Helena Grigorian (Brandon Balayan photo)

LOS ANGELES — The sounds and smells of Armenian coffee are part and parcel of gatherings at traditional households. The long introductions reverberate as people fill up your home. After introductions the question of who wants coffee is posed, and the host, or the person who makes it the best, proceeds to the kitchen and sets up each cup on a tray. Conversation is often distracting, and can cause the coffee to boil over the jezve — spilling on the flames and engulfing the room with the smell of burnt coffee.

Some of the patterns formed by coffee grounds at the Helena Grigorian exhibit (Brandon Balayan photo)

Once ready, the coffee is eagerly drunk as one topic of conversation leads to another, until everybody’s cups are empty and turned over on their saucers. Next comes the question: Who is going to read the cup?

As Armenians know, the coffee grounds in the traditional coffee do not dissolve and once the cup with the dregs is turned over, patterns form which can be interpreted by cup readers.

Artist Helena Grigorian was fascinated by this process and as a result she created “My Life From the Grounds Up,” a display about Armenian coffee and the ritual of tasseography (the divination method that interprets patterns in coffee grounds, or tea leaves) at the Glendale Library, Arts and Culture. The display consists of 300 coffee cups that Grigorian hand painted with real coffee grounds, clear glue, polyurethane and other materials, as well as large photographs of coffee grounds from Grigorian’s personal cups.

Grigorian recalls being captivated by the readings when she observed the tradition with her mother and her friends.

“I couldn’t wait till I got older to have my cup read because it was something that would bring all the women together,” Grigorian said.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Other artists have been inspired by tasseography as well. Artist Anush Movsisyan Avejic recreated the fortune inside one’s cup, but on a six foot long canvas back in 2018 at the Roslin Art Gallery. Aramazt Kalayjian, a multidisciplinary artist based in Yerevan, had his “If walls could talk” exhibition in 2018. As people enter the exhibit, they notice sculptures featuring haiku poems on one wall, and Kalayjian at a desk with his Armenian typewriter. Here he would make coffee for people, read their fortune and write them an Armenian haiku on his typewriter.  More recently, in 2021, the Arab American National Museum held a Zoom session with artist Levon Kafafian – where they taught attendees how to make coffee for readings and discussed the ancestral tradition of speculative storytelling. Each artist is influenced by their Armenian background, and seeing the custom being performed in their homes.

Grigorian credits her Iranian-Armenian background for introducing her to the custom. Her father is from Tehran and her mother is from Abadan, but they immigrated to Germany before the Iranian revolution. Helena was born in Germany before her family moved to the States in 1975. Grigorian recalls her mother’s friends from Abadan gathering monthly for coffee and conversation. It was a community that, one way or another, found themselves sharing stories and drinking coffee with each other once again long after leaving their native city.

Today, Grigorian is a Los Angeles-based graphic designer and photographer with more than 15 years of professional experience has devoted years to gathering material for this display. The display is set up in the Glendale Library’s ReflectSpace Gallery. A Yemeni artist, Yasmine Nasser Diaz, also has a project on display that involves playing family cassette tapes in a display that looks like her family kitchen.

Anahid Oshagan, the co-curator of ReflectSpace, explains how art displayed in this gallery is meant to address social justice issues.

Some of the patterns formed by coffee grounds at the Helena Grigorian exhibit (Brandon Balayan photo)

“You’re wondering, what about the coffee grounds addresses social justice? Well, it’s about displacement. It’s about community. It’s about narratives, stories and histories of people who bring these traditions and things with them,” Oshagan said.

As Armenians were displaced from places such as Western Armenia or parts of the Middle East, they brought this tradition with them. Therefore the space shows an ancient Eastern tradition to people who are not familiar with the custom who must interpret it through their Western lens. To help others understand the art, Grigorian placed a two-minute video in front of the display that shows her cup being read by Ani Kalafian and Meline Melikian.

After watching the video, people proceed to the display. On the right wall are 300 cups painted by Grigorian, and on the left are the pictures of grounds she took from her personal cups. Grigorian explains how when people are looking at the photos of the cups they are essentially looking at selfies of her.

“Now you can weave a path to my life story that nobody else can see,” Grigorian said.

The question of who is able to read cups is another topic often debated. For Grigorian, it is anybody who can tell a story. It is not simply reading individual images but connecting those images into a narrative about the person’s life. Grigorian cited her good friend Vahe Berberian, a comedian and author, as an example of someone who creates a narrative based on the scattered grounds.

The anticipation of waiting for the reader to interpret a cup can be agonizing for the coffee drinker, but it is worth the wait. Grigorian talks about how when her family gathered and the cup reading took place, it took the form of a group therapy session and provided catharsis.

“I always see their faces like the women, they would just stare at the reader, focus on them, and focus on the stories — it was almost therapeutic,” Grigorian said. “There’s a level of anxiety that would fall once their cup was read.”

Helena Grigorian (Brandon Balayan photo)

This is not the first time Grigorian has focused on coffee cups as art. In 2017 she had a project displayed at She Loves Collective, a group of women artists who believe in making social change through art. Helena’s project consisted of a suspended coffee table with coffee cups attached to the bottom. Grigorian explained that it was intended to make the observer feel like they were walking under their grandmother’s table.

Fast forward today, and Grigorian is continuing her art and said this was an ongoing project. She hopes to take the display to other places where she can turn it into an interactive piece – where people can be enveloped by images, video, and sound of tasseography.

“My Life From the Grounds Up,” at the Glendale Library, Arts and Culture, opened May 31 and will close July 23.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: