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The Critical Corner - 06/14/2004

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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

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

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

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

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:

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.

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