By Aram Arkun
FLUSHING, N.Y. — Artist and illustrator Paul Sagsoorian, born on March 26, 1923 in Chelsea, passed away on October 2. Alongside his professional accomplishments, he humbly served nearly all institutions of the Armenian community for many decades, usually for modest remuneration, through his unmistakable style of illustration. His work adorned Armenian books, journals, pamphlets, posters and advertisements.
On the morning of October 5, he was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Queens, in the presence of Fr. Mesrob Lakissian, the pastor of St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral, director Jenny Hakobian and caseworker Karine Barsoumian from the New York Armenian Home, Zarmine Boghosian and funeral home director Edward Jamie, Jr. Two young soldiers from the US Department of Veterans Affairs came to honor him as a veteran, and handed the folded flag after his burial to Hakobian on behalf of the president of the United States of America and the veterans of this country.
Never married and without children, Sagsoorian moved to the New York Armenian Home in 2013. The Home held a hokejash or memorial meal for him on October 12.
As Boghosian later exclaimed, “Thank God for the Armenian Home of Flushing, where Armenian forgotten artists have a home and loving care! Their staff were the ones who informed his only relatives and they contacted the Veterans’ office to secure an appropriate final resting place for someone who has done so much for the New York Armenian organizations.”
Novelist Peter Sourian, who worked with Sagsoorian for several decades as part of the editorial board of Ararat quarterly (published by the Armenian General Benevolent Union), declared that “Paul Sagsoorian was a skilled artist who fashioned a distinctive look for Ararat. His illustrations and drawings turned countless Armenian publications and posters into enticing works. His talent, his kindness and his generous spirit will be long remembered.”
A proud descendant of a Havav village (Palu province) family, Sagsoorian graduated from several art schools and the US Army’s mapmaking school during his World War II service. He received a sharpshooter’s medal during a military trip to Iceland, and a good conduct medal while in Germany, the Rhineland and Central Europe. He worked on maps for mine-laying in Iceland, and their removal in Normandy.
After the war he worked for art studios, advertising agencies and book publishers. Talented in many media, he prepared countless displays, advertisements, magazine illustrations and book jackets. He illustrated poems in the New York Times magazine, Harpers, and the New Yorker. He provided advertising for firms as varied as Nestles, RCA Victor, Weight Watchers (magazine), PBS, NBC, Newsweek and S&H Greenstamps. He prepared album covers for a series of recordings of music of the world. In 1957, the American Institute of Graphic Arts selected a book illustrated by Sagsoorian as one of its 50 Best Books of the Year.
He illustrated some 15 books on a variety of non-Armenian topics, primarily for younger readers. He worked on a large number of detective and science fiction works, including many of the Danny Dunn series, travel works and books devoted to various animals. He also illustrated a variety of other books, including a volume for stroke victims, a book on Latin America and another on William Gladstone (the Armenian connection perhaps coming through here).
He used his talents to illustrate many books on Armenian topics, including the famous Armenian epic Daredevils of Sassoun, translated by Leon Surmelian in 1964, and two plays translated into English by the late Dr. Nishan Parlakian — Alexandre Shirvanzade’s Evil Spirit (1980) and Aramashot Babayan’s Be Nice, I’m Dead (1990). He also illustrated Arthur Ayvazian’s historical work, Armenian Victories at Khznavous and Sardarabad, and Haig Baronian’s Armenian Genocide survivor account, Barefoot Boy from Anatolia, both published in 1983.
On the occasion of Sagsoorian’s 80th birthday in 2003, Ararat quarterly organized an exhibit of his artwork and recognized his decades of work beginning in 1964 for this premiere Armenian literary and cultural periodical. He became the artist in charge of Ararat starting in 1978. The Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) threw him a bash when he turned 85.
He did a lot of work for the Diocese (especially for its Armenian Language Lab and Resource Center under the direction of Sylva Der Stepanian) as well as for the Armenian Prelacy, the Armenian Evangelical Church and many other Armenian cultural organizations in the New York area. His art was particularly appealing to younger readers, but he did more complex work as well. He often gave his sketches as gifts to friends. This writer has several that he still treasures.
A consummate professional, Sagsoorian was the master of the quick turn-around, pulling out a program or advertisement in a clinch and saving the day. His generosity with his time, talent and energy over the decades puts him in the ranks of major donors to Armenian-American organizations, for as a freelance artist, this was a considerable financial sacrifice on his part. His work for Armenians truly was a labor of love which will live on forever.