2017. It was 12.45 am on a chilly October night. I was about to crash after a hard day of work on my new romance novel when I received an email from Los Angeles. It was from Elizabeth ‘Lizo’ Shahenian, a top American Armenian artist. I had been introduced to her on Twitter by a mutual friend, and almost at once found myself falling for her work.
Lizo was offering me to write a book about her life and her four-decade artistic career in the United States. Was this a new door of opportunity opening for me? If yes, why was I spending so much time standing on its threshold?
As I reflect back, I realise that the difficulties of taking the plunge from fiction to non-fiction aside, my hesitation had a lot to do with my unfamiliarity with the art scene in the US. I had admired the works of American greats like Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock, but all my observation had been perfunctory. I was more clued in to the art scene in Europe, having avidly followed the life stories of master painters. My interest was stoked up from all those years I spent studying and working in London.
It took me some dilly-dallying, but I finally came round and said ‘yes’ to Lizo. Next I knew, I was on a flight to Los Angeles, feeling a little unsure and a lot nervous. To complicate matters, my laptop screen broke the day I landed in the US. If it wasn’t for Lizo making me feel at ease, I would not have been able to write this book, all of it in long hand, something I wasn’t used to.
However, the week that I spent with her at her studio in LA was memorable for more reasons than one. It gave me the opportunity to take a peek inside her mind and see how she assembles her thoughts and brings them to life in her paintings.
The process wasn’t very different from my own, though, is what I realised. We were both artists in our own right who needed nothing more than a creative nudge to create our next piece of art. And while I would go hunting for inspiration in books, songs and movies – in the case of Lizo, it was strewn all around her. Following is an excerpt from Flowers Forever that accompanies one of her most famous paintings:
‘Elizabeth was moved to create her paintings on the Holocaust after a visit to Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany. Making poppies as the dominant theme of her painting, Elizabeth pays a tribute to the victims – and what an apt tribute at that! Interestingly, after a World War I poem, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, celebrated the glory of poppies as having been the only flower to grow on a barren battlefield, these flowers have come to be regarded as an international symbol of remembrance.
‘Using her fingers instead of a brush, Elizabeth allows her sadness to seep into the canvas. The calla lilies, on the other hand, are symbolic of rebirth and resurrection, the reason why they are often depicted with the Blessed Virgin Mary. She juxtaposes these elegant-looking flowers with the poppies as if to remind us that death is always followed by life. Sending out a message of peace, joy and harmony are those chrysanthemums, the lilacs and the tulips.’
As I got over my initial hesitation about the book, I became more receptive to the sights and sounds of this new city I was in – Los Angeles; Lizo said it had been an inspiration behind many of her paintings. In fact, as I handed her the manuscript of Flowers Forever, I couldn’t wait to come back to ‘her’ beautiful city and spend some more time with her.
My desire got realised this year. It was about 12.45 pm on a crisp March afternoon when I got a call from her to tell me about the book, and that it had been published in California by World Wide Art Books. She was asking me to come to LA. Could I refuse?
Quite in contrast to my feelings in 2017, this time when I got on the plane, I could barely contain my excitement. Lizo had told me how she was planning a book launch at one of the most renowned galleries in LA, Whites Fine Art Gallery. The evening was a gala affair, attended by top art collectors and members of the City Chamber of Commerce. As I mingled with these people, and listened to them speak about Lizo’s art, I could see how she had built a community around herself, a fine community of artists, art collectors and art lovers, all of whom came from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. I remember Lizo telling me how she wanted her art to transcend all boundaries – and in the truest of sense, it had!
(Vani has worked as a business journalist and is the author of ‘The Recession Groom’ and ‘Flowers Forever’. She can be reached @Vani_Author)