An exhibition of children's art usually calls to mind paper cutouts, inspired crayon scrawls and stick figure drawings. But an exhibit at the Capital Children's Museum of paintings by children who survived the earthquake two years ago in Armenia is a collection of surprising power and beauty.
So much so that the Los Angeles Children's Museum almost wouldn't release the works to Washington because 33 of its board members wanted to purchase them.
"I had to take a trip out to L.A. to tell them that this was a traveling show," said Rita Balian, of the Armenian General Benevolent Union, which organized the show with Henrik Igitian, founder of the Children's Museum of Armenia.
It is the first show of Armenian children's art to tour the United States, marking the second anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Armenian villages and claimed more than 25,000 lives on Dec. 7, 1988.
Organizers say the show, which will tour a dozen cities, is also a gesture of thanks to Americans for relief efforts after the disaster. U.S. relief organizations dispatched hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies, clothing and food.
But while the Red Cross and UNICEF were shipping traditional supplies, Balian's group gathered $22,000 in donations for art supplies.
"Medication is good," Balian said, "but if you really want to help the children, I told them, send them paintbrushes, drawing paper and pens." The children needed a way to channel their grief, she said, and "to bring out hidden grudges about the disaster."
The show features 55 paintings by children ranging in age from 4 to 14. The theme piece is the Seurat-like "Portrait of Ani," drawn by the youngest artist, 4-year-old Hovhannes Manoukian. When the boy returned from a visit to his grandmother, he discovered his village had been decimated by the quake, and he could not find his playmate Ani, who had perished in the rubble. He painted her portrait as a remembrance.
The works are surprisingly bright, considering that many are the recollections of orphans. Eight-year-old Sonya Hagopian painted a circus scene with a woman riding a horse bareback. Another picture, by Aharon Aharonian, depicts figures harvesting in a golden wheatfield. Flowers, a symbol of appreciation in Armenian culture, are also prevalent in the paintings.
At first, the children, naturally, were in shock, Balian said. "Their hands were only going to the black pens. But the teachers told them to create what they imagined their life could be like."
Using art to offset suffering is nothing new to Armenians, who have been overrun by successive superpowers for centuries, she said. "We are an independent, stubborn and expressive people. We didn't have another way for our words to be heard except in art."
For the country's poorest, many of whom lack the most basic necessities, art also is an instrument of control in their lives. "Armenians cannot control electricity, but they can choose what they read and create," Balian said.
That explains the plethora of "aesthetic education centers" in the country. Government-funded, they are usually basement workshops that have been set up as artistic hubs in cities and towns. Started in 1970 by Igitian, they now offer dance, sculpture, metalwork and theater as well as drawing and painting classes. There are nearly 500 such centers.
Igitian selected the paintings from thousands of works created by children in these centers. One picture, by 8-year-old Sasha Karapetian, shows a festive scene of workers rebuilding a colorful apartment complex. "People should know miseries happen," Balian said. "The earthquake is still happening in Armenia, but people are rebuilding their lives."