‘This Little Light of Mine’: A Conversation with Susan Kricorian

By Bethel Bilezikian Charkoudian

The confluence of cultures, white and black, ancient and present-day Armenian, are represented in the art of Susan Kricorian. Her childhood with her grandmother, her hours in her grandmother’s garden, her hours in the Armenian Brethren Evangelical Church, her favorite hymn, “This Little Light of Mine,” all sit in sharp contrast with her present-day life in a 4th-floor apartment on 140th St. in New York City, where “there’s no back yard, there’s no place to go…only little window boxes” [her upstairs neighbors throw rice and beans and candy wrappers out the window, which land in those little window boxes]. It is in this little apartment that Susan does her painting and, as is often the case, the space defines her painting. “When I was in art school, I took lots of painting classes, but I primarily worked in oils. I had a studio over on the Fenway at the museum school. I painted very large scale, we were required to, they wanted you to use your whole body. 6×10 feet canvases, really big, which was really interesting but very expensive, so when I moved to New York with $200 not knowing what I was going to do, in order to paint in my apartment, I had to change to a smaller format and non-caustic paints. Thus the watercolors.”

A painting by Susan Kricorian

Susan brings light to a sometimes dark past and present. Growing up in a two-family house on Walnut Street in the heart of Watertown, Massachusetts, her grandmother Mari was “ever-present,” to use Susan’s words. Her paternal grandmother, Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian, was born in Mersin, Cilicia, in the Ottoman Empire. In the late summer of 1915, she and her family were deported from Mersin as part of what would later come to be called the Armenian Genocide, the mass deportation and murder of the Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. My grandmother’s parents and her 2 sisters died en route, and she and her brother found themselves among 8,000 Armenian orphans in a desert refugee camp near the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain. From there they were transferred to a Turkish orphanage in Istanbul, and later they made their way back to Mersin, where they found a surviving uncle who took them to Cyprus. While in Cyprus, her grandmother met her grandfather, who had traveled from his adopted home in Watertown, Mass., to Cyprus in a search for an Armenian bride. My grandfather, Levon Krikorian, 19 years her senior, offered to bring her to the United States. She accepted his offer. They married in Cairo, Egypt, traveled through Ellis Island, and settled in the Armenian community of Watertown, where Susan was raised.

Susan grew up surrounded by love—the love of her family, the love of the garden that surrounded her home, the garden in which she steeped herself. “We had a big bed of irises, and I would lay in the iris bed with carrots and pretend I was a rabbit for long periods of time. We had two big forsythia bushes that created an arc and you could go underneath inside and have like a little fake fire pit. And we would collect berries from the bushes…we had a peach tree and a Bartlett pear tree, Asian pear tree, a huge vegetable garden—parsley, tomatoes, peas, and cucumbers that we would go outside and pick for dinner. The salad came from the yard. Tomato sauce was homemade. And my grandmother, speaking of cooking, was always upstairs in the kitchen, and our whole yard, whole house, would smell like manti and lahmejun and kufte and all the amazing…baklava, everything. My grandmother Mari was always cooking. … I loved to help her. My favorite was manti. The little canoes. We would squeeze them into little canoes.” Those manti appear in many of Susan’s paintings.

At the time, according to Susan, there were only two Black families in Watertown. “The girl down the street went to the Phillips School. I used to see them in the playground. I was so curious. I used to think they were beautiful. They had very dark skin, their hair was beautiful. They would talk to me. I brought the two of them over to play. My grandmother started chasing them out of the yard. ‘Why would you do that to my friends,’ I asked. She said because they’re so black. ‘Sev en.’ And yet, my dad, her son, had been called a ‘Communist n*****’ by some, Communist because Armenia was Soviet at the time, and black because in the summer he used to get really tanned.”

It is not surprising, then, that many of Kricorian’s paintings incorporate two cultures: Black and Armenian.

The iconic image of a woman ostensibly dancing an Armenian solo dance with her hands raised above her head, her face black, her costume Armenian, the title of the painting, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” suggests a parallel between the Black experience in the United States with the Armenian experience in the early 20th-century Ottoman Empire.

The artist also suggests a parallel between the ancient goddess Anahid and her grandmother when she uses her grandmother’s face in a painting of the Armenian goddess.

Gary Lind-Senanian, the curator at the Armenian Museum of America, notes that many of the symbols in Kricorian’s paintings are taken from Armenian mythology, symbols such as the Aklatiz highlighted in a painting that could be an illustration in a book of fairy tales. “She uses much symbolism in her paintings,” says Lind-Senanian. “For example, in her painting the ‘Nativity Scene,’ there is the symbolism of the circle and the triangle—sacred geometry—and multiple eyes…and the figures in the ‘Nativity Scene’ have black faces.” Lind-Senanian points out that in a painting she did in 1993, half the angels are black, half are white.

An exhibit of Susan Kricorian’s paintings, entitled “Family Pictures,” are presently at the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown.

Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: ‘This Little Light of Mine’: A Conversation with Susan Kricorian

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