Teaching Hope in Sisian, Armenia
Teaching Hope in Sisian, Armenia
By Lucine Kasbarian
While visiting Armenia and its smaller sister republic, Nagorno-Karabagh, this past summer, I met artist Ashot Avagyan. He lives and works in Sisian, a town in southern Armenia. Even though Ashot has visited many fascinating places around the world, he remains in Sisian to teach at the Children’s Art School and enjoy his native heritage. He also derives inspiration from the nearby Mount Ukhtasar region. In these mountainous parts, petroglyphs and megaliths up to 14,000 years old can be found. Petroglyphs are rock engravings made by prehistoric peoples and can feature animals, tools and nature scenes. Megalith, which means “large stone,” refers to any huge, human-built structure made of stones.
In ancient Armenia, Sisian was also known as Sisakan and Sisavan. The region was the site of one of three famous battles where, in 1918, Armenia fought off Turkish invaders.
Sisian is the home of the prehistoric archeological site named Zorats Karer, which means “Stones of the Brave,” also known as Karahunj. Many scientists consider it the world’s oldest megalithic structure. Zorats Karer is often compared to the Stonehenge monument in England and the Callanish Stones in Scotland because their circles of standing stones look similar. Since 2010, Ashot has been the director of the Zorats Karer complex, where he creates a secure scientific and cultural environment for research and tourism.
Some believe that some megalithic sites such as Zorats Karer are ancient observatories where prehistoric peoples studied the stars and constellations. Others say that excavations prove that Zorats Karer was an ancient burial ground. The reason these sites were built remains a subject of scientific debate.
Today, Ashot searches for petroglyphs high in the mountains and creates his own paintings based on these ancient carvings. He also stages dramatic performances around Zorats Karer, some of them re-enactments of pagan rituals from before 301 A.D., when Armenia converted to Christianity.
One day, Ashot and his friend Sasun took our friend Berge, my husband and me up into the Ukhtasar mountains. Sasun drove a tough, old military jeep so we could navigate the rugged terrain in search of petroglyphs. As we piled out of the jeep, Ashot instructed us to scan the rocks for flat, shiny black surfaces. As we were to learn, primitive artists preferred this type of rock on which to engrave their petroglyphs. Sure enough, we soon discovered many such carvings, some of which depicted human figures, stag deer, and oxen pulling a plow. In fact, my husband located a petroglyph that Ashot had heard about but never seen.
At the Children’s Art School, Ashot teaches courses that range from painting and collage to traditional Armenian arts such as carpet weaving and needlework. Ashot uses his world travel experiences to show students that interacting with other cultures can broaden their horizons, inform their own culture, and give them renewed appreciation for their Armenian heritage. To teach civic duty and respect for Mother Nature, Ashot takes his classes on trips to maintain historic sites and collect litter.
The lack of jobs in Sisian has caused 30% of the population to move to other cities -- and even other countries -- for work to support their families. Local farmers are struggling to earn a living. There is a great need for home repair and more paved roads. Adequate food, housing, and clothing can be too expensive for many. With such hardships, how does an art school -- which some would consider to be a luxury -- operate? Out of gratitude and respect for their teachers, Sisian Children’s Art School graduates and friends living in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan -- as well as abroad -- raise money or donate art supplies such as paints, canvases and even computers. Some of the older students use these computers to sell their handicrafts on the Internet. This allows them to contribute to their families’ household income.
Ashot, the son of a historian, often gathers his motivation from ancestors who struggled and survived in spite of great odds. He believes in the power of hope, even under difficult conditions. “Sometimes we have to retreat into history to make history,” he says.
In the near future, paintings from the Sisian Children’s Art School will be displayed at the Holy Martyrs Armenian Day School in Bayside, New York.
Artist Ashot Avagyan lives and works in Sisian, Armenia:
Armenian-American children’s book author Lucine Kasbarian lives and works in New Jersey and Massachusetts.