After Hours: The amateur watercolorist
By Raz Sarkissian
In this installment of "After Hours," a series about faculty and staff with fascinating hobbies or side jobs, meet epidemiologist and Associate Dean Haroutune Armenian. When he isn’t at his UCLA office or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with his wife and friends, Armenian is likely seated near a scenic view, translating the serene sights and colors of nature onto paper with his box of watercolors. His work can be seen on his website.
Name: Haroutune Armenian
Day job: Professor-in-residence and associate dean of academic programs in the Department of Epidemiology, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
Creation from destruction: Armenian meandered into watercoloring in the mid-1980s, as he witnessed the darkest days of the Lebanese Civil War while serving as dean of the American University of Beirut. "It was an intense period of fighting. The wife and kids were in the mountains with the parents because it was safer for them to be out there, and it was closer to the university. I was at my brother’s apartment. It was an anxiety-ridden situation." Eventually, Armenian found escape from the destruction of the war. "I walked into the children’s room of my brother’s apartment one day and I saw my nephew’s box of watercolor paints. I picked it up and sat on the balcony; the Mediterranean was right across from me. I painted a painting and I realized that the hour I spent there was something that cut me off from the world, from the anxieties of the war. That was such a calming thing."
Serenity of solitude: "I have carried my box of watercolors and paper wherever and whenever I get an hour or two of relax time. That’s when I paint. If I paint, that means I’ve found a moment of solitude — the moment of inner calm that will allow me to express myself through the painting at that point in time. And mostly I have painted from where I have been, as a direct impression from where I have been."
Instant impressions: Armenian doesn’t approach a painting with a plan of action. His paintings begin and end in one sitting, within the ephemeral window an opportunity allows. "In most situations, I paint what I see in colors and forms. I put those together and then it’s that instant that makes the decision. It’s not something I plan and sit down and then decide, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ It’s an instant of creativity. It’s the place, it’s yourself, it’s the mood — everything has to work within that hour or two. If it does, if you’re lucky enough to get the whole thing put together, then you’re successful."
Oil vs. water:Armenian prefers watercolors to other types of paint. "I do not like to spend two to three months on a painting — watercolor is start and finish, there and then. It either succeeds or it doesn’t. You have one chance. It’s not like oil, which allows you to go back and correct your mistakes. Watercolors — you put the wrong color, it’s stuck there, you can’t do anything. Sometimes I can identify places where a famous watercolorist has messed up and tried to cover, but you can’t cover watercolors."
Colors and words:
"Over the years I have done not just watercolors, but I have also done some creative writing. I do my creative writing in Armenian. I haven’t published extensively, but that is one other dimension I like to address whenever I have the time or am in the mood." In his first book, translated to English a few years ago, Armenian combined his love for painting and writing by displaying the two media side by side on each page. In the aptly titled "Colors and Words
," Armenian seeks to "build a story, build a prose from the painting. It’s not the painting that illustrates the writing; it’s the reverse. It’s prose that is inspired from the painting."
Peak experiences: Armenian's watercolor paintings are inspired by the various places around the world he has visited, including the mountains he has climbed with his wife and friends. "In 2006, we climbed Mt. Ararat [near the Armenia-Turkey border] with a group of six people, and then I published a book which has the 16 watercolors from that climb." In addition to Mt. Ararat, Armenian and his friends have climbed Mt. Arakadz, the highest peak in Armenia, and Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa.
Unexpected places he’s painted: "I was once at a conference in Tokyo, Japan. The lectures and the speaker were so boring that I pulled out my watercolors. There was this great bouquet of flowers on the podium."
Giving back to students:
Armenian’s first art exhibition took place last spring at UCLA’s Kerckhoff Art Gallery, where his paintings were on display and for sale. He donated all the proceeds to sponsor student research and internships abroad. "I have not sold any paintings except for what I have done for students. We had good results with this exhibit. About half of the paintings at the exhibit were sold, around 30, so in a way it was successful."
Staying amateur: Despite this success, his first art exhibit may have been his last. "I’m ambivalent about exhibiting and selling and all that. Some years ago Paul Guiragossian, a famous painter in Lebanon, said to me, ‘You are an amateur watercolorist, you do not owe anybody anything. Don’t give yourself that halo of a professional; those are chains you put on your creativity. Stay as much of an amateur as you can, because you have all the freedom of doing anything you like with your art, without owing anybody anything.’ Once you start exhibiting — and that’s why I’ve sort of resisted exhibiting recently — you start thinking of how people will react. As an amateur you don’t have to care about that, and you’re not doing it for anyone. You’re doing it for your own pleasure, and that’s what’s nice about art."