Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
A lot of energy goes into creating one of Vera Arutyunyan's paintings. She stands thoughtfully in front of the canvas, a moment of calm as she tunes into her emotions and prepares herself to let them guide her and her colors. She picks up a tube of paint, squeezes a blob of color onto the surface, then uses her fingers to smear the color over a small area of the canvas, thicker at first, then spreading the pigment gradually outward, in a jagged motion across the blank space. She grabs the next color and squeezes it onto the canvas beside the first and then blends the two at the edges. She continues to add colors, occasionally using the mouth of the paint tube to score lines through the color and weave structure into the explosions of color. As she builds up of color and line, we can sometimes see a face or a spinning orb emerge from the abstraction. But with Arutyunyan's paintings, it's not just about seeing, but feeling -- her wonder, her fears, her expansive exuberant spirit.
Vera Arutyunyan was born in Yerevan, Armenia, where she grew up excelling in both art and science. Because of her technical skills and her love of the outdoors, she chose to study geological engineering at Yerevan State University, but while she was outdoors studying the rocky landscapes of Armenia, she also seized the opportunity to capture their colors and forms on paper too. In 1991, the same year that the independent Republic of Armenia was formed after years of Soviet control, Arutyunyan left her homeland for personal reasons and moved to Los Angeles -- with only $27 to her name. Because she knew many Armenians in the Los Angeles area, she was convinced that she would be able to make a good life here. "I knew I had the potential to find myself here," she admits.
At first, she spoke no English, missed her family and did not understand this country's various systems, so, like many immigrants, she struggled to adapt to her new home. As a way of coping with her frustrations, she turned to painting to express her innermost emotions. Her colors enabled her to communicate her despair, joy, love and wonder in ways that words failed her. As a "stranger among strangers," her paintings represented her "hope to be understood, obtain identity and significance, to become securely existent." As if paying homage to another artistic soul who struggled to be understood she signed her paintings simply Vera.
At first Arutyunyan used a brush to apply the colors, but after several years, she put down her brush and tried painting with her fingers. "I wanted to touch and feel the color directly," she explains. "After that, I couldn't use the brush again. It's much easier to express my feelings with my hands." Now, for more than ten years, she has been diving into the paint with her hands, letting nothing come between her medium of expression and her self.
Many of her paintings can be categorized as works of abstract expressionism. According to the artist, while she is painting, she is in a trance-like state, transmitting her emotions and her spirituality onto the canvas. "Afterwards," she explains, "I am exhausted." As a pure expression of spirit, her compositions of color and line still seem to possess the energy with which she unleashed them onto the canvas. In the painting "Vibration of Thoughts," for example, her scored lines spiral forward and outward dynamically towards the viewer, building a visual connection between her own thoughts and emotions with ours, perfectly demonstrating the title concept that our thoughts and energy can impact the world around us.
Alongside her works of spiritual expressionism, Arutyunyan has also created a series of paintings that are specifically religious. A passionate member of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Arutyunyan points out that her name "Vera" means "faith," and Arutyunyan derives from the classical Armenian yarut"?iwn meaning "resurrection"), she has created several portraits of Christ. Certain images, in which his head is shown emerging almost ghostlike from the darkness, with specks of color highlighting his features, are somewhat reminiscent of Russian expressionist Alexej von Jawlensky's semi-abstract faces of Christ. In her image Sacrifice, though few lines and colors are employed, a light from behind the figure subtly illuminates his cross of thorns and pained expression, reflecting the artist's own beliefs in his compassion and transcendent powers.
Her religious faith, her spiritual strength and her ability to express it all through painting have all combined to help Arutyunyan create a strong sense of home here. It has been almost a quarter of a century since she left Armenia. Over the years, her English has improved, she has become a US citizen and she has brought many members of her family here to live. For the last 17 years, she has been working for Los Angeles County as an engineer at a power plant, a position that has given her the confidence and freedom that she hoped to find here, as well as the freedom to paint whatever she wants, without worrying about the art market. From this enviable position, she has exhibited her work widely in Europe, North America and Asia and sold many works to private collectors.
As a result of this increasing sense of stability, Arutyunyan has been painting less to cope with feelings of isolation and hopes of being accepted and more to communicate her wide range of emotions, her religious beliefs and her spirituality. Her 2007 work My Journey perhaps best illustrates both her spiritual as well as her physical journey here. With its vibrant hot tones and dynamic but balanced lines, the work exudes not only the passion of someone who wishes to embraces all that the world has to offer but also the confidence that comes with self knowledge and the sense that she is where she belongs.