By Janet Samuelian
A charismatic immigrant is forced to the streets by irate in-laws, frantically sketches on scraps at hand, survives a suicide attempt, triumphs over disaster as he sells his art to help people, and becomes the darling of art galleries. A movie script? Not at all – just the past five years in the life of painter Yuroz – Yuri Gevorgian.
Some artists die in misery and later their works sell for millions. Others escape poverty to life as millionaires. Artist Yuroz at age 34 has had only two years of financial success in his new-found country. Yet he showed America his gratitude by sharing his earnings with those homeless people who initially inspired his first paintings. In his early months here in 1985 it was only they who taught him survival on the streets of Fresno and Los Angeles.
In November 1988 as a way of aiding the homeless, Gevorgian donated an oil painting to a benefit auction for The Clare Foundation in Santa Monica. It sold for $7,000. In the fall of 1989 a Yuroz work garnered $6,000 for Camp Good Times. And for the largest homeless foundation in the United States, Boston’s Pine Street Inn, his work “Lovers on the Street” earned $15,000.
Those street dwellers whom Yuroz portrayed, after his own homeless experience here was over, do not appear depressed. “Homeless people don’t have homes but go on living – some happy days, some sad. I wanted to make them see how beautiful they are – of they truly believe in themselves,” said Gevorgian. The artist’s altruism is somewhat startling in this decade of unprecedented greed – where art is more an investment than a beloved reminder of the eternal.
As word of his talent and sincerity spreads, invitations abound. Late last year Yuroz was guest of honor at art awards in Barbizon, France. He was featured on Dutch and Japanese TV. Now the Mayor of Minneapolis proposes Yuroz paint a huge mural in a park and do an indoor – outdoor architectural design for it. “Those who sleep outdoors showed me great things to paint and feel. Remember, they are not scum. If you have hope, you can do anything – especially in America.”
When Gevorgian painted his colorful characters so determined to survive and win against any odds, the artist had already learned in Soviet Armenia what great humanity exists even under societal oppression.
His imagination and political creativity was such by age 10 that he became one of the youngest students ever to be accepted to Yerevan’s Hagop Kodjoian School of Art. By age 14 he had graduated, winning top honors. But after 1973 when he entered Yerevan Polytechnic Institute for architecture, his natural artistry began to suffer under the school’s rigid academism.
“They said I couldn’t paint and actually, I could not paint then! At least, not the way they required. I really wanted to do it realistic as they insisted, but I can’t look at something and then paint it. Teachers gave up on me, cut my stipend, and only passed me so I could avoid the army. When I told them, stubborn and mad, that I have to go to the United States to work, they sneered at me. They believe that those who can’t make it there are the ones who go to America!”
While waiting six years for permission to emigrate, Gevorgian made a good living in Yerevan. He designed women’s clothing under the label “Yuroz,” built architectural models, and worked as an interior designer. He also successfully constructed an innovative metal-and-glass portable fountain, using the labor of prison detainees for nine months.
Yuroz’ grandparents were from Bayazit and Kamo. A big influence, his mother is also artistic. Because he has one brother, two sisters, eight aunts, seven uncles, 40 nieces and 50 nephews, the painter is ebullient, sociable and optimistic.
Of all the painters in Armenia, Gevorgian admires Hagop Hagopian. Others he felt were empty, living in the past, with no healthy interest in politics. Those here seem to him to be negative complainers. “They think art is the only work they have in life. But when you really like your art, you must paint, whether for money or not. So you do outside work to support it and not wait for support. When I hear them angry and depressed, I ask – do you want to go back?”
He remembers when he just completed his first major painting “The Kiss.” In his squalid apartment in Hollywood a rich man came to ask the price. “I was living poor and healthy like a Yogi, spending two dollars a day for food, and I said it was $3,000. Laughing, the guy asked me did I think I was Picasso? So I told him – how I live and work doesn’t matter, it’s still worth that amount.”
Eventually the painting sold for $22,000 and the present owner has reportedly been offered $1 million. Yuroz continued “If you wish to buy my art, you must pay whatever I want. It’s the way you, the artist, treat yourself. Armenian people think artists are poor and puppies. But the artist must be the first to stand up for his own work!”
With as many as twenty people vying to buy the same painting, the artist realized the impossibility of painting adequate quantities to satisfy orders. Through his own company, Stygian Publishing, he found an alternative making serigraphs with 50-70 separate colors in limited editions of 300. In 1989 he created six different editions and will do four more in 1990. From the original pre-publication price of $900, these now sell for up to $6,000 each.
After numerous charity events, Yuroz has gained valuable experience in business. He advised, “Never look at the market and then paint. You can’t paint just to sell. Paint first, and then look. Always be open to what’s happening in the art market since you must understand it.” The canny painter could not have achieved his present success singlehandedly. Homeless, he was helped by a fellow university student, Aram Alajajian, who gave him office space where he made architectural models and, unknown to others, also slept.
In time, Gevorgian could rent a tiny apartment and quickly finish his “Hollywood Boulevard” series; those powerful portraits show the human, caring side of homeless people whom Yuroz says “are still waiting for a chance to improve their lives, who must never be allowed to forget how wonderful and beautiful life is.”
He felt so energized, he says, that whatever blocks he had in Armenia fell away. He discovered a method of working on black canvas, rather than the traditional white, which he calls “Stygianism.” In myths Styx is a dark and dreary river which dead souls cross before seeing Paradise. “Appropriate since I felt I passed through dark times in my life,” said Gevorgian.
Yuroz explains the process: “In my mind’s eye, black is always the beginning. I close my eyes to catch the first image – a flash of color, a shadowed movement. Looking deep inside, images from my life appear to me. Those inborn emotions taught me all about myself so I love to make those images tangible. Black surfaces became essential to me in order to create.”
With slides of paintings and pastels, Yuroz made the rounds of Los Angeles galleries. Finally L.A. Art Association’s May Babitz said, “I realized that with his originality and dedication, he was going to be a permanent influence on the industry.” He was then introduced to a pair of gallery owners about the launch the Gallery Connection on the eighth floor of Beverly Center. He sold eight of his Hollywood paintings for $40,000, making sure that now only would he help himself but also the destitute street survivors he had seen struggling.
Gallery owner Deborah Murry, whose involvement is very important to the artist, is a friend as well as promoter of his work. “Yuri was strong enough to survive negative reactions even from his own people, and is so admired that we have three movie deals on his life, if we want!” Since his one-man exhibition in mid-1988 in Los Angeles and Palm Desert, he has sold everywhere. With additional representation by Dyansen Gallery in Beverly Hills, one of the largest art gallery chains in America, Yuroz works are now displayed in 14 major cities, including Boston, San Francisco, New York, Denver and Washington D.C.
Collectors like Jeff Hess and Neil Forman each own two or three of his works. Others, like a doctor in Alaska, purchased works to donate to the Anchorage Art Museum. He has sold in Hawaii, Jamaica, France, South Africa, Mexico, Spain and Japan through several International Art Expos.
Last month in New Haven he did a feature TV interview “People in the 21st Century.” In September he may exhibit in a SoHo gallery and also in Boston’s Dyansen location. In Los Angeles at both Dyansen and Beverly Connection galleries, his latest serigraphs are continuously on view.
The present crop of Yuroz paintings depict love and friendship. Couples kiss, sitting on wicker chairs. Pairs of women eat fruit on checkerboard tables. Fanciful mates play music. Bodies are blue, black or mauve, and limbs are exaggerated to fill up the canvas space. Clothing, hats and long gloves can be strong red, green or bright stripes. His stylized human forms are reminiscent of Juan Gris, Chagall, or Matisse, whom he loves. An enthusiastic admirer of women, Gevorgian in his works celebrates the joys of the senses. Currently he is preparing a July 4th exhibit of erotic art for a Danville, California gallery, “Day of Independence.”
Gevorgian’s natural openness has helped him to adapt quickly to American ways, but he spoke warmly about Armenian issues. “I want to do one big project now – the homeless in Armenia and the homeless in the U.S. Without money you can’t give money. Now that I have built up connections who would be willing to help, we can do something professional.”
He continues, “Especially for us, it’s most important to be a great human being first. True, we have been victims historically, but we have much to offer. Build! Create! Fight self-satisfaction and there’s no limit to what we should be able to achieve here.”