Lost between Disciplines
Nvard Yerkanian finds her vision
February 4, 2020 | by Creative Armenia
Creative Armenia-AGBU Fellow Nvard Yerkanian is a graphic artist and curator, whose critically-acclaimed architectural illustrations have appeared in Kiton Magazine, The Guardian, and Publico. She shares with us her secret recipes for constant creative growth and productivity.
CA: You are a graphic designer and curator. Why did you decide to pursue a career in those fields?
NY: I was born into a family of musicians, and everybody was sure I would also become a musician. My parents took me to a music school but after 4 or 5 years, I understood that if I didn’t quit the violin, I would hate classical music for the rest of my life. So I started my journey in visual arts at the studio of prominent conceptual artists of Armenia. It was an unforgettable experience for me. We were free from dogmas and totally open to any form of creativity, trying all possible media and switching from course to course according to our interest at the time. It was super fun, and those years made me a multidisciplinary person, which sounds great but made my life very difficult career-wise.
I finished school when I was 15 and had to start university. Of course at that age, nobody knows what profession to pursue, but I decided to continue my education in architecture because I found it the most inclusive discipline for someone like me — lost in between disciplines. After getting my bachelors degree I enrolled in a one-year program of cultural criticism and art curation run by ICA Yerevan. That’s when I started doing also curatorial projects. In 2009, along with my studies, I co-founded the AJZ space together with my colleague Harutyun Alpetyan. The space served as an independent art venue for local and foreign artists, as well as curators to showcase their work.
As it was almost impossible to earn a living in the sphere of contemporary art I started simultaneously working as a graphic designer, which was another passion of mine. In 2016 I decided to get my master’s degree in Florence, and since then I have lived there.
CA: You are now based in Florence, Italy. What’s the art scene there and in what ways is it different from Armenia?
NY: It is a privilege to be in Italy, and particularly in Florence and live an everyday life surrounded by art. Florence is not a very active city, it is more like an enormous museum with a work of a genius artist of the past at every corner. The contemporary art scene is rather passive compared to other cities but being in Florence, I move all the time and visit exhibitions and festivals all around Italy and Europe.
Form historically has been very important to Italian artists, and even if the concept of the artwork is socio-political, the piece of art will be most probably very aesthetic. I really like the balance of concept and aesthetics which are rare nowadays and I appreciate when I see artistic mastery and well-developed technique along with a strong idea.
I would say that the contemporary art scene in Armenia is more discursive and politicized. Contemporary art is going hand in hand with social activism, which is an interesting phenomenon, but things went in that direction out of bad conditions and reasons. What I wish for Armenia is to finally give importance to culture and the arts and develop a cultural policy, a political vision, and a vector of development. We have great artists and intellectuals, but their voice is not heard, even in post-revolutionary Armenia.
CA: Tell us about your daily creative routine.
NY: The first thing I do in the morning is making coffee and checking emails. I am a bit obsessed with the feeling of accomplishing things each day so I make a to-do list. I have a general to-do list for a month, where I not only write work-related things, but also things I want to do for myself, for example, to re-watch a favorite director’s movies, or visit a new city. I am also including small tasks to the list because I feel good crossing off points. And when I feel good I work better.
I’m not very productive in the mornings, and being a freelancer you have to self-organize. I try to use the time when I don’t feel creative on other work-related things like promotion, emails, invoicing, bookkeeping, and other boring stuff. After lunch, I am fully ready to start my working day.
I usually have 2 or 3 weeks for each project. 90% of the time I think, 10% of the time I create. I go for a walk when I am stuck, spend hours in bookstores or watch movies, listen to music, drink wine, or go see an exhibition to get inspired. I don’t do many sketches, and my studio is pretty minimalistic. You won’t find a creative mess with thousands of drafts. I boil the ideas in my mind and sit down to do the illustration when I already have a complete image of it. Sometimes I find a solution just the moment I turn off the light and am about to go to sleep…
Most of the time, I turn the light back on, take my laptop, and work until the next morning in bed. The creative impulses come accidentally, in some cases they don’t come for a long time and it becomes ongoing torture for days and weeks to come up with an idea I would find interesting… but when it comes, it brings joy and happiness.
CA: You are also the co-founder of the WHY Graphic Design Festival in Florence. Tell us more about the festival and how the idea came about.
NY: The WHY Graphic Design Festival started when I was studying at The Florence Institute of Design International, and it was a group diploma project together with Julia van der Vorst, Viktoria Brandstetter, Moiz Qazi Abdul, and Adriana Vargas.
The first year it was a smaller event but very successful among local designers and illustrators. After receiving excellent feedback, together with my professor Laura Ottina, we decided to turn it into an annual event. Unfortunately, the rest of the group left Florence after finishing their studies.
WHY Festival is an intensive weekend program of workshops, talks, portfolio reviews, presentations, discussions, design market, and exhibitions. We aim at bringing together students, emerging designers, and professionals from all over the world to discuss their ideas, projects, concerns, thoughts, and experiences.
Florence has a big number of international design schools, but the students live an isolated life inside their school community and do not meet the artistic scene of the city. I also felt that way when I was studying and thought that a platform like WHY is much needed. For now, the festival is mostly Italian, but it might grow into an international.
CA: Your signature artworks explore modernist architecture, particularly in Armenia. Tell us more about the series and why you choose to pursue the series.
NY: I started the series during my studies in 2016. It was a simple assignment to do a digital illustration with flat surfaces and minimal colors. I later decided to do another one, and another one, and the series grew into a project. Since high school, I was involved in civil movements to protect the old image of Yerevan.
Many unique examples of architectural works were lost during the first 20 years of post-Soviet Armenia, mainly due to rejection and contempt towards the Soviet heritage. In fact, with the ambition of building a new image of the city, many iconic buildings such as the Youth Palace, frontal part of Cinema Moscow’s open-air hall were altered, damaged. Some of them were demolished while others destined to neglect. I remember how the Youth Palace was slowly destroyed, and every day I would see them take away another part of it. It was traumatizing and painful to see your city’s icon destroyed. The most awful thing was people’s indifference. We managed to fight back and preserve the Cinema Moscow’s open-air hall, but unfortunately, it never returned to the list of monuments, and even now it is almost abandoned.
There is a huge international interest in Brutalist and Modernist architecture today, and Armenia can offer a beautiful and unique selection of those buildings but unfortunately, our collective consciousness still sees these buildings as ugly remnants of the Soviet Union. I’ve tried to recreate these buildings from the point of view of someone who loves and appreciates the memory, which we haven’t lost yet, and maybe assure others that this heritage deserves our attention.
CA: Tell us something important you’ve learned from working with visual artists in Italy and worldwide.
NY: The first and most important thing that I have learned, is that being an artist is hard everywhere. All over the world artists encounter hardships, they do a day job to sustain themselves, and after years and years of hard work, some of them get recognized and exhibited while others don’t. I’ve learned to talk openly about issues, share experiences, help others, and create collaboratively. It is a constant learning process, you never stop.
CA: Have you decided how you are going to use your Creative Armenia - AGBU Fellowship?
NY: I have many ideas of course. And I am not sure I want to reveal all the secrets right now, but I would love to do a publication of my architectural series this year, and move forward with new exciting projects!
CA: What is your long-term vision for your creative career?
NY: I never plan in advance, to be honest. I am a person who lives in the moment. You never know how life will turn around — you may plan something, or see yourself in 10 years in a place, and the next moment everything is already going in a very different direction.
Nevertheless, I have professional community-building projects in Armenia that I hope to bring to life in the future. I would also love to create a regional creative platform. Georgia’s creative scene is growing very fast, and Iran has a very rich heritage, but unfortunately, it is yet to be discovered in Armenia. I think there is a lack of professional collaboration among us and our neighbors which needs to be changed, and I hope in the future we will have more opportunities for creative dialogue and collaborative projects.