I stand on an unpaved street; read dirt, old dirt, in a city of 120,000 which pre-earthquake in 1988 had 200,000 residents. I look around. Smoke chuffs out of the chimneys that run from the small woodstoves with which many people heat their homes. There are electric heat sources in some homes, but not all. So the morning is air is smoky and cool. It is November. The harvest has past. Women are drying peppers and seeds, herbs and onions in their kitchens for winter storage. This landscape moves quickly from verdant summer in to bleak pre-winter in November.
“Wrapped in cocoons of smoke from wood-burning stoves, Gyumri’s numerous shantytowns are estimated to house about 3.7 percent of the city’s 121,500 inhabitants.”
I am in Gyumri, Armenia, on a self-designed artist residency.
I am here to teach two art and writing workshops, the first to a group of women artists, the second to a group of teen photographers interested in visual storytelling. I am interviewing women artists about their lives and the work they make in a culture that does not naturally value or celebrate women’s contributions beyond home and hearth.
It is a difficult residency, my stone walled room is chilly, the nights are long and lonely, and the food choices are limited. I love the conversations I have with women artists, often long and complex diatribes about Armenian culture and how few opportunities there are for women to move freely, colored by the historic sorrow that runs from the tap here. An impressive young Armenian man, a professional in the creative arts, tells me that the archetypical Armenian woman is strong. And silent.
When I spoke about this statement in the workshop I led with 15 women artists, 2 translators, one administrator, and a photographer, all Armenian, the breeze they created by nodding their heads in acknowledgement made my hair blow back. Yes, this is the truth with which they all live.
There are, in the world, many artists who can thrive within the confines of difficult settings, who find the strictures of their surroundings informative, even inspiring. There are other artists who find such confines limiting and depressing, who cannot work in such circumstances, and so they don’t. The world never knows the brilliance they could have created. And there are women who seek the outer boundaries of such confinement, who look beyond the expectations and make their work in the hope that soon their culture will move beyond its current standards of expected behavior and the treatment of women. These women nudge the edges out with every piece of work they make, with every conversation, however difficult. They take steps to make more room in the world for their work.
These are the women of Gyumri, Armenia.
This third group of edge-nudging women who pace the boundaries, who live in spite of the definitions their society supplies for “how women are to behave,” these are the women who participated in my New Illuminations workshop. The 15 women enrolled with my translator and attended four full days to explore new techniques. They are brave enough embrace the unknown in exchange for what their current lives pass as normal. The work we did was exciting to all of them, confronting at times, scary, but also exhilarating.
Living in a country where domestic violence is high, where women are expected to marry and move in to the homes of their husband’s family, where households are full to the brim, women artists are most often expected to slough off their artistic dreams once they marry. Or if they are in the slim portion of women who remain single, in a patriarchic society, they are considered outliers, often living at home under the protection and financial shelter of their parents. I listened to stories of the work they hope to make in their life time, while also witnessing the reality of their lives, learning of the country they are so dedicated to, but which offers little protection to the women who live there.
What is silenced can be spoken, in safety
In the New Illuminations workshop I taught the women a technique I learned from author activist Terry Tempest Williams. It goes like this: If within you are truths that you will not commit to paper because of the potential threat that exists for your well being should those truths ever be read by another, Terry suggested something called repatations. You write over and over a sentence, so that a whole paragraph, a letter’s worth, even a books’ worth of text is limited to a few inches of paper and forever obscured. Sometimes we even paint over writing. In every case, the writer has the revelatory experience of getting a story on paper and out of her head. The story becomes just that, a story, not something that directs her from within. Writing true yet difficult things about our lives converts the mental and emotional energy that we once used to hold them inside us, in to transformational power that rescues back parts of our selves that have hidden in silence.
Rebecca Solnit writes, “Silence protects violence.” So I was not surprised that on the day I introduced my Armenian artists to repatations, Lusine came to me in tears of relief, having written a story she never thought she could let in to the world. She’d written it and then painted over it. Written more, and painted over it.
Working collectively weaves community.
Books become a tangible record of our lives, filled with story, illustrated with our unique imprint, a place in which to dream. Historically, illuminated manuscripts were records of a culture in development. Now, they become tools for transforming silenced women in to a voiced community of artist re-interpreting a cultural icon for contemporary life. In my interviews I learned that a wider sense of creative community is not common among the women artists.
Armenia treasures its long legacy of illuminated manuscripts. It is a tradition founded in early Christianity, important and intricate books made by monks in monasteries are now collected and catalogued in several locations around the world. The Armenian Illuminated Manuscripts have such historical significance, as well as mystical implications, that whole bodies of study have been designed around and because of them.
I want to return to continue to explore this work with the women artists I started with, in hopes of seeding their future work as artists and teachers, capable of carrying this treasured practice of illuminated manuscripts forward in time, in new hands, with new voices raised in love and outcry for the conditions of their lives.
In Gyumri, I find on the dirt or cobbled streets a vigilant passion to survive, despite strong odds that include poverty, domestic violence, and lack of opportunity. My days in this old city are long and rich, touched with the native welcome that all Armenians extend, many cups of thyme tea and sweets.