By Carly Proulx

Mohawk Valley Center for the Arts will feature a brand-new exhibit in the 401 Gallery by the ceramicist Vartan Poghosian. Join us on June 8th at 6PM for the opening reception of Outre’, a body of work sure to give you that out of body, otherworldly kind of feel. Head of the Fine Arts committee at MVCA, Erika Hoffman informs “It is MVCA’s first ever strictly ceramics exhibit, and so it’s very exciting for all of us at MVCA and in the community.” Depending on what strikes your fancy his work could yield a rather peculiar sensation, maybe there’s only gawking for some of us, and then for the rest of us it could feel like coming home and making friends with the remnants of a past life. Whatever may be invoked there is sure to be an appreciation for the artistry, the intricacies, layers and methodology and energy that goes into creating this kind of work.

Vartan Poghosian grew up in an Armenia cloaked in Soviet censorship and propaganda. What I’ve recently learned about this landlocked country that cultivated in me a great deal of compassion and admiration is that after being subjected to foreign domination for centuries upon centuries, the history chronicles generations upon generations who have managed to hold tight their identity and culture, despite having endured an unfathomable number of calamities and adversity that threatened to demolish it.

Of course, if you don’t really know Poghosian none of this goes through one’s head upon first meeting the Utica based artist and ceramicist who has a flair for thriving in that curious illusory space where art and business meet. From the outside, Poghosian makes it look easy-breezy, but it is his passion that keeps him in the driver’s seat in that ongoing momentum gear. It is not the kind of ego driver’s seat that comes to mind, but a willingness to get behind the wheel and go where others haven’t simply because this is what’s needed. Not only is Poghosian passionate about the arts he’s passionate for providing accessible artistic outlets for those with disabilities. He began his journey with Upstate Cerebral Palsy where he was taught a lot of patience, and essentially learned how to decode different types of brains. There’s no one key to open each individual into the world of art, but there are different languages to be learned when we allow others to be themselves, when we can just listen and observe. Poghosian has that gift to meet people where they’re at, and rather than expect them to come to him he will learn about them, and the unique ways they learn. Though he’d gotten his start with clay at the age of 13 when he took an apprenticeship with artist friends and mentors back in Armenia, at Upstate Poghosian was contracted to hold open studios, teach free classes, and continued to play with a lot of clay.

Poghosian’s next chapter entailed the 3rd floor of the Westminster Presbyterian Church on Washington St. in Utica. He spent 5 years on that 3rd floor providing 24/7 access to studio space for 15 different artists. It was all or nothing when trying to make it a go, and he plugged away until eventually pulling the plug. He confessed “I couldn’t focus on my own work,” and that’s when he knew he needed to figure out the next chapter, one where he could still provide this outlet to art for others without having to neglect his own calling to create art. Poghosian did what he does best, and moved on, regretting nothing in forward motion straight towards the next best thing.

This was the wellspring for 4 Elements Studio Inc, a nonprofit community arts center in downtown Utica that provides opportunities and resources to local artists and the general public, including individuals with disabilities and specialized needs. 4 Elements began on the 3rd floor of 1607 Genesee St. in Utica where the past 2.5 years it has offered everything from jewelry making, specialized painting, pottery workshops, programming, exhibitions, kids and teens spring/summer art camps, specialized creative movement, and drumming classes, but currently is in the process of moving to a new, bigger location on Court St. The opening for the new space is TBD. The Westwood Gallery, a 4 Elements Studio Satellite Gallery on 167 Genesee St features pop-up exhibitions that can be viewed in the windows on Genesee St and Bleeker St in addition to the downstairs basement level space. Many an artist’s electrifying and dynamic work has passed through since Vartan first got that green light. It’s got a real 1970s and 1980s NYC underground art kind of vibe. When Poghosian took my friend Stag and I for the tour I could almost see the ghosts of radicals, chain smoking intellectuals and poets and painters of all kinds in the corners mingling or blowing smoke rings into the paintings, ashing on the floor.

Needless to say, Vartan’s inability to fit into any traditionalist structure and therefore build a business from inside that traditionalist mental sphere is a huge plus for the rest of us art minded individuals and connoisseurs alike. Those of us who had no outlets for creating now do, and where we had so few local spaces exhibiting genuine art of genuine artists in, whether you want to hang their work above your mantle or not, there it is ready for your feasting and inquisitive mind to view, for you to feel something or nothing at all, but the point being ‘here is now art where before there was not.’ Andrea Vedder, art instructor at 4 Elements says of her boss Poghosian “For someone who has his hands in multiple pots (literally and figuratively) he still makes the time to get involved with classes and teaching the fundamentals of pottery. He looks past what most people would refer to as a disability and sees it as an individual with superpower capabilities. He is paving the way to improve the local community of Utica by bringing everyone together to make art. What I love about 4 Elements is that as soon as you walk through the door, no matter who you are, you are welcome! Literally everyone, and no other place does that!”

After speaking with Poghosian of his mother, Sveta, it is clear to me where he gets his outside the box vision and overall approach to both the dealings of business and art. Genetics are a powerful thing, and lucky for Vartan his mom, and these are his words not mine is a powerful ‘architect in her neck of the universe. By this Poghosian meant that his mom designs and constructs things in her world, though not necessarily using blueprints and scaffolding. What she says more often than not goes, and it sounded like not wasn’t even on her radar. She is a non-traditionalist in all senses of the word, and leaned solely on alternative healers in and around Armenia’s capital Yerevan, where Poghosian was born and raised whenever illness or strife presented itself in her family. Poghosian’s dad was along for the ride, adhering to his wife’s innate wisdom. He was also a great supporter of the arts in his own special ways.

Amid Soviet dissolution in 91’ a teenage Poghosian and others of this same youth bracket were forced to join the military to fight in the Karabakh war that went on from 1988-1994. He spent 6 months training, and an overall 2 years protecting borders, digging trenches, and disassembling mines. “This taught me to appreciate life, to trust my intuition and instincts” says Poghosian of his experience at war. He has this magical gift for recalling “beautiful moments” in the midst of all the unknown, violence, casualties and chaos that surely was happening unexpectedly all at once around him. Rather tongue tied, as if reading my mind’s subconscious inquiry Poghosian answered me on how he survived it all. “Art saved me” he said simply and matter of fact. Vartan first came to the U.S. in June of 97’, 27 years ago this month.

Friends of his aunts Manik and Souren were Poghosian’s mentors and lifeline to the arts, and eventually a part of what would beckon him at 20 years old, along with the plea from his mother Sveta and the money she secured for her son’s travels from selling her jewelry to leave his country and come to the states. In a time when the Soviets were telling the people of Armenia what to wear and how to live Manik and Souren were playing American and British music. “You could be shipped to Serbia for listening to music that didn’t come from Russian resources” informs Poghosian. In the way that Poghosian has let the universe guide him in this life his mentors were also going to the beat of this mystical, magical drum. This is where he first learned to throw, to sculpt, to play, to wait, and to work in a studio. Souren, Manik’s husband with his big bear hands was the potter, and Manik, rocking a shaved head and a yellow dress upon first meeting Poghosian was more a painter and sculptor. “She was magnetic” says Poghosian. Now the couple lives in Brussels where Poghosian pops in for a visit during his summer travels. He’s joyfully confirmed that Manik is still making art. Traveling is a big part of Poghosians creative process. He goes out into the world, he follows a very organic and instinctual path void of plans and maps and phones, and he comes back to his homebase studio in Utica where he immediately mixes clay and begins pouring all of that awe-inspiring, fresh, colorful scenery and wonder out of him in the studio.

Poghosian, married this past February in his living room in his lovely home in Utica where he occasionally hosts open studios, an opportunity to view and purchase his work out of his home and studio, prefers to travel alone. In this way, there are no distractions or interruptions from where the universe is divinely instructing his intuition to take him. He’s traveled Europe extensively, and in the first 10 years on U.S. soil bounced around as if his shoes were trampolines. Maybe that wasn’t all for the love of travel, but if there’s anything that shines through in this art-minded, business savvy creative is that he’s always open to expanding his horizons, as well the horizons of others.

For the time being it seems his home base is Utica, and we’re so grateful for him to be sharing his gifts of connecting communities, caring for people, and creating some of the most enigmatic and authentic work I’ve seen on the ceramic’s spectrum. Don’t miss his inspiring out of this realm show Saturday, June 8 at MVCA , 403 Canal Pl, Little Falls, NY 13365, and don’t be surprised if you see a sign that says “PLEASE TOUCH THE ARTWORK.” This is no ordinary artist after all.