The art of life and the life of art

* Vahe Berberian's milagros come in words, images, and emotions

by Paul Chaderjian

Before we enter his second-floor studio, painter, performer, writer
Vahe Berberian insists on serving oranges and mandarins from the trees
that line the apartment building's driveway. Vahe has been nurturing
these trees for more than a decade, and you can tell he's proud of
them. He likes green things, he says.

Three of the units in the white apartment building - a few miles north
of the San Fernando Valley's arterial Ventura Boulevard, in the flats
of the Valley - are where Vahe paints, lives, and stores his works of

Six months out of the year, however, here's not here. The tall and
thin 51-year-old, with salt-and-pepper braids, spends a lot of his
time taking his performance art and his monologues to Armenian
communities as far away as the homeland and Australia.

On this Tuesday afternoon, Vahe is in the Southland and plucking
oranges off his tree with a long-handled fruit picker's pole. He
retrieves about a dozen oranges and mandarins, placing them in a
plastic grocery bag. Once he is settled in his sunny and airy upstairs
studio, peeling an orange, we begin our interview.

* The Casitas warehouse

The peg on this cover story in the Armenian Reporter, dear reader, is
that on March 31, Vahe will transform a 16 thousand square foot
warehouse in Atwater Village, south of Glendale, into a gallery. The
hundreds of fans expected to attend will also receive a copy of this
very issue you have in your hands. Perhaps you're one of the ones who
attended. How was the show?

On display at the warehouse on the 31st will be dozens of Vahe's
milagros - small, thin and thick pieces of metal, meticulously painted
and individually framed by the artist himself. We have come to his
studio to find out about the milagros.

“We call them milagros,” Vahe explains, “because in Spanish, it
means miracle or surprise, and they are a little of both. The miracle
and surprise Vahe is talking about are four inches by four of
aluminum. He began experiments with metal when he received a request
from a film producer to create a 'wall of voodoo,' made up of a
hundred individually painted pieces.

“They needed it for a film,” he says. “I did it, and I realized that
I liked the process. I knew that it was going to take me somewhere. So
I spent months and months working on the series, all one hundred
pieces of metal, almost like tarot cards.”

Vahe says when he began the project, he had no idea what occult and
voodoo figures were and what he would draw and paint on these small
pieces of metallic canvas. Once he began experimenting, Vahe says, he
discovered he would use acrylic and that the size was dictating his

The art of discovery with the milagros was that he couldn't create
abstractions and abstract images as he does in his larger-than-life
paintings. “When they're so small,” he says, “abstraction doesn't
translate well. So the milagros are more etudes (studies). They are
figurative, colorful, whimsical.”

To paint fifty pieces of metal for the film, Vahe says he tapped
into his Jungian subconscious, coming up with figures he didn't know
resided in his mind. “A lot of them are symbols,” he says, “but I'm
not using them as symbols. I generally don't have names for the
pieces, but this one,” he says, pointing to one with two female
figures, “is called Pari Passu. It means with the same step. It's

The exhibit at a warehouse at 3191 Casitas Avenue - where a
burgeoning community of artists, architects, filmmakers, writers, and
photographers have set up their workspaces - will present the milagros
for one night only.

Vahe has priced the pieces lower than the works he exhibits and
sells exclusively at the Gallery Saint Germaine in Los Angeles. He
says he wanted to give fans of his work who wanted Vahes but cannot
afford them, a chance to own one of his originals.

Among those who can afford and collect Vahe's painting are a Who's
Who from the arts literati - from Hollywood, Paris, and New York.
Among Vahe's patrons and collectors are Los Angeles Opera director
Peter Sellars, architect Frank Israel, publishers Alain and Raymonde,
actresses Lucy Liu and Mariette Hartley, football Hall of Famer Marcus
Allen, artist Tanya Hovnanian, and filmmaker Atom Egoyan.

* Abstract expressionism, a la L.A.

Vahe's works of art are big, like everything American. His pieces
range from fourteen feet by fourteen to four feet by six. “The larger,
the better,” he says, and that's why Vahe does not plan to create any
more of the four inch by six milagros.

“When I started working years ago,” he says, “I was using my
fingers. Gradually, I started using my wrist. Then I started using my
elbow, and then I started using my shoulder, and now my entire body
paints. It's a ritualistic thing. It's almost like dancing, and you
achieve that only when you're working on large pieces. I want to
achieve the freedom of working on a large piece.”

I ask him if he had to label his work, what school or genre would
classify his work. “I would say I'm an abstract expressionist,” he
answers. “My work is abstract. Not Jackson Pollock or Gorky. Probably,
the closest are Cy Twombly and Antoni Tapies.”

“His work is about who he is,” says Caroline Lais-Tufenkian from her
home in Glendale during a phone interview. Caroline studied Vahe and
five other Armenian artists as the subject of her graduate school
thesis. Her focus was how Armenian artists bring to their art their
cultural background and create a new hybrid cultural identity.

“Several components have been the key in the construction of
Berberian's complex and rich aesthetic identity,” says Caroline, who
was the curator of one of Vahe's nearly three dozen one-man and group
show. “For example, his Armenianness, cross-cultural background,
modern abstract expressions, and him being a Los Angeles artist.
Berberian offers a new dialect to the western artistic style of
abstract expressionism.”

Caroline says this new western style does not identify with any
specific style. However, she says, it specifies a personal and
spontaneous attitude. “I think his work is so spontaneous and
definitely shows his personal attitude.”

I ask Caroline how the modern critical and curatorial studies world
explains the simplicity of abstract expressionism. She says that with
abstract art, people sometimes do say, 'a child could have done that.'
However, Caroline explains that an artist has to go through many years
of intensive art training before he or she can something that is
childlike and works as a piece of art.

* Berberian's peers & his evolution

Vahe says when he began painting, it was during the years that another
well-known, modern-day abstract expressionist, Basquiat, was also
painting. Vahe says if you look at his work and compare it to
Basquiat's, they are very close, almost identical.

I ask him how his work as a Lebanese-Armenian now living in Los
Angeles could resemble the work of an African-American living on the
streets of New York. Vahe says he believes the similarity between his
work and Basquiat's is due to the political, social dynamics of the

“Then I gradually evolved into more of a minimalist style,” he says.
“When you're younger, you have this tendency to show off. Your colors
are bright. You want to say, I can do this. I can do this, and I can
do that.”

The older an artist becomes, says Vahe, the more mature his or her
work also becomes. “And hopefully,” he says, “you create your own
palette of colors. It's ironic, because you work all your life in
order to create a language of your own, and then you get upset when
that language is not understood. It's funny in a way.”

Vahe says he feels fortunate that he can make a descent living off
his art and that success is not something he expected. “We grew up
with that notion of artists dying poor and hungry and starving,” he
says. “However, now I realize that with acknowledgement comes a sense
of liberation. Your work changes. It becomes freer, more powerful,
more raw, because you do not need to please anyone anymore. Your work
becomes less adornmental, less decorative, and more immediate. It
becomes you.”

* The ritual of painting and the movies

Vahe says he is a creature of habit, and that process of creating art
for him is walking into his studio without any concepts or ideas. “The
whole concept of having an idea and materializing the idea turns the
work of art into an illustration, he says, quickly adding that he is
not an illustrator.

“I start somewhere and work with the assumption that art is a series
of mistakes,” he explains. “I stand in front of the canvas and make my
first mistake. Then, I go on and on, and I stop when I think I like
what I see. I stop when I think that I can't make any more mistakes.”

Vahe's body of work, his canon so far, is made up of hundreds of
paintings. Every one, except the few his wife Betty has saved, have
been sold. “I am very happy that she has kept one or two from
different periods or phases,” he says.

“The ones that I own are rented and used in different films like the
three Spiderman movies. I know they're going to make Spiderman four
and five, and they wanted to buy the paintings, but I didn't sell.
Because I know they will come back to rent them.”

Vahe says the paintings his wife has held on to have been rented
dozens of times over the past fourteen years by movie production
companies and used on film sets. It must help if one's wife is an
expert set designer; but the artwork has to be powerful enough to
stand on its own, especially when millions of movie-going eyes will be
forced to focus on them through the lens of a 35-mm camera.

In Hollywood, Vahe is represented by an agency called Film Art LA.
His agent submits his art to dozen of films or television shows a
year. “I have five films coming out this year. I have 'Spiderman 3.' I
have 'Ocean's 13.' I have 'I am Legend' with Will Smith. I have
'Enchanted.' I have 'Holiday' and a few more.”

* Duality of introvert and extrovert

According to Vahe's mother, when he was a year-and-a-half old, he
began to doodle, pretending to be writing words and sentences. “After
50 years,” he says, “I sometimes think that was the ultimate
translation of what I stand for - writing, almost writing whatever's

With more than a dozen film scripts, almost a dozen plays, and
several monologues in his credits, Vahe is also a published author.
His two novels, Letters from Zakhtar and In the Name of the Father and
the Son have been well received.

“I think, Paul,” he says to me, “that I'm realizing that I have this
split personality. One part of me is the entertainer, the one who
seeks attention. That's the part of me that is the actor, that does
the monologues. The other part of me shies away from attention, loves
putting on the music and painting without interruption or writing for
hours and hours. I love it. I love it.”

Vahe says his monologues, which he has performed all over the world,
on Armenian-themed cruises at sea, on the Hayastan All-Armenian Fund
telethon, at churches and fundraisers, are the perfect combination of
the two sides of the artist in him. “Because, I sit down and write,”
he says, “and then I perform. It's the perfect combination.”

Vahe says painting can be a stage for him as well. He often has
friends come to visit while he's painting. “People come, hang around,”
he says, “have coffee and watch. I talk to them, but at the same time,
I paint. And I love that. I love that. It's like, on those days, I do
not entertain, but I welcome their presence, and I get entertained by
them, and I incorporate everything that happens in this room in that

* Monologues

“I love people and the situations they find themselves in,” says Vahe,
explaining his monologues. He has written, performed, and videotaped
three of them already. His DVDs and videos of “Nayev,” “Yevaylen,”
and “Dagaveen” are distributed all over the world, are available on, and have a loyal following in the homeland.

“I don't make fun of people because I think weak people make fun of
others,” he says. “I like to laugh with people instead, and I want to
point at certain things that are funny like ideas, situations, and
circumstances that put us in situations.”

Vahe says his Spalding Gray-influenced monologues are primarily in
Armenian because if he performed them in English, he is certain they
would take over his life. “Sometimes, I feel like my art is suffering
because of the performances.”

When Vahe is on tour, his painting has to take a backseat to his
monologues. He says monologues hurt his pocketbook because his
painting are more lucrative, and because there is a lot of traveling
involved. “Last year, six months out of the year, I was away,” he
says. “I performed in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, New
Jersey, then San Francisco, Florida, Toronto, Montreal, Yerevan,
Paris, Marseille, Valance, Lyon, London, on the ocean, Beirut, Sydney,
Melbourne, and it takes its toll.”

* Starbucks

“Since I spend a lot of time in Europe,” says Vahe, “and I love the
Paris culture, the cafe culture, I started going to the Starbucks in
my neighborhood when they put two small tables outside. There were no
other coffee shops around, so I was always at Starbucks. I did a lot
of my writing there.”

Vahe says his both of his novels were composed by hand at the corner
table at the Starbucks on Ventura Boulevard near Van Nuys. “Then
gradually, it became almost like a meeting place for everyone who
wanted to see me.”

Part of the his motivation to hold court at the coffee shop, says
Vahe, was due to his simple unwillingness to wash coffee cups at his
studio. “I didn't want to clean up after people,” he says.

“Something very, very important,” he continues. “A lot of people,
they want your undivided attention, and after a while, that becomes
very draining, especially with the young people who come and spend
time with me. So, I think unconsciously, I created a situation where I
would bring people together, and it would give me a chance to dilute
the situation.”

This Starbucks tradition has not spanned more than a decade. Vahe
says on certain days and nights, as many as 25 friends and
acquaintances will gather around his table. “A lot of people will just
stand there,” he says. “It's sometimes an international event. You'll
have Germans, French, people from all over and people of all ages.”

* Journalism

Young and old, people from various generations of life coming together
is important to Vahe. He says he doesn't see much of it in American
life. “When you see an 80-year-old talking to a 16-year-old,” he says,
“you look twice.”

Vahe says he wants to see more people from different walks of life
coming together, talking, exchanging ideas, and creating a public
forum and cross-generational, cross-vocational, cross-economic

Vahe immigrated to the U.S. in 1976 and earned his undergraduate
degree in journalism at Woodbury University in California. When he
began taking graduate courses in journalism, he realized that he was
never going to be a journalist.

However, Vahe did spend 12 years writing, reviewing films, and
working as the layout and graphics designer for the Asbarez daily
newspaper in Glendale. “I love the newspaper business,” he says.

The frustration with the news business, says Vahe, has to do with
the impermanence of the medium. “You do something, and when the
curtains close like in theatre, it's done. You can never repeat it.
The experience is finished. You do your work, when it comes back from
the printer, you have to work on the new issue. That's it.”

* Betty, Betty, Betty

“We grew up together,” says Vahe of his wife, movie set decorator and
set designer Betty Berberian. “We married when we were very young. We
met when she was studying art history and was in theater. Over the
past 27 years, we grew up together. She knows my art better than I do.
She knows me so well, and I'm very lucky to have that. She is also my
conscience. She's very sharp, and her sense of aesthetics is

Vahe and Betty have collaborated on many stage productions as well.
Betty directed and produced several plays that Vahe has written and
acted in. “I admire what she does, and I'm very lucky because I'm
surrounded by fantastic people. A lot of these young people, who come
and spend time here, you know, they inspire you, they give you

Vahe says the bottom line is that he loves people. His love of
people and their love for him are perhaps why he was able to beat
life-threatening pancreatic cancer a few years back. He says he loves
people not just because they love him. “It's the other way around. I
love them. I have genuine compassion toward people. The older I get,
the more of that compassion I find for animals and trees. I love
animals and trees. Green stuff,” like the beautiful orange and
mandarin trees that greet visitors to his studio.

* * *

The Milagros exhibition party will be held on Saturday, March 31,
2007, from 8 P.M. to 2 A.M. at Casitas Studios, 3191 Casitas Ave.
Atwater Village, California

“Gor”: It's okay to say it

by Paul Chaderjian

gor (noun) -- pronunciation: 'gOr, 'gor
1 : grammatically incorrect verb ending in Western Armenian.
2 : innovative musician, charismatic, acoustic Armenian folk star.

His name is blunt. Gor. Say it. It's okay.

Gor. Say it again. You can, you know.

True. Many frustrated Armenian schoolmarms and parents have scolded
students to stop tacking a gor at the end of verbs. It may be
grammatically incorrect, but it's also the name of the hottest music
act since [fill in the name of the last artist whose music you

Gor. Say it. Shout his name from rooftops, at church halls, and
kebob stands. Text message your friends. IM them with smiley faces.
Post his songs on your grandkids' myspace page. Swap music files.
Blackberry - or even blueberry or raspberry if you prefer - this
breaking news story.

Sync up your iPod, because now, “Gor” is a more than an error in
Armenian usage. It's the future, the present, a new age and new
beginning for Armenian music, and it's making a mark in the diaspora.

“There are a lot of Armenians who are ready to listen to new kinds
of Armenian music,” says Gor, “and I am offering them something new.”
New and exciting, something that's turning Generations X and Y on to
Armenian music.

Meet Gor Mkhitarian, former lead guitarist and second vocalist for
the hit Yerevan-based rock band Lav Eli. He taught himself how to play
the guitar, sang in the church choir in Vanadzor, writes his own songs
about life, love, about his struggles, about people living and

Among his influences, he lists William Saroyan, Moby Dick, the
Beatles, one Aaron Stayman [more about his later], and the Armenian
culture. “When I was growing up in the 1980s, bands like Pink Floyd,
Led Zeppelin, the Beatles were censored,” says Gor in perfect English.
“People couldn't find these records, because they were called
'bourgeois' or capitalist music. You simply couldn't find the music in
the stores.”

Gor's brothers scoured the black market and brought home bootleg
copies of Western music. He loved the sound so much that he formed a
rock band with his friends. “We were just playing and hanging out,” he
says. “We loved the music, so we decided to play and record some
covers, and that's how we started.”

Behind the Iron Curtain, influenced by the history of the era,
inspired by Western rock, and seeded with the sounds of Rouben
Mateossian, Flora Mardirossian, Rouben Hakhverdian, and
then-underground star Arthur Meschian were the sprouts of Gor's music

What evolved from passion and love of music in 1995 was Lav Eli.
“The rock music we played was more like acoustic rock, more like the
Rolling Stones, the Dave Matthews band, that kind of music,” says Gor.
“Not too heavy and not too soft.”

Gor. Not too heavy. Not too soft. But blunt. 33. Tall, handsome, and
charismatic. A solo act for the past four years. Check the web. Google
his name. Search YouTube and Google Video. You'll be surprised by the
buzz, the praise from a dozen publications, and the honors from
Armenian and non-Armenian award shows.

Now click on his album covers on, use the iTunes Music
Store to download his previous albums and pre-order his
yet-to-be-released fifth album, “Acoustic Folklore,” from his page.

“My work is all about Armenia, being Armenian, being a human being
in Armenia,” says Gor. “It's all Armenia, but with a lot of influence
coming from Western music. I'm trying to make a bridge between
cultures, especially between Armenians in Armenia and Armenians in the

Exhausted are the half-dozen remakes every Armenian musician has
sung once and then again. Enough already. . . . Gor sings the classics
too, but not in that old-fashioned way. This isn't your grandmother's
Gomidas or your uncle's folk songs. Gor's music is Armenian music
reinventing itself.

This is the music drafting into the Armenian culture young, savvy,
cultured fans, the MTV generation with sophisticated tastes. It's
bringing back the comatose canon of oh-so-passé, circle-dancing tunes
from keyboard-generated duduks, oopman-doompa rhythms, wa-wa organs,
and drum machine-generated beats. [insert gagging noise here.]

Gimme a break. The folk that was dying a slow death is new again.
This is raw, new, and true. There is even a self-titled album, his
fourth, that's all English. Supporting his albums are cutting-edge
music videos, like one directed by Roger Kupelian. There are also two
documentaries telling the story of Gor in the Lav Eli days, and the
story of Gor making it on his own in the U.S., making it by making
fans fall for his music one song at a time.

Power up your iPod. Listen to the accordion, the base, acoustic
guitar. You're in a new world. A new age. Can you hear the violin? Can
you hear the flute? Those words in Armenian about a young man waking
up and understanding are poetic. Those heart-breaking words in English
are about the young man waking up in the shipping container he calls
home. These are the lyrics of the modern Armenian experience,
modern-day hayots badmutiun coming to life, words and music about the
unique experience of being Armenian.

Yo! You, the listener. Yo! You are special once again, in your
cocoon of an MP3 player, in your car, on the subway. Can you hear the
banjo? Turn it up. It's all there, and it's all Armenian, 100 percent.
Old folk and new folk, written, composed, and performed by a talented
musician from Vanadzor, whose chance meeting with a Bostonian created
the quantum leap in music.

“A friend of a friend, Raffi Meneshian from Boston, came to Armenia
for a few weeks,” says Gor. “We had a party, and I played the guitar.
Raffi listened and told me that he wanted to release my first solo
album - just acoustic guitar and vocals.”

The accidental meeting in 2001 led to the release of Yeraz by the
Boston-based Pomegranate Music label. That's how the legend began, and
it's caught on. What was recorded in bits and bytes was trail-blazing
Armenian music, fueled by the restless boredom and anxiety of a
culture sick of its parents' and grandparents' music.

In hotrods in New Jersey, on the freeways in So Cal, and on the 1
and 9 lines on the Upper West Side are random men and women listening
to revolutionary music, once underground, now energized by the rabid
getaway from years of take-me-seriously classical, estradayeen,
bee-bopping, Turkic rabiz, and whatever renovations of staid genres.

“The third album, 'Episodes,' is about episodes from peoples'
lives,” says Gor. “There are a few acoustic songs, just guitar and
vocals like my first album. There are also experimental songs with a
lot of different musicians like in my second album.”

Gor's second album, Godfather Tom, showed off the musician's uncanny
ability to take musical risks, mixing new instruments with his ancient
culture, using the cadence of the Armenian language with the backdrop
of Hillbilly, Rock, and Country all in one.

“If listeners like it, great,” says Gor about his music. “If they
don't, it's just a matter of taste. We're fine with that too. But I
think they're going to like it, because the new generation is looking
for something new.”

Gor is serving up original lyrics with pride. Candid lyrics.
Personal thoughts. “I don't want to remember what I did the night
before,” he sings, “but it's evident who I am.”

Now comes the fifth album, a return to his roots with folk songs,
while forging ahead with original creations. The album will be
released on Saturday, April 7, at Gor's CD release concert at the
Barnsdell Gallery Theatre in Hollywood. If you live nearby, get your
ticket on

“The album is a limited edition, performed with acoustic guitars and
featuring Djivan Gasparyan, Jr.,” says Gor. Joining him on stage at
the Barnsdell, in addition to Djivan, Jr., will be several talented
musicians like Ara Dabanjian from the band Element and, drum roll
please . . . Aaron Stayman. [Remember his name from earlier in the

“I met my banjo player, Aaron Stayman, in Armenia,” explains Gor.
“Aaron was serving in the Peace Corps in Armenia. I saw him in
Vanadzor and Ijevan. He is a great musician, so we got together, and
we recorded this album. Since then, we've recorded several of my
albums with him.”

Gor says Stayman is his biggest musical influence. Stayman is a
medical student at Tufts and will be coming out to Los Angeles to
perform at Gor's CD release party. “Without him, my music wouldn't be
the same,” says Gor.

It's the old world meeting the new, the banjo-playing, future
doctor, Peace Corps volunteer meshing with the language of Mashtots.
The bridge between East and West. A liaison world music publications
are calling “Post-Soviet Alternative Folk Rock.”

But Gor is beyond labels. He's fresh. He's new. He's fun to listen
to, and he has the ethereal IT. Underground. No more. Gor is out
there, and his music is selling at Armenian record stores, on Amazon
and Armenian music - Welcome to the 21st century, baby,
and turn the alarm clock off already.

“I woke up, I saw, I understood everything,” he sings. It's cutting
edge. It's pioneering. And it's unusually hip. Fans say Gor represents
a new generation of Armenians who are redefining what the culture
thinks of as Armenian culture.

“We started to sell my album 'Yeraz' not only in the Armenian
market,” says Gor, “but also on the Internet, Amazon, and CD Baby and
CD Rama, and we've had a good response from listeners. Some say they
don't understand any words, but they love it.”

Yeraz, his first solo CD released in 2002, fused the unique sounds
and lyrics of ancient Armenian folk music with modern rock and
sometimes, experimental sounds. The innovative and original
combination quickly garnered global attention, winning Gor acclaim
from all over the world, as well as accolades such as “best
alternative rock singer” and “best world music album.”

Thousands are now fans, chanting his name at small and large concert
venues in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, London, D.C., at UCLA, San
Francisco State University, Brown University, and Harvard. He has
played more than a hundred concerts since leaving Armenia, and fans
are sure more are ahead.

“The Harvard concert stands out as one of the more memorable
concerts,” says Gor. “It was in a very cozy venue, and the audience,
mostly non-Armenians, wanted to know about Armenians and Middle
Eastern cultures. We had questions and answers, and it was more than a
concert. I was able to tell them about my songs, the homeland, and
life experiences.”

Next month, Gor returns to the homeland after a four-year break. He
will join his brother Tirayr Mkhitarian and Mher Manoukyan, the other
members of Lav Eli, and the guitar-playing trio will play at Yerevan's
Avangard Folk Club on April 27 and the State Puppet Theatre on May 5.

“I want to see how much has changed in the past few years,” says
Gor. “Aside from seeing my family once again, I want to see the whole
scene, political, musical, social. I want to see everything.” Count on
his muses to visit and another set of songs about the experience of an
earthquake survivor seeing the aftermath of the political and social
earthquakes taking place since the shocker that hit at 11:41 A.M. on
December 7, 1988.

Wait. There's more on his plate. As always. There is Gor's
appearance at the June 1 Children's Day Festival at the Cafesjian
Center for the Arts at the Cascade in the heart of Yerevan. More than
40 thousand children and their parents are expected to gather at the
Cascade for the annual festival and concert. Among the headliners will
be none other than the man being celebrated in this article.

If the choice was Gor or no Gor, chances are you'd choose the
former. Why? Because it's new. It's fresh. It's addicting. It's Gor.
And he's got banjos and Gomidas on one expressionist musical canvas.

So show the schoolmarms the birdie and start saying “Gor” as many
times as you want. He's now part of the new Armenian lexicon.