Testimonies of creative minds affected by brutalities of our times
The video interview with Berj Kailian was conducted in 2001, years after I had first interviewed her for my book. I wanted to capture her on video as I could see her aging. She had already lost her husband, Vahan, and she was living life in a different rhythm assisted by two helpers who were her constant companions - managing and archiving all her works. Her spunk, although dimmed, was still very much part of her.
I first met Berj Kailian in 1988 to interview her for my book Conversations with Contemporary Armenian Artists. The first meeting was the start of a life-long friendship that transcended our discussions and our age difference - and continued intermittently until her death in November 2014 at age 100.
That first meeting was nearly a full day of interview and discussions in her Marina Bay studio space in Quincy, Massachusetts – during which Berj offered me delicious, homemade sandwiches. As our discussions circled around current events in Armenia, and Berj’s art exhibits in Armenia as part of the American-Armenian Artists Association, we returned to her early life as an Armenian Genocide survivor.
Berjouhi Kailian was born on October 25, 1914 in Keghi, Armenia. By the time the Armenian Genocide unfolded across historic Armenia occupied by the Ottoman Empire, Berj was nine months old – but it left a deeply ingrained scar clearly apparent in Berj’s psyche which she managed to mask with her youthful liveliness and her hearty laughter that occasionally fell into a frozen gaze transporting her to another place, another time with images that only she could truly see.
Her father was imprisoned and tortured by the Turkish authorities and later asked to dig his own grave where he was buried alive. Berj would become the only child (out of four) to survive the forced marches along with her mother through historic Armenia (present day Eastern Turkey) and across the scorching hot, Syrian desert.
"Art was a natural selection because I could express a great deal of thought and emotion through it in my own way. I'm still doing it; maybe it's an escape. I use earth pigments — everything comes from the earth. I tear, I dig, I use sand and earth, or gravel. I think that's the hurt but I can't go beyond that."
Berj had come a long way from the newspaper-wrapped orphan refugee child who arrived on the shores of America in 1919. The ink sheets that warmed her throughout her early life also tormented her – becoming an elemental piece of her art as she went on ripping papers that she reinstalled in her abstract artworks. What I wrote of her works in Conversations still rings true:
Kalian’s work suggests suppressed rage. Knife and chisel dig, press deeply into the paint, tearing and stroking almost capriciously – all expressing a controlled anger which becomes evident only on canvas but never in the artist’s personality. Her colors are dark-black or exhausted reds or very bright, almost transparent pink, reds, yellows – all filtered through the artist’s frustration before being placed on canvas. Her work evokes the collective experience of joy and suffering, search for the lost and the unknown.”
Berj and her mother, Alem Alemian Siroonian, escaped the Armenian Genocide surviving through the endless forced marches and deportations that took them from Keghi through Erzerum, through the Syrian desert, on through Kars, Ardahan, Tbilisi, and finally into Yerevan (present day capital city of Armenia). On the way, Berj lost her brother and sisters and survived only because she was tied on to her mother’s back. In Yerevan the young Berj captured in her mind's eye the distinct images of the ancient Armenian church windows which later surfaced as repeated themes in most of her paintings.
Years later, as an adult and an American-Armenian artist, Berj returned to Soviet Armenia, and found the church of her memories - St. Sarkis church where she was lost and found as a child. While in Armenia she did numerous rubbings of the intricately chiseled designed Khatchakars, stone crosses, on Japanese papers scrolls.
“Those Khatchkars are to me, the strongest statement of the arts of Armenia to be handed down to us. Each and everyone is a magnificent piece of art. I love Yerevan with all my heart.”
Berj and her mother left Yerevan in 1919 with funds received from her mother’s two younger brothers, who lived in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Their escape took them through the northern Russian mountains via the Trans-Siberian Railroad into Vladivostok, Russia, and then to Yokohama, Japan from where they boarded a ship for Seattle, Washington in America. Once in Seattle, they traveled by train across the country, to arrive in Massachusetts.
Berj's mother later re-married - Berj enjoyed the company of a step-brother and sister -- but she forever searched for her lost brother and sisters.
The fact that she had escaped death at a young age – three times – was a bit of a phenomenon and carried a deeper message for Berj. She understood the significance and value of her existence on a totally different level – the Gypsy family, the Turkish family and even the roaring river had not been able to take her life in-spite of her mother’s wishes, who no longer had the desire to live or take care of her only surviving child.
“Much has been intentionally forgotten and I try not to recall the painful times, even though I carry the memories with me every single day of my life. But you have to survive, and you just have to accept that dark companion that is with you everywhere you go. I went from wearing newspapers to wearing real clothes with a white bow in my hair, a wristwatch and a gold bracelet.”
Why was Berj consciously making an effort to hide her pain?
“I’m afraid I might fabricate. It’s so easy to be dishonest about it and I think I might elaborate on it. I went back to Yerevan looking for my sisters, for my brother, and I would look at an opera singer, at the ballet dancers, or the conductors and imagine that they were my sisters and brother. And then one day, I saw the attendants in the hotel or museums, and I asked myself: Hey Berj, what makes you think that these aren’t your brother and sisters?”
In 1936, Berj completed her high school and started attending the Vesper George School of Art in Boston. She felt “privileged”. In 1940, she married Vahan Kailian (a survivor himself from Kharpert) had two sons, Vaughn and Gregory, went on to live in Germany and France and further advanced her art education at the prestigious Julien School of Fine Arts in Paris. Berj and Vahan returned to the States in 1957, and opened an art gallery -- Treasure Shoppe - in Hingham, Massachusetts, which Berj operated for 20 years. In 1970’s she went on to continue her art studies at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts and later, at age 65, at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University graduating in 1984 with a B.F.A. in Fine Arts.
When I asked Berj if art was her escape from life, she quickly responded.
“Absolutely. I believe my art, if I have anything to say that’s worthwhile, will have its effect after I’m gone. It’s not important now, of course. It would be great to have people say, “isn’t that wonderful” but that’s not why I’m painting.
“I rip and tear a great deal. But then I may paint something in an hour that is rather good. I work a great deal with oil and sand, and mixed media. I make my own paper, and find collage an intriguing medium. I have to feel the painting….I have to feel the painting more than I have to see it.”
Berj's works have been widely exhibited from Boston City Hall, Bentley College, DeCordova Museum to Federal Reserve Bank to Boston Symphony Hall among many others. She was vice president of the prestigious Copley Society of Boston, and served on the Board of Advisors of the South Shore Art Center and Weymouth Arts Council in Massachusetts.
In her later years, Berj’s failing eyesight didn’t stop her from continuing with her art. She did “feel the painting” and with the help of assistants was able to create works of larger magnitude, collages of precious trinkets she had come to treasure from her travels, children’s knickknacks, to native American artifacts. She titled the series of four large collages “Heartifacts – Shamans – Shards”. Her words told of what the mono-prints were to represent:
“Do take a moment to discover Shamans, spiritual healers who help carry our messages to heaven. Innards of watches, conveying the fragility of time and the importance of the moment also tell of the beauty and the value of every hour lived. The feathered one is dedicated to all my friends. Buckles, belts, single earrings and buttons from the Left Bank in Paris are rewarding memories of days of wine and roses. Two corroded machine gun bullets retrieved from the Pacific Ocean at Pearl Harbor are reminders of hidden stories from other worlds. These bullet shapes are much like my own signature paper scrolls. Madrone twigs speak of precious sun-filled hours spent with family in California. Silver cufflinks, tie tacks and watches here are the history of a long and fruitful life. The tiny tufa alphabet book and chair were sent to me from a school in Yerevan, Armenia as a thank you for art materials sent in the past. Yet there is more to go and the thread continues on.”
Berj’s undeniable relationship to earth, soil, and rocks is evident in almost all her paintings. “I was a rock before I became me” she confidently stated. Her turbulence balanced her tranquility – her creative mind’s real statement was in her piles of paint, on the ridges of a rip, on the dents of a gouge moving the viewer closer to her real story – her real pain.
Berj’s love for Armenia was equally shared with her love for the Native American culture and symbols. She found a lot of similarities between the two cultures – having gone through “the same experiences and being both very close the earth.” And it was this earth that she returned to in America’s southwest where she experienced the “Great Being” which she believed in “with every stroke and breath” she took.
After losing her husband Vahan, Berj did sink into a period of sadness. I had just given birth to my first child – Anais – and Berj visited us to see the newborn. In later years, she would spend a lot of time with my children as they visited her in her studio where she would give them full reign of her art supplies to create desired pieces on specially matted paper she would prepare for them.
She was noticeably saddened by Vahan’s absence and seemed a bit of out of balance as though trying to find her footing alone – her smile was masked behind a withdrawn presence.
Was she fearful of death? “Never” she responded -- she was absolutely comfortable in a cemetery – “one with her surroundings”. She explained how Abigail Adams’ family graves were in her hometown of Weymouth, and that her plot is nearby, with “ordinary, simple, clean, primitive lines.” When asked if there was something she needed to accomplish before her death – she readily responded ”I haven’t started to paint”.
What if she were to die tomorrow? “So be it. I have no regrets, none at all. I was allowed to paint, and I’m very grateful for that. I was allowed to live and have a family and two beautiful grandchildren. I’m very grateful for that. There are lots of hurts, but that’s life. If you didn’t have a soul and feeling, you wouldn’t feel the hurts.”
Were the hurts bottled up? Was Berj an angry person? She admitted she thinks of the question often:
“Probably rather say no, and maybe the answer should be yes, so I shut it out since I can’t do anything about it. If I were a happy and joyful person, I would be an idiot. All one needs to do is to open the newspaper and read.”
Would she ever allow the hurt to surface? She didn’t want to -- as she didn’t see it as helping anyone.
“You hurt somebody else by doing it and I don’t need that. I think you have to come to terms with your life, however you have been allowed to lead it, and make the best of it….and some of it may be very good. I hope I’ve helped many and hurt no one.”
Berj described herself as one who wears “a mask.” Was the real Berj in her paintings? Yes, she “put everything on canvas very freely” but she didn’t see her viewer “reading” her paintings.
“I write it one way and you read it another. I don’t want to build a mystery around my work --- but yes, there is a part of me that will never get out. Nothing is haphazardly put down; it may look that way but it can be read. I study the petroglyphs, Mayan figures, and Armenian dancers. I remember my youth, the dances, the gatherings, and the beauty of that spring of life in spite of all the hurts that people go through.
“Gorky did it. His soul was on the canvas; you could look at his canvas and read his soul….and some people said that it was doodling and that a child could paint that way. There are people who will be able to read it and many who won’t; and then there are those who love you and try to read it.”
Berj remembered her interactions with Gorky during their youthful days living in the Boston area. She met Gorky only once – among the other refugees – Armenians, Jews, Italians – in gatherings where everyone would dance and sing. They were all artists – among them Alan Hovhaness, William Saroyan, and many others who later gained prominence within the art world.
“Those were beautiful times. We were young and the blossoms were fresh, and the handkerchiefs on the tree were very delicate (referring to the Armenian tradition of tying handkerchiefs of wishes to tree branches – and Berj’s painting titled Tree of Wish Fulfillments). As artists we bring fragments of our past history, no matter where we go and what we do with our work.”
Years later, in 2009 Berj, already living with a weakened eyesight, visited the “Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective” exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Museum. And her assistant explained how she sat before the painting The Artists and his Mother and wept.
In the years nearing her passing, Berj did not accept many visitors – she did not want to. I called her often and we spoke for short periods about how she was doing and her artwork. She often said that God had forgotten her – she was living beyond her years. And laughingly wondered if Vahan was having a jolly good time up in heaven and didn’t want her up there with him. We laughed and I told her that she had a lot of work to complete on earth – as she told me about her artwork she’s working on….”can’t see a thing, but I can feel it”.
I remembered her response to my last question of the interview I had conducted years ago…asking her what was to be the masterpiece she would paint!!
“I would go underneath. I would go into the ocean, into the soil, within the womb, and continue to gouge and tear. You see these canvases…they’re waiting, they’re just seeds. Maybe by the time I get through with all these canvases….the direction may be a bit dark and those aren’t the types of things that would sell and pay the rent. You need pretty things sometimes, like an intermezzo, to break the weight of things. I would like to see something happen to the forty pieces of Khatchakar rubbings I’ve made. I want them housed somewhere. But they’re not for sale; they’re my soul and you can’t put that on the market. Each one is different. Those artists were the greatest, our ancestor artists. They etched on stone and the carvings are as delicate as lace. I’m proud of them; I’m proud of having gone to Yerevan and brought back the Khatchkar rubbings. I’ve been fortunate…I’m a survivor.
“It is said that an artist’s work will reflect that which is put into it, and that painting from the heart will, in one way or another, touch those who take the time to look and read and understand. There is a quiet place within all of us, our center, and that is what I have tried to reach.”
And certainly those who have been able to “read” Berj’s paintings, have found that “quiet place” and appreciated that which the artist was able to verbalize clearly on her canvases – as the eternal message to be carried in our “center.”
Artists at War
BERJ KAILIAN - Armenia - America