Classical music softly plays in the background as Alexandra Manukyan rummages through a towering bookcase in a corner of her Glendale studio. All the basics are covered in these titles, from figure drawing to painting, but it's one on human anatomy that she pulls out to make a point. In 2012, Manukyan opened her eponymous studio with the initial goal to teach art to children. Quickly, though, she learned that it was the adults who wanted her classes. They were artists trying to reach the next level of their respective careers, people who went to art school and were, overall, quite knowledgable in their chosen field. Still, they come to her to learn the centuries-old traditions of art, like how to draw and paint the human body.
"Unfortunately, I just realized that a lot of students come here from different schools and, even majored in art, and they have no idea about anatomy, about the human structure," she says. In groups of no more than 10, Manukyan works closely with her students, discerning their strengths and weaknesses, guiding them as they master techniques with which they may have previously struggled. The results, some of which appear on Manukyan's website, are striking. In the drawings and paintings, muscles are defined and flesh falls into soft, natural curves.
"It's a learning process," Manukyan says of art. For her, the fundamentals of drawing and painting that she imparts on her students, combined with a drive to continue learning, has helped Manukyan adapt her own creative spirit through a series of life and career changes.
Born in 1963, Manukyan was raised in Yerevan, Armenia, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. "It was the era of pop music," she says, but what her father shared was a love of classical music, opera and theater to teach a lesson that stayed with her. "Once you learn the classics," she says, "then you can do whatever you want to do and you will be very good at it."
She began her art training at the young age of 11, where she spent years learning and perfecting her craft. She became a graphic designer and a teacher and returned to her studies in the latter half of the 1980s. By the time Manukyan had finished her degree, life in Yerevan had grown rough. The Soviet Union was falling apart and Armenia was now battling with neighbor Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. "They were very bad years," Manukyan says, "we didn't know what was going to happen to us because it was really bad." When Mankuyan, then a new mother, and her family had the chance to come to the United States, they took it. Soon enough, Manukyan was back in school, this time to study English and figure out what kind of work she could do in Los Angeles.
"I realized that I still needed to learn the American art market," she says. "Then I realized how hard it is to earn a living by just making art. I needed to work and have a steady income." Manukyan had two things going for her. After years of schooling, she had strong drawing skills. Moreover, she had made her own clothes while growing up in Armenia and had developed a talent for tailoring. Manukyan thought she might find a job as a pattern-maker. Instead, she was hired by a fashion forecasting firm.
Manukyan flips through one of her old reports filled with illustrations of '90s fashion trends that appeared at stores which no longer exist. Forecasting led to fashion design -- she often did the graphics for T-shirts and textiles. On the side, she freelanced as a graphic designer, making ads for films and television shows. Meanwhile, she kept up with fine art, taking classes and painting her family portraits. Her own art, though, was mostly a hobby until she lost her fashion industry job in 2009.
Her eldest son told Manukyan that she should be pursuing art and her husband suggested that they research the art market together. After a few years of learning about different galleries and coming to understand her own creative interests, she posted her work online. Immediately, she got a response from several different galleries. Manukyan was shocked. "It's not how it's supposed to be," she says. "It came so fast to me."
Except that it didn't. Manukyan had essentially been preparing to enter the art world since she was 11.
Two days before we met, Manukyan's solo show "Oracle of Extinction," closed after a three-week run at Santa Monica's Copro Gallery. It was her fourth solo show in almost as many years. Her work, generally done in oil, centers on the human form, which is always depicted in gorgeous detail, from arched backs to slouched shoulders. No matter how strange, how outside of our reality the scenes in the paintings are, the people in them remain true to life.
Inside the studio, Manukyan shows two works in progress. One, a medium-sized piece depicting a woman in a ballet outfit, is nearly done; she just wants to makes some fixes in a small corner of the painting. A larger work is still in the early stages of creation with a stream of women and men dancing across a black background. One of the models for this piece is Manukyan's son, a dancer who appeared on "So You Think You Can Dance." A couple others are his friends who also appeared in the competition show. Manukyan captures them with strong arms and legs poised to fly into motion.
The process for creating her works is long. Each piece is the visualization of a story that Manukyan creates that comes out of her research. In "Oracles of Extinction," for example, Manukyan was inspired by health and environmentalism, essentially commenting on, she says, "how we not only kill our planet, but we kill ourselves."
After the sketches and the research, Manukyan looks for fabrics. She makes most of the clothing and jewelry that her models wear in the paintings. She has boxes of fabric tucked away from the eye inside her gallery and a stash of baubles and a rack full of completed costumes. There's a corset that she made out of a thrift store handbag and an ornate necklace coupled from loose chains. Once she finishes making the costumes, she will hire models to pose in them so she can work on studies in color. "It's a very hands-on process," she says.
Manukyan describes her teaching method similarly. "Art is such a hands-on thing," she says, as she describes how she will work with students to help them tighten their skills or loosen their style as they work. "You get the skill not just by doing it on your own," she says, "but by having somebody else's guidance."