Artist Ellen Frank first stepped foot on Armenian soil on September 15, 2015. At the time, she knew nothing of the nation’s rich history and culture. However, during her three-month stay in the small, Middle Eastern nation she would be standing in the forefront of a movement to allow its people to heal from one of the most traumatic events in the land’s extensive history—the Armenian Genocide.
One-hundred years before Ms. Frank set off to Armenia, the nation was in a state of crisis. The Ottoman Empire was systematically exterminating the Armenian population within the empire. Countless men were murdered in front of their families while women and children were deported and forced to walk hundreds of miles without food or shelter to their deaths.
Despite rising from the ashes to form their own nation in 1991, following the country’s declaration of sovereignty from the Soviet Union, the genocide remains a scar, a painful reminder of the human capability of malice and destruction.
Fortunately, Ms. Frank possessed the tools to initiate a project that would not only honor the victims of the genocide on its 100th anniversary, but also reaffirm the nation’s language, culture and history. Yerevan, Armenia, would become the latest subject of Cities of Peace, a series of paintings that have traveled around the world spreading a message of how transformative art can be on a global level.
“It started as a collection of paintings honoring world cities traumatized by war,” Ms. Frank explained.
“It honors the cultures with the goal being to transform anguish into beauty. By honoring the history and culture to really move the human spirit and psyche to a new place of understanding difference.”
The collection, part of the Ellen Frank Illumination Arts Foundation, Inc. nonprofit, began with Jerusalem with a painting titled “Jerusalem: A Painting Toward Peace.” After that, Ms. Frank said she completed a painting for Baghdad, which now hangs in her living room.
Since then, she and an assortment of artists, historians and scholars from all over the world have come together to complete a series of paintings representing a total of 10 cities that faced the adversity of war: Baghdad, Beijing, Hiroshima, Jerusalem, Kabul, Lhasa, Monrovia, New York, Sarajevo, and now Yerevan. The Cities of Peace Treasure Suite exhibition, containing reproductions of the original paintings, was unveiled at the National Gallery of Armenia in December along with the new painting, Yerevan: To Know Wisdom.
It was last fall that Ms. Frank received an invitation to bring Cities of Peace to Armenia for the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide where she would be recognized as a global ambassador. Through the Russian Armenian University, she was given an entire staff of assistants—ranging from a Spanish professor at the university to a 17-year-old high school graduate taking a gap year—to complete the Yerevan painting. The university even built an illumination studio specifically for the project.
Each Cities of Peace painting contains gold leaf and is designed to emulate characteristics of the city it is based on, said Ms. Frank.
“Each painting is like a narrative. Every painting has real references,” she said, walking over to the Hiroshima Cities of Peace painting displayed on another wall of her living room. “Cascading across the painting is the winter plum blossom, which represents everlasting life.”
Therefore, extensive research into Armenian culture and history was required before the work on the painting could begin.
“The first three weeks were really concentrated research with historians traveling to the great monasteries, the great churches, the great temples,” Ms. Frank said. “Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity in 305 [A.D.] and Cities of Peace is beyond this religion or that religion. It’s beyond political, beyond politics. So we immersed ourselves in the culture. It’s an extraordinary culture.”
During this research, Ms. Frank said she began to understand the Armenian people.
“I think there’s a humanism, an intelligent, wise humanism within the Armenian people that I’ve never encountered,” she said.
Ms. Frank said that intellect and wisdom is reflected in the country’s 99 percent literacy rating. The Armenian appreciation for language and the written word has in fact defined the past and future of the nation, she said.
“The Armenian alphabet was invented by one man named Mesrop Mashtots. In a meditation he invented the entire alphabet. He described the alphabet as birds with wings that would carry the Armenian nation into the future,” said Ms. Frank. “The first sentence ever written in Armenian, and it’s from proverbs, it’s from King Solomon: ‘To know wisdom and guidance, to understand the words of insight.’”
Every Armenian from child to elder can recite the sentence by heart, she said. With that in mind, Ms. Frank said she came across the “governing idea” for the painting.
I had all this information. I had the churches, the monasteries, the concepts, the art—I had all the details of the painting and I was thinking, what’s the governing idea? What’s the essence of this painting?” she recalled. “And then it hit me.”
Her mind suddenly darted to scientist Stephen Hawking, she said.
“When he was first paralyzed and couldn’t talk, how was he going to communicate and go on to write his incredible physics?” asked Ms. Frank. “They made him an alphabet board. And so he would write letter by letter.”
“They would present him an alphabet board and if he had to use the word ‘the’ they would go, ‘ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRST,’ and he’d blink at ‘t’ and then they’d do the whole alphabet again.”
Borrowing from Mr. Hawking’s method of communication, Ms. Frank was inspired to paint the entire left side of the painting with the Armenian alphabet. The painting, she said, repeats that alphabet 42 times and each time it comes upon the letter in the Mashtot’s famous sentence that letter is gilded with gold.
“The Yerevan painting is about the power of the word, the power of the alphabet,” said Ms. Frank. As with her previous paintings, she said she strives to use the piece of art as a way to develop a visual and symbolic literacy for all who view it.
The painting features many distinctive characteristics of Armenia, including the tree of life, blue orbs representing each of Armenia’s former capitals and the Armenian God Khali. Ms. Frank said she was also able to obtain the stones that were used to build the city, which she then grounded up into powder and turned into paint, adding a physical element to the piece.
And then, after three months immersed in the culture she quickly fell in love with, Ms. Frank found herself being introduced by the Armenian Prime Minister, Hovik Abrahamyan, at the National Gallery of Armenia. In front of the massive crowd, she explained all the elements of the project and was met with a thunderous applause.
Following the event, one man went up to her and said that the project “opened a door in his heart that had been shut for eight years.” She too felt that something had been fulfilled by being part of the experience, Ms. Frank said.
She couldn’t help but think back to a dream she had when she was a professor at Berkeley where she was nominated to be chair of her department.
“I just knew the speech I would make and I said the most profound thing I could say. I said, ‘a child makes a mark in the sand. And it was dead silence.’”
Forty years later, she said she finally realized what the dream meant. During the genocide, mothers would teach their children the Armenian alphabet by drawing letters with their feet in the sand while being marched out of the country, holding on to their culture to the very end.
“For me to have had that dream and then to be in the country where the mark was made in the sand to bring the Armenian nation into the future … I thought of it as a moment of grace, and magic.”