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A Conversation with Dionne Haroutunian, Founder of Sev Shoon Arts Center Armenian News Network / Groong June 14, 2004 Sev Shoon Arts Center was founded in 1991, in response to the art community's need for a printmaking studio in Seattle, WA. It is owned and operated by Dionne Haroutunian who came to Seattle from Switzerland in 1985. Since then Haroutunian has become an active member of the Ballard community, organizing and reviving the discipline of visual arts through various projects. Locally known as Ballard ArtsWalk, this monthly celebration of the arts has brought together a dynamic group of artists and craftsmen over the last decade. Collaborating with three other artists, Haroutunian is also a partner of the BallardWorks collective. SHUSHAN AVAGYAN: When I first heard of Sev Shoon Arts Center -- I was very much intrigued by the name and its origins. Why `sev shoon' -- it surely can't have anything in common with the Armenian allegorical phrase for evil or `bad luck'? DIONNE HAROUTUNIAN: A few years back, as I was searching for a name for the Center, a Greek friend of mine and I were on a road trip. We were comparing stories from our childhood, and somehow got into language questions -- since Armenians had been using the Greek alphabet before the creation of the Mesrobian letters. Anyway, she asked me how to say "cat" in Armenian and I couldn't remember, but I knew the word for `dog.' After a while, she asked me what was `blue,' and I could only recall `black.' Suddenly the two words came together in my mind -- "Sev Shoon" had been the nickname for one of my favorite adopted uncles (from my father's orphanage), and memories surged with connection -- the name felt just right. I thought it would be good luck, and it has been. Later that year, I met someone who was fluent in Armenian and asked him how to pronounce `blue cat.' I laughed -- it was hard enough at the time teaching odars to say "sev shoon," let alone "gabooyd gadoo" -- imagine them juggling with the words! SA: February 13th was an important date for Sev Shoon -- you and three other partner artists from BallardWorks (Seattle) moved from your old premises to a new building on Market Street with nineteen individual work studios. Will Sev Shoon retain its name and what's next? DH: Yes! February 13th WAS a very historical date for Sev Shoon and BallardWorks! Last April, I approached a realtor friend of mine and said I was ready to look for a building for the Center -- something in the range of 2,500 square feet. When he heard that my partner Jay [Lazerwitz] was an architect, he decided to show us a 14,000 square feet building that had been vacant for a year. The building was previously used by Lortone, a gem equipment manufacturing business. The first time we went inside, we kept getting lost -- I had never seen anything that big! I kept thinking to myself that this could turn into something with endless potentials -- for someone else, of course! I couldn't sleep for the next coupe of days. The building kept recurring during those insomniatic nights -- I tried to reconstruct each floor, each room and space, everything. Then it hit me -- all at once -- this was it, the new home for Sev Shoon! Well, the rest is history because it ended up happening pretty much exactly as I had imagined it during that night. We talked to my friend Joan Stuart Ross and her husband John Gleason, and they decided to become our partners. It took us a few months to arrange the contract transactions, and getting a whole bunch of inspections done, and on August 20, 2003 we set foot in the building, armed with demolition tools. The work continued for six months and on February 13th of this year we marked the birthday of BallardWorks, which houses Sev Shoon Arts Center and Emerald City Portraits on the first floor, and nineteen individual artists' work studios on the second. February also happens to coincide with the time when I officially founded Sev Shoon thirteen years ago, with only three presses and 900 square feet of space in total. We now have a black-and-white darkroom, silkscreen equipment, a lithography and two etching presses. I am also planning to start a Sev Shoon artist-in-residence program in the year to come. SA: I remember our meeting in 2001 at the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York. Tatana Kellner, one of the co-founders of the Workshop, walked into the studio with you and introduced us: "She is Armenian, too!" Meeting another Armenian in this remote artists' colony was the last thing on my mind -- and yet so exhilarating. I know that you went on to collaborate with the Women's Studio Workshop -- tell me more about that. DH: WSW offers a nurturing atmosphere for women artists who try to get away from the [New York] city's bustle -- they hold summer classes and also maintain studios all year round. I was invited to teach a workshop in August 2003. It was both fun and productive. Part of my remuneration was a five-day access to the print-making studios, which so far has been one of the highlights of my art career. As you know, the place is idyllic, and luckily the temperature had dropped twenty degrees right before I arrived, so one could breathe (and sleep!). For the length of my "mini residency" I stayed on Seattle time and worked throughout the nights. On the sixth day, the rhythm had to change drastically as my class got together -- ready for a teaching/learning process. I remember being a bit nervous, but within minutes, they put me at ease with their excitement and enthusiasm. It was an intensive course -- in four days we tackled four different print techniques! It became our morning joke -- what's for today? We spent the first day doing monotypes; the next step was relief, then etching on copper, and finally photocopy lithography. This was an impassioned group of women who jelled almost immediately. SA: Your art is intricately connected and projected through your involvement in the Armenian communities in Geneva, which I understand, was your home for most of your childhood and youth, and in Seattle. How do you bridge between these two worlds that obviously mean so much to you? DH: My involvement with the Armenian Church of Switzerland had an interesting path. In 2001 I had a show in Seattle entitled "Standing Witness: Remembering Armenia" which explored issues of Genocide, survival and integration. My brother and mother traveled from Switzerland for the opening, and this being their first encounter with my politicized imagery -- were imprinted with too much emotion. Sandro, my brother, went back with a portfolio of my work and approached the head of the Armenian Community, who immediately offered him the Armenian Center as a place to organize a show of my work. The exhibit took place in December 2001, and was embraced with an unprecedented appreciation. It was filled with unspeakable sentiment -- I really can't describe it -- a silent commemoration of loss, and too much memory. Those survivors, whose photos had inspired my prints, were physically present in the room, looking at their own unwritten history. There were many whispers, tears, and smiles. It was rather intense, in a beautiful way. Following that, last fall, my nineteen-year-old niece choreographed a dance piece for the Armenian History Month in Switzerland. It was a three-part dance -- the Genocide, the Survival, and the New Generation. As a set design for this performance, she had arranged an enlarged projection of one of my pieces on the wall. As a result, the der-hayr, who was very moved by her work, contacted Sandro to acquire permission to use some of my images for the 2004 calendar of the Armenian Church of Switzerland. Years ago, a friend of mine from Seattle, a very talented photographer, became interested in Armenia's history, and decided to travel to Turkey to photograph whatever was left of the Armenian historical sites. Through him, I was able to discover and connect with the local Armenian community and the frequent gatherings have helped develop several close friendships. I am digressing now slightly from your question, but one of the memorable encounters was an evening with Peter Balakian last fall. As all things do with Armenians, it started with a wonderful dinner at Aida's. We decided then to organize an informal potluck for Peter at my house. Fully aware of the dangers that an event as such brings with it, we decided against making traditional dishes -- every Armenian thinks her/his grand/mother makes better food than whatever they are being served. In a laid-back Seattle way, we settled for cold-cuts and cheeses instead. An hour before Peter was supposed to arrive, hoards of ladies I had never met before in my life, arrived at my house with platters of delightful Armenian cuisine! Typical of the Armenian ways -- which I perceive as totally chaotic -- everything seemed to be out of control, but miraculously ended up being accomplished in an expertly manner. Peter arrived an hour late, and the gathering (which his marketing director had asked us to keep under two hours) lasted practically all afternoon. It was awesome. Peter, who was at the end of this very intense USA tour, seemed to really appreciate the informality, was able to set everything aside and just relax with the rest of us. It gave me a chance to meet "the real person" behind the writer. SA: Your medium is printmaking, a slightly `untraditional' form of art. What techniques do you use to achieve the palimpsestic imagery (such as in "Mairig", "Looking Back" or "Between Worlds")? Your topics obviously deal with the Armenian history and incorporate real texts in forms of letters and photographs. DH: Printmaking originated in China right after paper was invented at around the beginning of the second century. Relief printing first flourished in Europe only in the 15th century, when the process of papermaking was imported from the East. In printing, ink is transferred to paper from another material, usually a metal plate or a wooden block. If the plate or block has been worked so it will receive ink in the same way each time it is applied, then there is a `mold' and more than one print can be made. Before electrostatic, ink jet, and other new ways of printing were invented for use with computers, everything was printed in one of only four ways: relief (woodcut), intaglio (etching, engraving), stencil (silkscreen), and planographic (lithography). I start with an inner vision of what I think the final art piece will look like; I purposely keep it a very vague vision. The work evolves slowly. For example, the series "Standing Witness: Remembering Armenia" took me a year to develop, and I was working on all the pieces at once. Every once in a while, one of them would get "stuck" -- an artist's block, if you will, and months would go by without figuring out how to take it to the next level. So it just sat there, on my studio wall. And then, suddenly it would come to me. I would just know what exactly to do with that particular piece. >From a technical point-of-view, I use as many as seven print techniques to layer my imagery. I have a plethora of plates that are used to build the colors and textures. Those are called collagraphs -- they consist of layered surfaces (I usually go to places like Home Depot and find materials to structure my plates with, like for example sticky mats for carpets, textured plexiglass for shower doors, plywood, etc.). I also have flat plexiglass plates for monotype or acid-free printing, which is basically used for color imagery and collaging. In addition to those, I also do etching, a method where the ink-receptive indentations (or scratches) on metal are produced through chemicals. Yet another printing medium I like a lot is lithography or etching on stone -- I create series of drawings (either from photographs or human models) which later become plates. Those are the images that really become the focus of each print -- the people and their stories. The texts of the series "Standing Witness: Remembering Armenia" are actually taken from my father's diary when he came to Switzerland as a young boy. While living in the orphanage, he made a point of writing his life every day, and also, made some drawings. I specifically chose pages where his writings were in Armenian mixed with French and English. It is my most precious book, which I found after he had passed away, in his nightstand. I felt that it was important to include Armenian words in my prints for it is the story of my father, in his own handwriting. Also, our alphabet is so elaborate and rich in meaning that I felt compelled to weave it in with my drawings. To view Dionne Haroutunian's works goto: http://www.sevshoon.com/ -- Shushan Avagyan is currently working on her master's degree in English Literature, and is a recipient of the Dalkey Archive Press fellowship at the Illinois State University.