John Avakian

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Local artist depicts Armenian genocide
By Margret McGilvray/ Correspondent
Friday, June 24, 2005
(c) Sharon Advocate

What is the purpose of art? Some say it serves merely to delight the senses, to create whimsical sensations that will carry us through moments of boredom. Others say it lends us another's vision, which in some cases changes us forever.

In the case of artist John Avakian of Sharon, the answer is clear. The purpose of art is Truth. Through a process called monotype, where color is applied to a glass or aluminum plate and then transferred to a sheet of paper, Avakian uses historical black and white photos, overlaid with plush colors of fragmented paper, to reveal a gruesome period in history known as the Armenian Genocide.

"I want these images to appeal to people. I want them to be drawn in," Avakian said. "You have the factual and horrible, and then you have the beautiful and aesthetically pleasing."

Avakian's work is hauntingly pleasing to the senses. It's a reflection of the richness of his spirit, yet a mirror into the collective souls of people who have suffered at the hands of brutality.

Each piece is completed with a border, carrying the names of villages, cities and towns in the Turkish Empire, affected by the genocide.

"My mother lived in Marash, Anatolia. Only three out of her eight family members survived. My father was in Van. I don't know how he escaped," Avakian said. "He ended up in Michigan as a cabinet maker and eventually came down to Worcester."

Avakian said he grew up as an only child. His parents spoke Armenian. His father worked at the Charlestown Navy Yard and often wrote about the genocide.

"(My father) was always angry about everything. It was the only way he could deal with everything. And my mother lived in fear," he said. "She spoke in a hushed voice, like everything was a secret. and there was nobody in the house, mind you."

According to, the Armenian Genocide began when the Ottoman Empire began to crumble. Armenians, the only major Christian minority, became isolated.

Some Armenians called for independence, while some Turks called for a Pan-Turkic empire, spreading all the way to Turkish parts of Central Asia. The Armenians were the only ethnic group between these two pockets of Turkish speakers.

In an effort to get rid of the Armenians, the nationalistic Turks ordered the "deportation" of millions of Armenians, which resulted in starvation, dehydration, kidnap, rape and murder.

"The brutality was unbelievable," said Avakian. "They allowed all the perverts, sadomasochists, and the insane out of their prisons, and put them into battalions to feed off the caravans of Armenians being deported."

Suffering became a common theme in Avakian's art. It began with an obsession of an image he saw in the Boston Globe; an electric chair. He began to explore interpersonal relationships, where struggles were involved resulting in violence, which ultimately lead him down a painful path of sociopolitical angst.

While much of his current work depicts horrific images of starvation, mass graves, and public hangings, Avakian said he did experience a period of artistic innocence. But even during that innocence, there was an underlying theme of angst.

Avakian explained that a while ago, a friend of his had given him some feathers. It was a light-hearted subject.

"Feathers- they are light, they just float," he said.

He used them in a series called "Lightness of Being." But when he wrote a poem about the series instead of a statement, he discovered that the feathers became symbolic.

"As time went on, the feathers became things that had somehow lost their connection to their host of other feathers. They became human beings," he said. "They were the survivors. The orphans. The ones that made it over here. But they were all wounded. They were in tremendous pain and needed somebody to help them find new meaning in the world."

When Avakian shared his poem with his therapist, she liked it so well she passed it out to some of her clients.

"There's an element in there that connects with people who are drifting, are depressed, having difficulty making human connections," he said.

Avakian's artist career is quite extensive. He received his B.F.A and M.F.A. from Yale University, and currently teaches at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, as well as Northeastern University.

He has several collections at the Fogg Museum Print Department, the New York Public Library Print Document, and the Boston Public Library Print Department.

He's won awards as well. His piece Anatomy of a Genocide was included in the 2003 North American Print Biennial Exhibition of the Boston Printmakers, and won the Legion Paper Award.

Avakian's current exhibit, Lest We Forget, is now showing at Providence College's Hunt-Cavanaugh Gallery through June 30

Sharon artist John Avakian's monoprint titled "Anatomy of Genocide V," part of his solo show "Lest We Forget" at Providence College's Hunt-Cavanagh Gallery. The last day of the exhibit is Thursday, June 30.