By Joseph Dagdigian
CHELMSFORD, Mass. — Daniel Varujan Hejinian is well known for his billboards around the state demanding recognition of the Armenian Genocide. His art focuses on Genocide recognition, human rights and democracy. His paintings proclaim his thanks for the freedom of his adopted country, the United States, while demanding that the US acknowledge the Genocide perpetrated upon his ancestral homeland, Armenia. He has received many acclamations from organizations in the United States and from the Armenian government.
This interview was conducted at his home in Chelmsford.
Joseph Dagdigian: Varujan, please briefly describe your art and your artistic style.
Varujan: The public knows my work more than they know me. As an artist my goal is to create meaningful and beautiful paintings.
I was first inspired by the romantic artist Eugene Delacroix, and then Rembrandt, Dali, and Cezanne. They have undoubtedly influenced my art; the curvilinear quality and occasional dark outlines, the division of colors, and the vibrancy of colored patterns. The compositions are often a combination of the medieval and the surreal. The technique may be traditional, but the result is a wholly unique signature style.
I have painted murals in seven churches in the United States. My first commission was for Saints Vartanants church in Chelmsford to paint the murals there. It was an opportunity to show what I had been learning all these years; what I had picked up from Armenia’s land, Armenia’s colors and heritage, and to present them in a religious way. After that I received six other commissions, from Armenian churches in Wisconsin; White Plains, New York; and Belmont, Mass. These paintings connect the viewer with the universe; they offer faith and meaning to get spiritually charged. That gives me some meaning for my life as a spiritual artist.
I also did a collection of paintings celebrating America; why I am here, why I love America, what America means to me. This is the land where my father came to die; where my son was born. I created this series of paintings to represent the immigrant view of America, the land of liberty and democracy, and the land that people come to for a better life for their children. And therefore, as an American Armenian I demand our government recognize the Armenian Genocide. I demanded that on my billboards when I had the chance in 1996 to raise a billboard in Cambridge, MA, which condemned the Turkish government for Genocide of the peaceful Armenian people. This became an annual tradition. After that I founded “A Peace of Art,” which was incorporated in 2003. It uses art as an educational tool to bring awareness of the human condition, to push for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide; also to make more visible Armenians, Armenian culture, and the Armenian people. Since then Peace of Art has sponsored billboards every year. So far we have not done any fundraising and are operating from our own resources. In 2015 we raised 100 billboards in the United States and Canada, a hundred billboards about genocide with the Peace of Art logo on them.
JD: Please tell me about your youth, where you grew up.
Varujan: I was born in Haleb (Aleppo). My parents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide and were dislocated from their lands, by force of course. My mother was 13 – 14 years old. Her mother died in the deserts of Der Zor; her sister died as well. Then my mother met my father and they married. They had a nice Armenian family, four daughters and two sons. I was the youngest. From the stories of my parents and teachers, the Armenian Genocide became a dominant fact of my life. My mother used to sing revolutionary songs about Serop Aghbyur and Kevork Chavush to me as I was going to bed. I did everything I could for Genocide recognition and I wanted the perpetrators to pay a price for it.
My first solo exhibit was at the national museum in Aleppo in 1969; the whole idea was about returning back to our land. The exhibition was very successful. Some dignitaries from the Soviet Union visited the exhibition. After I graduated from the Cilician College in Aleppo I applied to the Soviet Embassy to go to Armenia to study art. There was a section with Armenians in that embassy; I think the consul was Albet Merangyulyan. He looked at my portfolio of paintings and asked to see some originals. I rushed to the museum, grabbed 2-3 of my paintings, and returned. By that time the embassy was closing so the ambassador and consul drove to my house to see more. They were impressed and said, “Get ready to go to Armenia”. That was the end of my life in Aleppo. In 1996 I left Aleppo for Yerevan to study at the Fine Arts and Drama Institute, now the Yerevan Academy of Fine Arts. On my first day I met Mardiros Saryan who, after reviewing my portfolio, gave me his blessing. I started a new life in Armenia as a young student artist.
JD: How were the relations between the Armenians, Arabs, and other minorities living in Aleppo?
Varujan: There was no difference between us; I never felt any discrimination. I had both Armenian and Arab friends who were in my class in an Armenian school. We lived in harmony.
JD: Can you describe your life in Soviet Armenia? What was life like for a student from the Diaspora?
Varujan: I arrived in Armenia in 1969. You had to adjust and adapt because life wasn’t that easy. You know, when you go to Armenia and you are a young Armenian from the Diaspora, you have this image of the motherland. You go there and it’s a different atmosphere. In real life it’s not like what we learned from Armenian history. It was tough; it was the Soviet era. Life was colorless. But because I was young I had big dreams. I was free as a student. I enjoyed it. Overall, it was good. Foreign students received an allowance of 90 rubles per month and a place to stay. We had great teachers. They were well trained and very dedicated. They really wanted to create good youth. I met many greats: Isabekyan, Arslanyan, Colozyan, Bekeryan. They treated me as if I were their son. They opened their houses to me, they made it easy for me to adapt to life in Armenia. In 1976 I got my master’s degree and stayed 4 more years to get my PhD. I did not want to leave Armenia, but after I graduated I left for the United States because my sister was there. I was in Armenia from 1969 to 1979, almost 10 years.
JD: Please describe some of your early paintings.
Varujan: For the theme of my diploma I chose the Armenian Genocide and the execution by Turkey of 20 Hunchakian leaders in Byazid Square in Constantinople. I chose this topic because I attended a Hunchakian school in Aleppo. The victims were Armenian apostles who were trying to inform the Armenians about the secret plans of the Turkish government. Unfortunately this theme was not accepted because of “friendly brotherly relations between the Soviet Republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan.” So I started a more traditional composition for my diploma. I went to the gymnastics school and used students there as models for my painting, but the idea of the Armenian Genocide was bothering me. During the last month I said that I’m going to change the painting for my diploma back to the Genocide theme. My teachers encouraged me to do so, but there was a question as to whether the principal of the school would accept it. I went to poet Vahakn Tavityan, editor of Haireniki Tsayn (Voice of Armenia) who was very influential. He was from the same village as my father, Arabkir. Every time I saw him he would mentor me because I was young and from the Diaspora. He found some old newspapers in which Lenin commemorated the executions of the Hunchakians. I took that paper to the school and presented it to the principal who said, “If Lenin mentions it, then it’s ok”, just change the name to “Red Morning” or something like that. I named the painting “Garmir Luysapats” (Red Sunrise).
My painting was exhibited in the House of Yerevan Painters. Illustrious artists such as Vahan Harutunyan, Yeghishe Mardigyan, and others spoke on the occasion. The picture of the painting was published in the Haireniki Tsayn and the Sovetakan Hayastan (Soviet Armenia) monthly. After that I donated the painting to the Hunchakian agump in Aleppo.
Forty years later, in 2015, I agreed to a request from the Evrensel Publishing House in Istanbul asking for permission to use my Garmir Luysapats painting for the cover of the book Paramaz – Twenty executions of Bayazit. The book was published and presented at the 34th Istanbul Book Fair, the largest book fair in Turkey. On November 8 a panel discussion was organized by the publisher on the topic of “The Armenian Genocide in its 100th Anniversary.”
JD: In Armenia this past summer we met quite by accident. I was with a friend, Vladimir Tchagharyan. You indicated you were a student of his father, famed surgeon Andranik Tchagharyan. How did you become a student of his?
Varujan: I was trying to skip over that part of my story, but you caught me. My first year in Armenia was in art school. My father asked me why I was studying art, saying I could do art any time I wanted since I had the talent. “Why don’t you get a profession that will put food on your table? The sons of my friends are becoming doctors or engineers, why is my son becoming an artist?” I decided to follow my father’s advice. All summer I studied chemistry and mathematics and that year I got accepted to the Medical University of Yerevan. I had heard of Dr. Andranik Tchagharyan; he was working on the reconstruction of faces from human skulls found at ancient archaeological sites. Maybe I could help him do that. I went to see him in his studio. There were many faces sculpted by him. He was both an artist and a doctor. I was getting interested in being a doctor because part of it was being an artist. He encouraged me. It was working out but my desire to work on my paintings was more powerful. After a year at the medical institute I went back to the ministry of education. I asked if I could switch back to art. “Are you crazy?” they asked, “No one switches from medicine to art. Do you really want to do that?” I replied, “Yes.” I was so excited to meet Dr. Tchagharyan’s son.
JD: When you came to the US what were your initial impressions? And how did you support yourself when you came?
Varujan: In 1979 I came to the US as a visitor. I was very excited and full of my dreams. This was America, the land of opportunity. People would accept my paintings. But it was a different game. Loving America is not enough; you have to have America love you. Adapting is hard work; you need determination. But because you are young and have a young family, nothing will stop you from achieving your goals if you are really motivated. I started with very low paying jobs. The first commission I received was at Sts. Vartanants Armenian Church in Chelmsford to paint some murals in the new church. In the church there were only empty walls. The money they had for the paintings did not even pay for the paint and the brushes. I also had taken a job painting billboards by hand, but to complete the church paintings I had to leave that job. The church paintings took three years. But I’m glad I took the job despite all the difficulties; sleeping in the church, cold nights on the pews, and in the morning working on the paintings with frozen hands. I feel I did the right thing because there are now 46 murals. I think God was with me to paint these paintings; it was He who gave me the passion to do it. Other churches also requested paintings.
I did a show at ALMA but we did not sell any paintings. But that opened the door to the Brenda Taylor gallery on Newbury Street in Boston. I transferred the paintings from ALMA to the gallery, but that was not successful either. There was also the Dyansen Gallery, a big nationally known gallery that was very hard to get into. One day when the gallery opened I walked in carrying three or four paintings. They did not have a chance to kick me out. They looked at my paintings and took me seriously. They said they could not show my paintings because they have to officially go through their corporate office. I said, “Monday the gallery is closed, right? So why don’t you give me one show Monday for my paintings?” The gallery’s director agreed; sales would be divided 50/50 and I would pay for invitations and catering. We sold a lot of paintings that day. Then they asked me to be part of their gallery. They put my paintings in the Trump Tower, Soho and other places. It was my opportunity to enter the art market in America. It took some time but if you have the will power, determination, and most importantly believe in yourself and your mission, a door will open. The Bible says you have to knock on the door very hard.
JD: I think you need the talent too.
Varujan: The talent, yes. The talent is very important but the talent without opportunity is nothing.
JD: You also designed the Genocide memorial khachkar that sits in front of the Lowell, Massachusetts city hall depicting a woman’s hand knitting. This work has gained international recognition. How did this come about?
Varujan: The city of Lowell allocated a spot in front of the Lowell City Hall for the erection of a Genocide memorial by the Merrimack Valley Armenian Genocide Committee.
The committee asked me to design a memorial similar to other khachkars. I was very excited to do something for the Armenian Genocide committee; a monument like this is very important. I agreed to do it, but my design had to be accepted as is with no changes. I didn’t want to get paid for it. They agreed, but requested 3-4 designs to pick from. The day that I had to present my sketches, I had a dream of my mother weaving a crochet. I woke up and could not stop the flow of tears. On TV was an Armenian program showing the destruction of khachkars in Nakhichevan. Somehow I brought these two images together, my mother weaving and the khachkars being destroyed, and the design came together. The next day, when I presented my designs, I knew the “mother’s hand “was going to win. At the City Hall meeting I pointed out that Lowell was a textile city; women came here from all over the world to work in the textile mills. There were many Armenians, Jews and Russians. They all created this textile city of Lowell. The City Hall commission got very engaged. They loved it. The next day they accepted the design. Every year at the Lowell Folk Festival ethnic groups will be there and they will see our Genocide monument.
There are over 240 Armenian Genocide monuments throughout the world. What makes this one unique is that it’s on public, not private, land. In the base is one of my mother’s half finished crochets. I put it there when they poured the cement. This is something for all mothers. Coincidently, the monument went up on the anniversary of my mother’s death.
JD: How would you compare the current Armenian republic with the Soviet Armenian Republic from the time you were there?
Varujan: I am fortunate enough to have lived both in Soviet Armenia and the current Republic of Armenia. In the Soviet time people were friendlier with each other, were more hospitable and had more respect for the Diaspora. People felt isolated by the Iron Curtain. I was well received by the government of Soviet Armenia and the people. I was very young, 19 years old. I grew up there. Life was a little harder, but people found their way. Some people believed in the future of Armenia with the Soviets because they had seen improvements, for example how universities were established. We had many students from Vietnam, Germany and the United States in our dormitory. They all learned Armenian. The schools had no Armenian textbooks so we had to take notes from lectures recording every word the lecturer said. Sometimes we couldn’t do it because the lecturer talked too fast; we had to copy from each other. We waited in line to get bread, and to get eggs. You’d get broken ones. It was a tough time but it had a romantic impact.
When I came to America I had to adapt to American life, make a living, and take care of my family. Then in 2014 I went back to Armenia to do an exhibition at the National Gallery of Armenia, organized by the Armenian Ministry of the Diaspora. I saw a new Armenia. At the airport officials were very respectful as people went through customs. Walking on the street it was as if I was in a new face lifted country; Ararat was visible. People were nicely dressed; it was colorful. I did not see anything bad about Armenia. That was my first impression. Of course when you start going deeper into the details there are complaints; pay is low, and some people have more than others. But in America we have the same problems. It depends on if you look at the glass as half full or half empty. People walk on the streets until midnight, children peacefully play everywhere, and restaurants are full despite inflation. That is in the center. Outside of the center you can feel the old Soviet influence. Entrances to houses are in poor shape. You go up the stairs and they are not taken care of. But in the center of Yerevan it’s a new life, a new city.
I was there to see the military parade on the 25th anniversary of independence. I was invited by the president to be part of the tribute, and I was very impressed; very proud of what I saw.
JD: What message do you have for the Diaspora?
Varujan: The Diaspora should be backing Armenia regardless of who is the president. It doesn’t matter; we have a land and we have to protect that land. Talking bad about Armenia will affect the Diaspora and Armenia as well. If people have a criticism, they should go to Armenia and help find a solution and make life better. Criticizing Armenia in front of the Armenian embassy will only weaken Armenia.
JD: One final question: Can you comment on the importance of using Art to illuminate issues such as human rights, democracy, and genocide?
Varujan: I think that’s the only way. Art is a language that uses colors and lines, forms, and emotions and that’s a language that anybody can understand. You can be from any nationality, any ethnic group. Using art you can develop and find interesting solutions to questions. Things you cannot say with words you can say with art. I think art melts hearts and breaks walls. Art engages with its language more than any other language. Art is a very powerful tool. Peace of Art is used as an educational tool to create a better life for all of us.