MGNE Members Highlight:  Q&A with John Avakian

“Some of John Avakian’s monoprints – searing images built in part on historic photos – are almost too hard to look at.” Cate McQuaid, The Boston Globe

At our 2016 Annual Meeting, we awarded artist John Avakian with a lifetime honorary membership for his service to the Monotype Guild of New England. John has been a member of MGNE for 11-years, and served on the board for 5 years. Recently, a 187-page catalog titled John Avakian-If I Begin to Cry has been published in full color, cataloging many of John’s monoprints and his series work on the Armenian Genocide. It also contains a revealing essay by Todd Bartel, Curator and Director of the Thompson Gallery at the Cambridge School of Weston, as well as a description of John’s paper-litho method of transferring images on to paper. (Click here to learn more about John’s book.)

Over the summer, we were able to ask John some questions about himself and his work:

Q: Describe your work in three words.

A: Autobiographical, Psychological, and Holistic

Q: Why monotype? What draws you to the medium?

A: In 1989 I became aware of this expansive printing process through colleagues of mine at a publishing company where I was working as an informational graphics specialist. Having had my painting background on hold for 7-years, and hearing this medium enthusiastically discussed, it seemed like the perfect medium for bringing me back to painting, but in a different way. I knew there would be differences–painting on plates rather than on canvas; using pressure to transfer images, and the realization the images would be reversed and at times could look very different than the image approved on the plate.

I soon experienced an explosion of possibilities: printing an image over an unacceptable print as many times as needed until it reached a look-and-feel of what was acceptable; the variety of tools—rollers, brushes, stencils, or any 2-dimensional material imaginable could be inked and printed. It was so liberating and I was forever hooked. I signed up immediately for a monotype/monoprint class and since that time I have dedicated my creative and design sensibilities to exploring a host of ideas, techniques, and approaches in producing one-of-a-kind-prints. Over the years this transitioned into an investigation and use of photographic images, augmenting them for stylistic expression.  Initially, this exploration focused on small-scale images, then gradually to medium, and finally to large-scale images (4’ x 5’-6” ) using a seldom used material for inking called paper-litho, a method I continue to use today in printing photographic images to paper.

I heard about MGNE from a former member. What excites me the most about MGNE is its dedication and focus on the mediums of monotype and monoprint, and its mission to bring these exciting and creative marginal mediums into the mainstream of public and institutional attention.

Q: What inspires you?

A: Breakthroughs (unexpected) that come from printing outcomes, especially when a new and useful possibility reveals itself. These discoveries quickly form seeds of new possibilities, and perspectives, edging something new into a steady vision toward an authentic, purposeful context of subject, self, content and meaning.

Additionally, my curiosity in psychology and visual perception, the creative process, art history, existentialism, phenomenology, and teachings of Buddhism have collectively awakened in me a heightened awareness that delivers an authentic clarity of truth about my art and the world around me thus contributing to personal growth in both my life and my printmaking journey.

Q: What are you currently working on in your studio?

A: For too long contemporary art and educational instruction in post-secondary education have extolled the notion of asymmetry as a worthwhile and vital exploration in design and composition. Symmetry was seen as a static mathematical construct unworthy of painting and a dead end.

Simply stated, I have decided to explore the structure of symmetry along with stasis and tension for the purpose of resurrecting symmetry as a viable, interesting contemporary art form of beauty, contemplation, and meditation. To that end I have devoted my time to the notion of symmetry that has evolved into a quadrant-partite format, containing four identical augmented photos rotated 90-degrees from each other, creating an interesting kaleidoscopic composition in a large square format.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to a new printmaker? 

A: I think it is necessary to establish a strong foundation in printmaking by exploring and understanding fully the psychophysiological aspects of color and design, along with becoming confortable using various methods and techniques, tools, and materials for making and transferring images to a variety of papers. Also, in addition to developing printmaking skills, it is essential to read books beyond your present interest that will help in developing a keen self-awareness and the ability to embrace your own uniqueness, to shine a light into your prints that will make them undeniably yours to anyone looking at them. At some unknown point in time, you will begin this authentic and wondrous journey into a meaningful life of art, and when you arrive there it will be the place and the beginning.

Finally, be guided by your inner voice, there will be a lyrical vision there; listen to it; be one with it, and always be alert to the signposts ahead in the external world that will appear at different times for directions and guidance.

Q: If you could meet any printmaker/artist in history, who would it be? What would you talk about?

A:  There are many deceased artist-painters I have admired for a variety of reasons     who live in the historical past and in museums, and there are many today that have risen to the realm of international acclaim. They also live in museums along with those obscured outlier artists who are engaged in their own choice of research and remain quietly unrecognized by a disinterested contemporary art market.

There has never been a printmaker, per se, I recall being emotionally and intellectually moved to desire a conversation. However, there are two artist-painter icons who lived a generation apart, Van Gogh and Arshile Gorky. Although there are differences in their art, they have a lot in common regarding their existential and psychological challenges.  I would like to have had conversations with them. According to their biographies, both painters were fraught with tragic consequences. Both suffered beyond imagination— yet despite their severe medical and psychological afflictions, they managed to stay in touch with their art. Today we are privileged to see their art because it survived obscurity. We should also remember their art, for the most part during their lives, was unappreciated, underrated, and even ridiculed. When we see art of Van Gogh and Gorky, generally speaking, we are touched by their colors and the unique brush strokes that have shaped their subject matter into a painted form. If we look closely, we can see, and perhaps even experience, the psychic energy that charges the brushwork and color mixtures. If we dare to go further, we may even feel a synergistic relationship as an expressive force and gesture permeating the entire painting, that in some mysterious way, points to something beyond the obvious beauty of color and compositional integrity, to something very personal and very universal—the love of humanity for all humankind that also resonates in us.

My Questions: What kept you going in those dark days? What or who did you turn to? In your moments of despair, what thoughts entered your mind? What drew you to painting and what did painting and drawing truly mean to you? Did you feel connected to the mainstream of art being done around you? Did you ever get discouraged about your painting? What did you think when your paintings were misinterpreted or misrepresented? At what point in your life did you consider yourself an “artist” as opposed to being a “painter”? When did your journey to find art in your painting seriously begin? What were the significant experiences that informed you about your thinking and the direction of your mature paintings?