On the flight to California, I sat next to a man who introduced himself as the only rabbi in Sioux City, Iowa. When he learned I was off to Glendale to write about the Armenians there, he nodded in approval. The Jews and the Armenians, he explained, have a lot in common. More than just genocide, he said—the only acceptable use of “genocide” after “just.” As we prepared for our final descent, he asked where in Glendale, exactly, he could find the heart of the Armenian community. Unsure, I rattled off something about St. Mary’s Apostolic, one of the oldest Armenian churches in the city. This sounded like the right answer, especially to a man of faith. Now, though, I’d answer differently. I’d tell the only rabbi in Sioux City, Iowa that to find the heart of the Armenian community in Glendale, you have to go to a two-story business plaza at Glendale Avenue and Elk.
Moon Mart Corner is home to a dozen Armenian businesses, most of which broadcast their Armenian ties in one way or another. The grocery, the bakery, and the magazine publisher print their signs in Armenian lettering. Hi Fashion and Hi Jewelry use a bilingual pun (“hay,” pronounced “hi,” is the Armenian word for “Armenian”). And the emblem over A&J Dental depicts a severed tooth soaring on the red, blue, and orange wings of the Armenian flag.
This clustering is not unusual in a city where some 80,000 Armenians—the second-largest number in the world after Yerevan—make their home. In fact, the ability to foster a community regardless of the surrounding context seems to be representative of the Armenian experience en masse. Under the Soviets, under the Ottomans, under the Persians, under the Byzantines, and on and on—the history of Armenians in many ways has been the practiced and stubborn refusal to relinquish a national identity in the face of invasion, occupation, persecution, genocide, or large-scale emigration. In Glendale, Armenians can live comfortably and profitably without speaking a word of English. Armenian television stations, restaurants, churches, and schools are ubiquitous. Moon Mart Corner is just one of many Armenian strongholds in the city.
But one business there in particular has become a lodestone for my curiosity. Magic Brush Art Studio, located on the second floor of the plaza, bears no foreign letters on its windows, no puns, and certainly no flag-flying teeth. The lack of advertisement about its Armenian ownership is emphasized by its innocuously American mass-market name. Still, I know Magic Brush Art Studio belongs to an Armenian artist. He’s a well-known painter and instructor in Armenian communities around the world, and he also happens to be my uncle.
* * *
Climbing from the ground floor of Moon Market Corner to the second level, the smell of ripening produce is replaced by the chemical bite of acrylics and ink. Entering the studio, I have the distinct impression that I’m leaving the perishable world for someplace more permanent. It isn’t just the smell of solvents in the air—there’s something vaguely posthumous about Magic Brush Art Studio. The artist’s daughter, my cousin and interpreter, jokes that her father is becoming a hoarder, and it’s true that the place resembles my idea of a lovely, if bizarre, estate sale.
A vast collection of paintings lines the walls and partitions, and countless more have been stacked in the nooks of makeshift halls. Busts and sculptures and wooden planks scarred by hot-iron etchings guard the end-caps like tombs. Lifelike but nonliving models—ravens and peacocks and paper bouquets and baskets of plastic grapes—shine from their partitioned perches beneath the spectral light of a chandelier. Dotting the studio like billboards on a desert road are the paint-strewn easels of yesterday’s students, and I mistake a neatly made bed in the corner for an installation. There’s no music except for the echoing thwacks of my footsteps against the hardwood floors. Eventually, from his office in the back, my uncle comes to greet me.
“Can you say, Eduard Manukyan?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say, confused, and repeat his name.
“See?” he begins in his broken English. “Very international name. Easy.”
Apparently, he’s just got off the phone with a telemarketer who was thrown by the “u” in “Eduard” and completely lost by the time she attempted “Manukyan.”
When he pulls me in for a hug, I’m surprised by my height advantage. As a kid, on holidays and special occasions, I was deeply intimidated by my uncle, who immigrated here when I was three, and who would buzz around the house with an electric razor at his throat, shouting words I didn’t understand. He once painted a baseball player for my bedroom wall, but because neither of us can speak more than a few words of the other’s language, I know almost nothing about him.
Shorter or not, he still brims with intimidating strength. He’s almost 70 and remains in great physical shape—his grip during our handshake is as firm as ever, and the hairline of his white flattop hasn’t receded much at all—but that’s not what I mean. The strength I’m talking about has something to do with his eyes, which seem capable of paying a supremely lasting degree of attention. Whenever he looks elsewhere, at a painting or at my cousin, my own eyes instinctively follow. For this reason, I can’t picture him looking away. Even now, when I imagine him, he looks directly at me.
“Come,” he says, and leads me to a painting near the entrance of his studio. It’s a self-portrait in which his image breaks through the canvas from the other side, paintbrush like a hammer in his fist. The tattered canvas-within-a-canvas depicts the famous works of modern masters, including Matisse, Picasso, Miró, and Chagall.
“I wanted to say,” he explains, “to hell with having only one genre, to hell with only surrealism or only realism. Just as people have changing moods or contradictory feelings, an artist should be able to work in multiple styles.”
There’s no denying that his work lives up to his philosophy. As he takes me on a tour of the studio, I see charcoal sketches and lush dreamscapes and realistic landscapes and abstract portraits and polemical paintings about the genocide.
“And yet,” he says, “no matter how different one painting is from another, people can always tell that it’s mine.”
Identifiable, yet adaptive: In a way, I think, there’s nothing more essentially Armenian than the artwork of Eduard Manukyan.
* * *
Although Armenians from Armenia, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, and elsewhere have been immigrating to cities like New York, Boston, Fresno, and Los Angeles since the genocide of 1915 and even earlier, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that a dramatic influx of Armenians turned Glendale into the capital of the diaspora. The Lebanese civil war, along with the Islamic revolution in Iran, sent Armenians abroad in droves. My uncle arrived among a more recent wave of immigrants. After the devastating Spitak earthquake in 1988, amid the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and with national autonomy on the horizon, bleak economic prospects sent thousands of Armenians—my uncle and his family included—Glendale bound.
When I ask how the city and its Armenian community have changed since his arrival in 1990, my uncle grows nostalgic. He speaks of the ’90s in the same reverent tone he puts on when talking about the old country. The economy was better in the ’90s, so business was up. He had a larger studio with nearly 300 students, whereas now he has only a handful. To this day, he considers Bill Clinton an honorary Armenian, a bestowment President Obama has seemingly failed to earn.
“You see this painting?” my uncle asks. He’s talking about a different self-portrait, done on an old paint-encrusted palette instead of a canvas. He created it in a fit of anger during his early days in the U.S., when he was working as hired help for a commissioned artist. After putting in what felt like the hours of a month in just a week, he was paid far less than expected. Since his income was under the table, he had little choice but to take the disrespect on the chin. Enraged, financially stressed, and completely out of blank canvases, my uncle painted his self portrait on the only surface lying around the apartment, an old palette.
“Very original,” says my uncle, who tends to dramatize English words of more than two syllables. He claims his self-portrait on a palette was the first of its kind. In the ’90s, he explains, many “name-your-price” offers were made, but he could never bring himself to sell it.
“Now,” he laughs, “I’d sell it.”
* * *
It may be smaller than his Clinton-era space, but one benefit of the new studio at Moon Mart Corner is the balcony. The only one at the plaza, the balcony behind Magic Brush Art Studio serves as a kind of community hub. Two sofas and a pair of folding chairs surround a glass-top table, where nearly every morning, my uncle welcomes the other business owners in the plaza for coffee and conversation.
On the balcony, I’m struck by the idea that the Mediterranean climate in Glendale—hospitable to prolonged outdoor talks like these—must remind Armenians of the old country.
“No,” says Saro Gyodakyan, publisher of the Armenian-language culture magazine, Hamaynapatker, which means Panorama. He is from the second largest city in Armenia—Gyumri—and for him, there’s no comparing the lushness of home with the drought-spotted and freeway-scarred terrain of Southern California. “When I last visited Armenia,” he says, “I filled my lungs with its air to keep me going until my next visit.”
“When will that be?” I ask.
“This year,” Saro says, and the colossal features of his face melt into a disarming smile of relief.
From time to time, through my cousin, I decline as politely as possible the splashes of cognac my uncle wants to add to my morning coffee. Our conversation is dominated by history and what Saro keeps referring to as the Armenian “gene.” Armenians, he says, are creators. Everywhere they’ve been, they’ve made themselves useful and admired by making themselves makers.
“You can tell the health of a country by whether its Armenians choose to stay or leave,” he says, and cites a recent speech given by Bashar al-Assad. “What’s happening in Syria is driving the Armenians there away,” Saro explains, “and Assad knows this means the country is collapsing.”
That the compliment comes from Assad, a man who has been accused of deploying chemical weapons against his own people, seems entirely beside the point. A similar kind of cherry-picking occurs when my uncle waxes poetic about famous Armenian painters. Ivan Aivazovsky, who studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts a century earlier than my uncle did, and Arshile Gorky, yes—but also, in what is news to me, Rembrandt. I ask if the famously Dutch painter is Armenian the same way Bill Clinton is Armenian.
“No,” my uncle booms. “Rembrandt is pure Armenian.”
When my cousin starts to fact-check Rembrandt’s genealogy on her phone, this too seems beside the point. What matters is the conviction my uncle has that one of the greatest artists in history belongs to his tribe. What matters—as when he extols the Armenian-designed freeways of Los Angeles, which were lamented only a moment ago—is the inflexibility of his pride.
Besides, I’m more interested in my uncle’s use of the word “pure.” When I ask why he and Saro haven’t tried to learn English in the two decades they’ve lived in the U.S., they don’t have to think on it. The younger generation, they say, will learn English at school and in the world without a problem. It’s the job of their generation—Eduard’s and Saro’s—to make sure the old language, its purity, isn’t lost.
This protectiveness, combined with who I happen to be—the half-blood son of an Armenian and a white American—makes my next question difficult to ask. How do they feel, I wonder, about Armenians marrying non-Armenians?
“If your mother is Armenian, or if your father is Armenian, you are Armenian. You have that gene. Look at you,” Saro says to me. “You don’t speak the language, but you’re here, you’re interested in learning about our people, you have that in you. You are the answer to your own question.”
The conversation turns back to history, to the sucker-punch of the genocide, to the alternate outcome that might have taken place had the Armenians been given a fair fight against the Ottomans. At first, the conversation’s relentless focus on history appears to be symptomatic of a kind of cultural glory-days syndrome, but I come to think the truth is precisely the opposite. Attention to the past is the result of a supreme confidence in the future. During the death marches, some Armenians chose to carry history books instead of children. The gene, the thinking goes, will find a way to live on, but the history requires saving.
My cousin agrees. There is something elemental about Armenians that draws them together and perpetuates the culture, she thinks. Her son, now 15, once came home from school after meeting his first Armenian friend, gushing that he’d finally met someone who “talks just like me.”
I remember my uncle’s self-portrait on the palette, how when he was at his most vulnerable, he painted his own image.
Still, it doesn’t take an artist to warn against the use of such a broad brush. The Armenian experience is less interesting than the Armenian experiences. The Hayastanci (Armenians from Armenia) are distinct from the Parskahay (Armenians from Iran) and the Beirutsi Hay (Armenians from Lebanon)—not to mention the multitude of diaspora communities around the world.
Even among the Hyastanci, depending on the city in Armenia from where they come, there are stark cultural differences. When we’re joined on the balcony by my uncle’s childhood friend, a small and conspicuously quiet man, I ask if he’s an artist, too.
The quiet man from my uncle’s hometown looks down and murmurs, “No. Engineer.”
“He’s always like this,” my uncle says, and Saro—who comes from a bigger city with a reputation for loudmouths—laughs. “What do you expect?” he jokes. “He’s from Kirovakan!”
I laugh even before I hear the translation. The joy out here is transmittable. I feel mysteriously comfortable with these men from another place and another time, and the comfort has led to a kind of giddy drunkenness. (I swear, I’ve declined the cognac.) But when I look out over the streaming traffic on Glendale Avenue from the only balcony at Moon Mart Corner, laughing over a joke I haven’t gotten yet, I think: Magic Brush Art Studio—what a seemingly innocuous name. But it feels right. There is a kind of magic here—not one of disappearance or reappearance, but of perseverance, the magic of continuing.
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