YEREVAN, Armenia – My cousin Walter and I are sitting on the floor of the house of painters Arthur Sarkissian and YevgineMartirosyan, surrounded by photographs of Walter’s travels through Europe.
Coffee is bubbling in an Armenian-style coffee maker on the stove and Pink Floyd is playing through Arthur’s computer. Our other cousin, Michael, naps on a nearby couch, and Yevgine and Arthur’s poodles, Becky and Tina, weave in and around the furniture. Walter arranges some photos on a blank canvas, and Arthur – who is teaching Walter how to create a silkscreen painting – gets excited.
“Yes, yes, yes!” he exclaims joyfully, jumping up and down, before tugging on Yevgine’s arm to translate – she is the only one of us who speaks all the languages in the room, Armenian, English and Russian.
“He says it is a great composition, Walter,” she says, grinning. “And he’s right, it’s true.”
For five years (between 2006 and 2011) I lived in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus (specifically, in Budapest, Hungary; Yerevan, Armenia; and Zagreb, Croatia). The first thing I did in each country, after finding a place to live, was to meet the local artists. It resulted, without question, in the most enriching experiences of my travels – and of my life.
The artists offered a perspective and entrée into each country’s local culture that as a foreigner I never would have gotten on my own. And as artists, they were generally open-minded about and interested in travelers, and wanting the exchange. In Budapest, I was a bit shy, and as an emerging painter myself, hung mostly with other foreign artists, even going so far as to start an English-language art school with fellow American artist Paula Brett . But when I arrived in Yerevan, where I would live for two years, I decided to plunge in and looked for local artist introductions. I was so excited by the people I met, I began leading tours to local artist studios, primarily for aid and embassy workers, to meet and buy art directly from local artists. I began studying with local artists to hone my skills, and at the suggestion of visual artist (and friend) Caroline Allen, began setting up painting classes for foreigners with local artists like Arthur and Yevgine. When I moved to Zagreb, Croatia, for a year, I continued the tradition with art studio tours, and bulked it up by teaching art full-time.
We were in great company. Arthur, for example, is arguably one of Armenia’s most prominent contemporary painters, working with a combination of abstract expressionist painting and silk-screened images. But he and Yevgine are also great, down-to-earth people – they love entertaining, and their house became a gathering point for both foreigners and locals who took classes in Arthur’s signature painting style, including a hodgepodge of development agency employees, peace corps workers, and even a couple of ambassadors. We would listen to music, share photos, talk art and politics and
What people loved most was that it got us off the beaten tourist path. We’d jump intoold Russian taxis to ordinary neighborhoods, climb the stairs of crumbling buildings in blacked out hallways in search of artist studios. It was an adventure, always ending in an art viewing and conversation that was dimensionally interesting.
“It changes peoples’ lives,” one British official, an art tour and art class regular, told me once.
I can certainly attest that it changed mine.
So how do you go about meeting local artists? Let me count the ways:
1) Observe and Research: Pay attention to whom you meet, and ask a lot of questions. For example, I rented the first apartment I looked at when I arrived in Croatia for the year I lived there – and not just because it overlooked a beautiful forest. When I walked up to my soon-to-be landlord’s apartment upstairs, I saw his painting studio and asked if he was a painter. “I am a naïve reverse glass painter,” he told me. I had never heard of such a thing, so I ran downstairs and looked it up online. Sure enough, Croatian naïve glass painting was a local tradition, and my landlord, Zeljko Seles, was one of the best. Research the country you are moving to online, and send out some feelers to gallerists and, when possible, to the artist directly. You won’t always get an answer, but you will be surprised how easy it is to meet artists directly.
2) Look for Middlemen (or women): You can’t always rely on the artists to speak English, German or French, but usually, there is a local art enthusiast who is multi-lingual and interested in promoting local painters and sculptors. In Armenia, this person was Alex Ter-Minasyan, who ran a hotel festooned with the works of local artists in the city of Gyumri and tirelessly promoted them. He introduced me to many people, helped arrange tours, etc. In Zagreb, it was Vladimir Medimoric, a fine art, print and antiques dealer, whom I was referred to when researching Croatian naïve glass painting online. Both were enthusiastic partners, particularly when it led to sales (and a small commission for them). Though ultimately, it wasn’t about the money for them. These types of people are excited about art and dying to expose as many people as possible to it.
3) Take a Class Whenever possible, I took classes with local artists – with Lado Pochkua from the Republic of Georgia, with HakobHovannisyan and Arthur in Armenia. I learned so much from these exchanges, even though, in two cases, we didn’t speak the same language. I would take a two-hour mini-bus ride to Gyumri every week to work with Hakob. We’d sit in Alex TerMinasyan’s art hotel, and work on drawing fundamentals. The staff would come over and help with translations, but surprisingly, we mostly didn’t need them. We would drink beer and brandy in the hotel lobby afterwards, or visit other artists in their home.
I wasn’t the only expat I knew who benefited from working with local instructors. In Croatia, Vladimir and I led an art tour to one of the most well-known reverse glass painters, Ivica Fister, for a group of female expats from all over the world. One of them, an American named Melanie Hodge, married to a British foreign service official, was an illustrator in need of new inspiration.Ivica offered her glass painting lessons, and her work exploded open. She’s now painting on glass exclusively, has had two solo shows, and has pieces in the Naïve artist collection in Croatia.
4) Ask to visit the studio: Imagine the scenario: a falling down house – a shack, really, with walls, a door, and a stove – in an out-of-the-way village near Gyumri, Armenia. Inside those four shabby walls houses the sketches, drawings, and paintings of HakobHovannisyan, my teacher, are the only adornment in an otherwise bare room. It is also Hakob’s home. He is here, he tells a translator, as he pulls on thick rubber boots bound together with duct tape and string, because the village has great light, and every day, he wakes up and spends the day painting it.“I want to live in my painting, breathe my painting, I want my painting to be central to my life,” he says.
Making art is a lonely business, with lots of hard work and very little interaction. Many artists love to have visitors, and love to discuss their ideas behind their work. You will learn a lot by speaking with them. They gain, too. And you’ll go places – both mentally and physically – that you never imagined on your own. Ask any artists you meet to visit the studio. If you need to, bring a translator, and a bottle of wine.
5) Buy Local Art: I can’t emphasize this obvious, but important tip enough. Buy local art, but not through the big hotels or boring storefronts. Go meet the artist, talk to him or her, and buy one, or several, of their works. Spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars, for a great painting or piece of sculpture. You will never find anything that means as uniquely much to you of the places you visited and lived: it will remind you of the time you spent in whatever foreign land you lived in, the friends you made, and the adventures you had in the art world. Since I’ve moved back to the United States, I look at every piece of art I’ve acquired from my travels daily, and count my blessings that I have them.
Leah Kohlenberg, is an artist, teacher, and global traveler who spent eight years living overseas – in Asia, Eastern/Central Europe, the Caucasus, and the Balkans – making art, and hanging out with artists. She runs The Roaming Studio, which offers live, private art classes online anywhere you live in the world. Visit the website, www.theroamingstudio.com, for more information, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a 30-minute consultation of your art and the online art process.