Thelma Emen

Thelma Emen: ‘We Armenians Must Learn to Support Each Other!’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/STOCKHOLM — I first met the artist Thelma Emen in 1997, during the months I lived in Sweden, and then twice in Istanbul and Stockholm.

She was born in 1945 in Istanbul. There were remarkable people in her family: her grandfather’s uncle, Archimandrite Serabion Eminian (1823-1854), was a member of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna, who published the French-Armenian-Turkish Trilingual Dictionary in 1853. Thelma’s father, Leon André Emen, a native of Constantinople, received his education as an architect and lawyer, but worked all his life in a medical lab. Her paternal grandmother, Araksi Kuchukian-Eminian, was a high fashion designer, while her mother, Sona Emen (née Puskulian), originally from Trabzon, was a cosmetologist, who played piano professionally, being a student of Istanbul’s prominent Armenian pianist Stepan Papelian.

Thelma Emen received her secondary education at the Pangaltı Mkhitaryan School and the Austrian Lyceum in Istanbul. From 1970 to 1973 she studied at the School of Fine Arts in Istanbul. She has lived in Sweden since 1973. For many years, she worked as a teacher in two schools, and at the same time she taught in the evening classes of the adult school. She has regularly participated in exhibitions of Swedish artists, and has had solo exhibitions in Stockholm, Istanbul, Paris and Florida (US). Her works are in the private collections of Sweden, Armenia, France, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, the Netherlands, US, Canada, Egypt, Turkey, Kuwait.

“Thelma’s art is a game of flame, a game of imagination, color and motive. She presents her paintings as poetic surrealism. Thelma’s main motives are humanity, its life and destiny. Her paintings evoke a sense of freedom and irony in the world around him,” Svenska Dagbladet, one of Sweden’s leading newspapers, wrote in 1984.

Director Rouben Mamoulian and actress Greta Garbo in a work by Emen

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Dear Thelma, how did you become an artist?

I started drawing when I was six years old. In the beginning, I drew watercolors. Then my father showed my watercolors to a well-known Turkish painter, who did not believe that I had drawn them on my own. Later, I learned the technique of oil painting from Anahid Apkaryan, a graduate of Istanbul Art Academy. My first participation in a group exhibition was at the Getronagan Armenian High School of Istanbul in 1969, then next year — at Istanbul Modern Gallery, where I met Professor Serif Akdik.

How did you find yourself in Sweden?

Professor Akdik would come to my house and watch what I drew. One day he said: “My daughter, you have to go to Europe.” Based on that, my father called the Armenian monastery on St. Lazar Island in Venice for an exhibition. And so I went to Venice and then to Vienna. On October 3, 1973, I had an exhibition at the Vienna Academy of Sciences with the help of a monk from the Mekhitarist Monastery. I had three free months to stay in Europe. My most modern school friend, who had moved to Halmstad, Sweden, invited me to join her, and then persuaded me to do an exhibition in Halmstad. I set aside 43 paintings and opened an exhibition with the most important gallery manager of Halmstad. However, on the second day of the opening, when I went to the exhibition hall, I was greeted by empty walls. They said a Dutch art dealer had bought all my paintings, but in the end I saw neither my 43 paintings, nor the money. In these expectations I stayed in Sweden… and I am still here.

And it seemed to us that such things do not happen in the West. What can you say about today’s Swedish painting style?

They have a very dark style and are always under the shadow of other great artists. As in the West in general, there is no painting in Sweden in the pure, true sense of the word. Modern Swedish drawing is an impulse. The artists do not have a path in their minds: they draw without any idea about the result. If they manage to paint something, it will be ok, if not, they paint a new one on the old one. And continue to do so. If a painting fails to sell for a long time, a new one is drawn on it, and if it will not be sold, another one will be drawn on it and all the time like this.

Another painting by Thelma Emen

Topics: painting

And what does Thelma Emen express in her paintings?

Different things. For example, my irreconcilability toward acts against human freedom. I am a person of my century, so in my art I want people know what kind of problems the artist’s contemporaries have had during that period. Thus, I make my own philosophy, my own policy in my four walls: if the others accept, it is ok, if not, it is their business. The painting is a part of me, something that walks with me since my childhood… I love life, I love people, I cannot remain indifferent to the injustices of the world, and my motives come from that.

And how does a painting come to be?

For me, first the idea is born, then the title, and then the painting. Many times an idea can stay in my mind for a long time, it will mature, and suddenly I start working. At the same time, I should have mental harmony in my life to create a painting, big or small. Of course, I make sketches for my big paintings. Only the abstract paintings are born spontaneously: you cannot draw sketches for abstracts. The human impulse is abstract itself.

As a teacher, when did you experience the greatest satisfaction?

In 2001 schools all over the world were given the task of building the “The Ship of the Future.” Everyone would make an installation about what is important for the future. Rågsved’s school in Stockholm gave me the assignment to do this installation. I think that cooperation is one of most important things for us. I presented my idea, which was to paint a blue ribbon around our municipality of Vantör. First we presented the project at Älvsjö Mässan exhibition center. My colleague Kjell Olsson and I painted on the ground 15 km long blue ribbon around Vantör municipality. At the inauguration, all students from Vantör schools came and stood hand in hand on the blue band on the ground. Finally, from many countries, including Armenia, people gathered at Ericsson Globe in Stockholm. Everyone built their own installation in 48 hours. When they finished building, I knit around everyone’s works a 15-km-long band. At the same time, upstairs of the Globe arena, my students exhibited their oil paintings. Over 1,000 oil paintings were made by my students from Rågsved and Snösätra schools, from the first and ninth grade.

In 1984, you painted your “Mona Lisa,” proposing before American researcher Lillian Schwartz the hypothesis that it might be Leonardo’s self-portrait.

Back in 1978, I drew a “Mona Lisa” where the landscape behind the woman was assimilated, as if it was passing through her. One day it was semi-dark in the room, and there were only bright colors in my picture. Under this chiaroscuro I saw that the bright colors represent Leonardo da Vinci’s famous self-portrait. It was just astonishing, so I began to wonder if Leonardo had painted himself in the image of Mona Lisa. And I soon found a way to prove my point. I painted Leonardo’s self-portrait on a piece of paper, then turned the paper over and after drawing a few lines on the face, Mona Lisa’s familiar features came in … After that Swedish television came and shot this story, but later they told me that they should not show it, as the value of the Mona Lisa supposedly would fall. A year later, all the Swedish newspapers wrote that an American woman had tried to prove with a computer that “Mona Lisa” was Leonardo’s self-portrait, something that I had already thought about without computers…

Can you say what place Thelma Emen occupies in today’s Swedish painting?

I joined the Swedish Artists’ Union after passing the jury. And I am the only non-Swedish artist in the Union. A circle of Swedish artists and art lovers know Thelma Emen as a unique black-hair lady, a kind of eastern touch. The same can be said about my paintings. My drawing style is Oriental, the Swedes consider my painting totally differs from theirs. As you can see, the colors I use are not very bright, but in the eyes of Swedes they are very bright, that’s why they “stamp” me as Oriental. In Swedish painting they use cold colors widely: gray, white… but for me, neither white or black are colors – they are just the absence of a color. I am often misunderstood, the Swedes give wrong interpretations of my paintings. I will understand that a Swede would never make a subject of painting, for example, marital infidelity. At the same time, I am indifferent to, let say, Viking mythology; I am not interested to draw its motives.

Do you or the critics see anything Armenian in your paintings?

They are not directly Armenian; I draw the difficulty of the whole world with a humanistic spirit, however, in the origin of my colors, the Armenian temperament emerges…

An exception is, perhaps, your painting, “Tribute to Greta Garbo and Rouben Mamoulian,” which depicts these Hollywood legends in the background of the banners of Sweden and Armenia. Thelma, the Eminian family has an interesting history; there are famous Eminians in Malta.

With my daughter, Medi, we contacted the Eminians of Malta. In the 1960s, a man named Eminian from Venezuela visited Istanbul and gave him documents about their family tree, reaching back to the Armenian kingdom. My great-great-grandparents were knights. They later moved to Malta, and then a branch of the family moved to Turkey. My father kept all these documents, but they have been lost after his death in 1978. Many in my family have been mathematicians or painters. My sister is a mathematician and I am an artist. Now the only people that have survived from the Turkey branch of Eminian family are me, my daughter and her daughter. And although my granddaughter’s father is Swede, we wrote her surname Emen to extend the name of our family a little more.

When you first came to Sweden in 1973, there were very few Armenians. Their number have increased in the last 50 years. Do Armenians living in Sweden know you?

Some people do. For instance, years ago I designed the cover of a book of poetry by Garo Hakopian. A few years ago, I had an exhibition at the Armenian Embassy. Ambassador Artak Apitonyan greeted me very warmly, and several Armenians came. I gave an invitation to the new ambassador for my exhibition this year, but unfortunately it did not work out. We Armenians must learn to support each other!

And what are you working now on?

Now I am writing a book! It will be a fiction book in Swedish about my life story. It begins from the 19th century. How World I controls the families of World II.

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