an email?to aiwasanfrancisco@gmail.com.

(Christine Soussa is a member of the Armenian International Women’s Association San Francisco Chapter. The interview was edited by Meleeneh DerHartunian.)

 

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