Chunjay’s Q&A with Monique Sarkessian, the fine artist who created the paintings for our album artwork
Tell us a little bit about your background and notable biographical notes.
I knew I wanted to be a painter when I was 4 years old. I’m not sure where that self-knowledge originated except from divine inspiration. I sold my first painting when I was 16. I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Tyler School of Art, a renowned art school in Philadelphia in 1987 and I’ve been painting, selling and exhibiting since then, with some awards in between.
How would you describe what you do?
I love art and making art. I believe God is—among many other wonderful attributes—absolutely creative. I believe God’s desire for all humans is to be like Him and that includes creating things. Everyone can create something whether it be culinary, or song, building, etc. Making things makes me happy. I describe myself as an expressionist. My work is less about reproducing in a photorealist fashion and about emotional connection to my subjects. I am a colorist. Color and emotional connection set off a reaction in me and I strive to recreate that for my viewers. An example would be walking in a forest and coming to a clearing where your get startled by a streak of light that illumines a bright reddish flower. That feeling that the sudden awareness brings especially in nature. That gasping moment where all your attention has been summoned in awe. That’s the moment I present to the viewer. I most often create plein air paintings in oils outdoors, or studio works in encaustic wax. I also do a bit of repurposed metal sculpture. That sounds a bit simple—I create over 100 works per year.
And what sorts of things inspire you artistically?
I am very romantic. Creation, nature, I love observing people, flowers and trees, anything French, landscape, anything with great color. My work has a nostalgia to it. I like things that are transcendent.
Who are your artistic inspirations?
I’m Armenian, and Armenian Apostolic/Eastern Orthodox—a believer in Christ, the spotless Lamb of God. My biggest inspiration is the Lord. He totally rocks creation and His Divine love is essential to creating compassionate works that can help people. I’m from a near eastern culture and that influences my color and love of pattern.
As far as other human artists, I love Armenian manuscripts, most notably, Toros Roslin’s work, Arshile Gorky who is a definitive modern Armenian master and loads of European painters: Cezanne, Egon Schiele, Vermeer, Rembrandt, the Van Eyck brothers, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, early Kandinsky, Picasso sculpture, Matisse, so many.
How has your style changed over the years?
Good question. It has… and then it hasn’t. I’ve grown a lot artistically. I’ve observed and studied, mulled over my work and painted slightly less than 2,000 works. I’ve learned so much by painting over and over again. I’ve put so many miles on my brushes. I have learned many mediums, watercolor, gouache, printmaking, casein, silverpoint, egg tempera and icons, oils, encaustic wax, welded sculpture, silk screen, pastel. It’s so pleasurable to explore a medium and see what it can do. I am still continuing to explore new media. My message is clearer to me now than when I was a young adult but I still have some of my core issues that I explored then still coming out in my work. My work is way more lush and expressive than ever but I return to previous subject matter with a more seasoned comprehension.
As I am becoming more like God’s intention for me, His handiwork shows in my work. That’s the best part.
Why did you choose oils and encaustic wax as your primary media?
Oils I have always loved. I love their fragrance, the gorgeous colors, the buttery textures and the way they can be moved around. I love color and texture so encaustic wax is also one of my favorites. It is a very difficult medium but has huge payoffs if you work in a manner that will allow the wax to be its best. Encaustic wax is an ancient medium—beeswax with pigment and damar resin added. You heat it and apply with a brush to wood. It’s very immediate. Then you can scrape it, smooth it, shape it when its cooled. The wax gives an ethereal quality which is unique. Also oils can be taken outside to do plein air painting. I love plein air as when I observe God’s colors and God’s creations, it really creates humility and awe in me which makes me a much better painter. Encaustic wax need a heat source and that’s a bit complicated to do outdoors. I love many other media, but these are my top two.
What is the best part about working them?
Their unbeatable color, strength and boldness.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a good composition?
A good painting needs a great structure, a great abstract design as a foundation, I like contrast, a compelling subject matter. A story that has something important to say.
Now for the big questions… Would you give us an overview of the symbolism? How did you come up with the concept for the artwork for the album? I seem to remember you had the concept of the cicada-woman before I even explained the overview of the album. But how?
Again that was the Holy Spirit, Divine Inspiration. I am not ashamed of the work that God does in and through me.
I read some of the brief notes that you sent me of the themes but what I saw was like an Edward Munch drawing of a female figure that is specific yet like a slightly fading memory. She’s a haunting and visible influence but not the central figure. Sometimes she is visible and sometimes she retreats. Very nostalgic. Seasonally, spring and summer of human experience is young and optimistic. Untried and hopeful. The end of that season brings the loss of the idealistic love, new directions and a more seasoned experience as well as the remembrance of the past.
It was toward the end of summer and the cicadas were creating presence. They’re such commanding looking and sounding creatures. They are so beautiful and very underappreciated just for being who they were created to be I felt the summer activity and heat, calmness of the evening and the knowing that things are changing despite the desire to hold more tightly.
Some of the texture may be lost digitally or on the printed copies.
Will you describe the techniques you used to create this diptych?
I decided to go wild somewhat and work as intuitively as possible. I had the freedom to not be literal. The songs were written and sung by others. I didn’t want to have my work be illustration and have the start and stop be one step away from each other. I don’t like when album artwork or videos define the meanings and then the viewer can’t bring their own experience in anymore.
After I made that decision, I jumped into the process. I used two yellow oil paint toned panels. Later I used some white and black gesso and black ink sprays to create an unpredictable and weathered background areas. I made some of the gesso very thick and went back while it was wet and drew cicadas into the thicker areas with wood sticks and ink again to create depth and interest. After that was dry I worked as hard to not make everything neat and clean because life is messy and it seemed like that was also a theme of the album. I worked in and rubbed down oil pastels, mixed media crayons, inks, etc. over and over until it had the hazy feeling of remembrance, passion, faith, and loss that makes up human experience. The gold is heightening and relates to blessing and my manuscript and icon works.
How did we become friends?
We met through my husband Garabed—and I believe you two met because of your deep rooted Orthodox Christian faith. My husband has a deep respect and appreciation for you. Because of this I have the pleasure of knowing you through shared experiences, such as visiting weeping holy icons, the intensive Bulgarian icon writing class we took, and you also mentored me in my journey of art marketing via social media.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I am thrilled to be invited into this project. May my artwork contributions help the listeners listen more deeply. The original artworks are for sale and we are conspiring to make prints, t-shirts, and other items available.
My work can be seen on my website www.MoniqueSarkessian.com
Thank you for inviting me into your worlds!