BY SUZI BANKS BAUM
Special to Asbarez
Picture an American book artist visiting Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, entering the Matenadaran, a scriptorium and research center whose illuminated manuscripts are said to contain the “soul of the nation.” Picture that artist seeking out Armenian book artists in the 2nd largest city, Gyumri, called the home of Armenian culture and finding not one. This dilemma seeded a vision called New Illuminations. I wanted to return to Gyumri to lead an art and writing workshop with a group of women artists willing to learn this ancient bookmaking technique and integrate it in to their own expression.
I landed in Gyumri with John Stanmeyer, National Geographic photographer, and chair of the current Aurora Photo Competition. John and 4Plus, a team of Armenian documentary photographers, guided my initial interviews with women artists in March 2016 in Gyumri, then cheered me on as New Illuminations grew wings and I returned on my own in late October of the same year. The primary mission of New Illuminations is to engage Armenian women artists through interviews and in creative practice, in order to establish a connection and understanding of the challenges they experience in their daily lives. Through reviving the interrupted tradition of the book arts, New Illuminations cultivates a community of collaboration, inspiration and prosperity for the participants.
In my interviews, I was afforded an intimate view of women’s lives in a patriarchal society, complex perceptions of the native beauty and pride in Armenian culture, yet outside of the world in a way, separate and unseen as the lesser gender in their country. The interviews happened in their homes, in domics*, apartments, or in small houses within Gyumri or in the surrounding villages. Some occurred out on the street or in parks where they draped the sidewalks with their work. These conversations were often long and complex diatribes, colored by the historic sorrow that runs from the tap here, about Armenian culture and how few opportunities there are for women to move freely. An impressive young Armenian man, a professional in the creative arts, told me that the archetypical Armenian woman is strong. And silent.
The women I met wrestle this archetype daily. They are full of vitality and perceptions of beauty, caught in a patriarchic web that restricts their actions. My curiosity is fed by the stories of the real lives of these women–Nazik, Anush, Armine, Ani, Tiruhi, Rosa–women who work in restaurants instead of studios, work in offices or teach, raise children and make their art in the edge zones of their lives, who paint at night on the walls of their bedrooms. These women artists have families or live with their parents, and make their work in response to the realities of their daily life. Only a few of them live alone. Several teach art as a way of making a living. Some make a small income from their work. Others are supported as artists by their husbands or fathers. Each woman is finding her way in a culture that has strong expectations for how women look and behave.
I met Mariam Simonyan on International Women’s Day in March 2016 at the Aslamazyan Sister’s Gallery in central Gyumri. A sculptor who works in stone and fiber, I found Mariam standing in front of a wall-hanging constructed with a rainbow array of up-cycled fabrics, a spiral of color made from used clothing. The exhibit was a celebration of artwork by Gyumri women artists. Mariam’s wall hanging was vastly different from the landscape paintings and prints in the gallery. She seemed confused about why a Western woman would want to speak with her. When I arrived at her home for our first interview, there was a sense of urgency as she showed me her stone sculptures of the Genocide. While her sculptural fabric constructions are important, the portraits in stone are the work Mariam wants the world to see.
Mariam spoke of the lack of opportunities for women artists in Armenia. Without economic stability in a city still recovering from the 1988 earthquake, Mariam has helped support her family by making wooden dolls to sell in tourist markets. She and her husband live in a small stone home with her son and his family, many bodies in a very limited space. The dining room where she laid out a quintessential Armenian tea, pomegranate wine and sweets, cake and dried fruits, is also her studio, and it is also her and her husband’s bedroom. I asked Mariam how she takes notes or if she keeps a journal of her daily life. Again, she looked at me confused, as if writing about her daily life is something that never occurred to her. When I spoke of the illuminated manuscripts of the Matenadaran, it is clear that Mariam has never been to the museum.
Women artists in Armenia fly largely under the radar of contemporary world culture. I have interviewed several Armenian artists from Berlin, Paris, California, and Vermont who live productive, active lives. But within the boundaries of Armenia, these well-educated women fall silent once they leave the Academy or University. One writer I interviewed, who teaches young writers in Gyumri, works as a translator at the Department of Seismology. We exchanged treasured books of poetry. She quoted William Saroyan to me. I quoted Mary Oliver to her.
The illuminated manuscript is a cultural icon for Armenians. Monastic enclaves made these books for centuries. Embellished magnificently, housing ancient knowledge, highly venerated, the hand-bound books of the Matenadaran reveal an intellectual rigor that is distinctly Armenian. They see books as living objects. In the Matenadaran, the sacred books from the villages, now housed in the museum, are visited regularly by villagers who speak directly to the books, as if the tome has ears to listen, has a heart to offer companionship, has a self that receives the stories of the village and makes sense of them.
My perception on my initial visit is that the tradition of illuminated manuscripts is seen as a historic tradition carried out by men. But that phrase, “the soul of the nation” stayed with me. What if these women artists could reignite the book arts within Armenia, wed the truths of their souls to this revered art and raise the recognition of their work as they engage in an indigenous practice?
I returned home after my first visit to Gyumri to learn all I could about Armenian women artists in the diaspora, to see more illuminated manuscripts, and to raise money to fund New Illuminations. Every time I spoke about this project, I made positive connections. I met Dana Walrath, of Vermont, an Armenian American artist and writer who is now a collaborator. Dana contributed art to my fundraising campaign, and three pieces of her work were hung in the New Illuminations exhibition. New Illuminations became a beneficiary of WAM Theatre of the Berkshires, receiving a donation of $3000 to support stipends for the women artists and pay for supplies for the workshop. I raised $15,000 in four months, and I traveled back to Gyumri in late October 2016 to lead a four-day book building and writing workshop.
Now, you can picture a group of fifteen Armenian women artists handling the materials to make books for the first time. The Coptic stitched journals they make are beautiful, hand-painted and bound, alive with color; they are a contemporary expression of an ancient practice, one that has never before been created by women. The work was featured in an exhibit curated by Anna Gargarian, of HAYP Pop-up Gallery of Yerevan, along with four international Armenian book artists housed in a unique exhibit in an old stone home on Shahumyan Street in the city center. Several hundred visitors took in the exhibit, many seeing book art for the first time.
The women of New Illuminations, a diverse group of painters, poets, sculptors, singers, and print-makers, had a surprising fluency of hand with book making. Fulbright Scholar Erin Piñon writes, “New Illuminations is not only an extension of the chronology of Armenian book arts into the twenty-first century and a return to the collaborative nature of traditional Armenian book production, but as a whole, the project takes a giant step in carving out a space for women to contribute to, and evolve the practice of bookmaking in Armenia today.” **
Yunona Kirakosyan, a 19-year-old student at the Art Academy in Gyumri, lives in a domic with her mother. Yunona illustrates stories she writes that take her out of Armenia to a place where opportunity is readily accessible. She has assembled very simple books at the Academy, but in the New Illuminations workshop, she constructed complex manuscripts painted in her unique style. She was quick with needle and waxed linen thread for the Coptic stitch binding. I interviewed Yunona at home with her mother Valya. She wept, explaining that in the New Illuminations workshop she felt part of a larger group creating together, different than her experience at the Academy. My questions challenged her. She felt she was taken seriously for the first time.
I am a visual artist and writer living in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. I had no connection to Armenia until I traveled there in March 2016. But during my initial time there, I found a budding community of women artists who are hungry to learn the art of bookmaking, which is distinctly Armenian, and to reveal new work by their own hands. If I can raise the money necessary, I will return in October 2017 to offer an advanced workshop to give the New Illuminations artists an opportunity to refine their skills and a workshop for a new set of artists, assisted by some of the advanced artists. This project will only succeed if Armenian artists carry the work forward.
To learn more about New Illuminations or make a donation towards the October 2017 residency, visit newilluminations.com. You may contact Suzi Banks Baum for more information.
*Domics are metal shipping containers supplied by the Soviets to survivors of the 1988 earthquake that devastated the Shirak region. Thirty years later, over 3% of the residents of Gyumri will live in domics, and a greater portion live in dwellings built around domics.
**Erin Piñon lived in Yerevan during the 2016-2017 academic year on a U.S. Fulbright Student Research Grant. The views expressed here are her own and not those of the U.S. Government.
Suzi Banks Baum is a writer, maker, teacher, and mother. Suzi lives in western Massachusetts, but she is most at home in the Upper Peninsula. She’s passionate about helping women find their creative voice and live focused, joy-filled lives. Suzi inspires hundreds of women internationally to live from the place of creative spirit and to value their contributions to the world and one another. She is on the faculty of the International Women’s Writing Guild. You may find her work on Rebelle Society, The Mid, Literary Mama, Mother Writer Mentor, Easy Street, Mothers Always Write, and her blog, suzibanksbaum.com.