Vahe Berberian Paints, Writes and Lives with Humor
Armenian International Magazine (AIM)
by Hrair Sarkis Sarkissian
“Are you a vampire?” asks a young girl coming out of the coffee shop and stopping at Vahe Berberian’s table. Yes, Vahe Berberian has a table at Starbucks Coffee in Sherman Oaks, California, and this is just one of the many strange questions he is asked there. At 4PM of any given Los Angeles afternoon one can find Vahe in this corner which has become his ‘office’ for the last six years. Anyone who knows Vahe knows that they can stop by and spend some time with him, people watching, talking, laughing, solving the daily crossword puzzle, and maybe having an occasional cup of coffee.
“It’s not the coffee,” says Vahe, “it’s just that it is walking distance from my home and it has become a place where I know pretty much everyone, people come here looking for me. And the ones I don’t know, I eventually meet.” After being there a few minutes, one can see what Vahe means. It is rare that anyone who walks by or walks into the coffee shop does not know him. From a warm smile and a wave, to a big hug and kisses, Vahe continues to touch people’s hearts and put smiles on their faces, while engaging them in sincere conversations.
At 6’2”, with long, soft gray braided hair, lanky, willowy demeanor, and strong, angular features, Vahe immediately attracts people’s attention and awakens their curiosity. People seem to find their own reflection in his presence. The young girl who asked if he was a vampire, was herself decked out in black, with black nail polish and lipstick, black flowing hair and an obvious attraction toward vampires. Another new customer, noticing Vahe’s long absence from his table for a couple of weeks, asked one of the regulars often seen at Vahe’s table “where is your guru?” But finally it is the personality that they find behind the looks which captures people’s hearts and makes loyal friends out of them. Vahe has an uncanny way of transcending barriers of age, race, gender, ethnicity and social class. It is not uncommon to find a teenage store clerk sitting at his table next to dentist and an accomplished film director, all finding a common thread running through their veins. By his mere existence and unpretentiousness Vahe manages to become the catalyst who brings seemingly improbable personalities together. Surely it is not because he avoids conflict, but because he respects the individuals behind the conflict.
“It think it was Dostoyevski who said, ‘A city is an accidental tribe’, for me it’s important to know who else is in my tribe,” says Vahe. The employees of Starbucks refer to Vahe’s table as the International Table, for obvious reasons. “Recently, a woman came out of the coffee shop and said that I must be Vahe and asked if she could sit with me. I found out that she was a tourist from Germany and she was told by a friend of hers that she must come to Starbucks and meet me during her visit to LA.” Surprisingly, this is not an isolated incident. According to Betty, Vahe’s wife, “He is the ‘Mukhtar’ (mayor) of Sherman Oaks. Who else in this country can walk into a bank where he does not have an account, having forgotten his ID, and get a check cashed, because one of the employees knows him?” Vahe says, “Betty is my best friend. We have been married for twenty years, and like everyone we have our problems, but we never allow anything to interfere with our friendship.” Betty comes from an Art History background and is a film set -decorator. She has also co-written and directed their play ‘200’, as well as produced all of his other plays.
But there is another reason Vahe is a regular at Starbucks. Despite all of the foot traffic, he does get work done here. Today, he is putting the final touches to his monologue. “It’s a one man show, mostly anecdotes and stories from daily life. It is funny and serious at times,” says Vahe. The monologue, not yet named, is tentatively planned to premiere in Los Angeles around May of this year and to continue on to other cities in the US and maybe even Europe. “These are segments of my life, slides, snapshots taken here and there, stories about people I have known. The mere fact that I am a writer with a theatre background makes this the ideal way of telling the stories – perform what you write” says Vahe. In reality, he has been doing it all of his life, telling stories to friends, entertaining people. “Now I am just charging for it,” he continues laughing. The monologue is in Armenian, and it remains a work in progress. “So much of it has to do with the audiences’ reactions. I can see it performed in English as well. And I will travel with it wherever I am invited.”
Vahe was born in Beirut Lebanon, in 1955. “I remember being born,” said Vahe, “then I remember having amnesia. Anything in between is inconsequential, and you have to find it on your own.” Fortunately it isn’t hard to discover fragments of Vahe’s life. Most of his life has been spent in the company of friends who remain in his life to this day. It also seems that whether he asked for it or not, there has always been something public about Vahe’s life, most probably due to his nature and especially the fields in which he has worked and flourished. Here is a quick synopsis of information gathered from others. In his mid-teens he could be seen walking down the streets of Beirut carrying his guitar and performing in theatre companies in the city. In his late teens, Vahe spent some time traveling and living in hippie communes throughout Europe. After his move to Los Angeles in 1977, he married in 1979, and graduated with honors from Woodbury University in Journalism in 1980. During the last several years, Vahe has been in and out of hospitals due to complications from cancer surgery he had in the early nineties. But, contrary to his statement, no trace of amnesia was found in Vahe’s past.
“Humor has kept me going,” says Vahe. “In all of my relationships with people, that is one thing that I look for. You will have a hard time digesting any situation in life without humor. Humor is the fiber of life, and that is why people who don’t have humor are the people who are constipated,” he laughs.
But Vahe is best known as a painter. He is considered by many to be one of the most talented Armenian artists of our times. Grady Harp, director of Lizardi/Harp Gallery in Los Angeles, wrote: ” Discovering the very personal art of Vahe Berberian is like finding ancient treasure maps, like watching a child first declare his existence for prosperity, and like climbing inside a weaving loom that hides the myths of hundreds of years of ethnic rites.”
Back in his studio, it is hard not to peak into the rows of paintings leaning against walls, or the ones that are in progress and laying around. Surely the style of Vahe’s work has changed over the years, but they continue to jump out of their medium to capture some intimate part of the viewer that may not have been tapped into, at least not this deeply, before. Vahe is able to bare his heart and soul with as little as a few strokes of the brush and some scribbled messages on a 4’x6’ canvas, or a collage piece that contains handwritten pages of a story he wrote when he was 16, or even a 3″x5″ painting with deep browns and reds that one may find difficult not to be mesmerized by. “So much of art has to do with the inspiration itself. Therefore whatever you create is the direct result of your immediate surroundings and your life. It is important to have a rapport with the world around you,” says Vahe.
Caroline Lais-Tufenkian, who was the curator of Vahe’s exhibition at Santa Monica’s Bergamont Station, says, “Berberian is successfully working from his hybrid cultural background. Several components have been key in the construction of his complex and rich aesthetic identity, for example, his Armenianness, cross-cultural background, modern abstract expressionism and being a Los Angeles artist. Berberian offers a new dialect to the western artistic style of abstract expressionism. Several of his works “tell” of the Armenian culture through use of Armenian elements such as the alphabet and historic imagery. Berberian’s works transcend time and have historical momentum.”
Unlike the stereotypical image of an artist; erratic, moody, wild, often abusive and selfish, Vahe lives his life simply. His dark nights, his mortality, his politics and his battles are waged and lost or won through his work.
Vahe’s artwork has made its way into the homes of collectors such as opera director Peter Sellers, actress Mariette Hartley, former director of the LA Philharmonic Ernest Flieschman, Paris fashion designer Sonia Rykiel, Paris publishers Alain and Raymonde Nave, artist Tanya Hovnanian, Sarkis and Salpi Ghazarian and John and Gayaneh Pridjian, among others. His works have also been placed in films such as Permanent Midnight, Jawbreaker, Executive Power, Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and The Big Brass Ring.
“Painting is something that gives me a chance to cleanse out everything that is processed in me,” says Vahe. “Painting is a form of art that translates my inner workings in the most immediate way, spontaneously, simplistically, sincerely, because I don’t deal with esthetics and decorative motifs to make it more pleasing to the eye,” he continues. As any artist, Vahe has also gone through periods when creating another piece of work has seemed unimaginable. “There are times when I am desperate, when I think I will not create again. I think my creativity has come to an end. This is when I drive everyone around me crazy. Betty used to take this very seriously and panic along with me, but now she knows it’s part of the cycle,” says Vahe.
But by looking at the volume of Vahe’s works, in their various fields, it is hard to imagine Vahe not being able to create. Basically, Vahe is the consummate, prolific artist. A Renaissance man, really, because in reality his talents also include music and singing. Vahe has also written, directed and acted in several plays: Exit One, in 1977, The Night Visitor, in 1977, Pink Elephant, in 1985, Quicksand, in 1987, and 200, co-written with Ara Madzounian and Betty Berberian in 1989. In addition, Vahe has written a few film scripts, two of which, “Learning to Fly”, co-written with Ara Megerdichian, and “Circle Dance”, have been optioned. Vahe has also acted in several feature films such as Money Talks, Darkman, and The Evil Stone. He also does voiceovers regularly, some of the films he has worked on are Rules Of Engagement, Three Kings, Armageddon, Patriot Games, and Face Off.
Recently, Vahe published his second Armenian novel, “In the Name of the Father and the Son”. It is the story of an immigrant family from Lebanon in the early eighties in Los Angeles. The novel is about a young man and his bibliophile father whose quiet existence is shattered by a prostitute who walks into their lives. Vahe’s first Armenian novel, “Letters from Zaatar”, published by ‘Arvest’ in 1996, is a dark comedy about a man who is sent from America to Zaatar, a fictitious third world country, to open an Armenian Consulate. There his wife has a nervous breakdown and leaves with their kids, but he refuses to give up, clinging to his Quixotic beliefs.
In one of Vahe’s writings, a character says to the other:
“I think I’m going crazy.”
“Have you started talking to yourself?” asks the other
“What do you think writing in Armenian is?”
But Vahe himself does not share this view. “I’ve realized that certain memories come only in their own language,” says Vahe. “There are certain things I remember only in Armenian. It just doesn’t sound right if I write them in English”.
After 23 years in Los Angeles it is obvious that Vahe feels at home here. “It has always been important for me to feel an attachment to my environment, and despite the vastness and impersonal reputation of Los Angeles, if one really cares, one can create a sense of community by taking an interested in others. Also, I must admit that as an artist I feel quite lucky because I have been able to find an audience and a public who takes an interest in my work. I am especially grateful to the Armenian community, which has been very supportive of me. I don’t share this disillusionment that many artists have with the Armenian community,” says Vahe.
‘Arvest’ was created in 1996 by a group called ‘Friends of Vahe’ for the purpose of publishing a book and producing a documentary about Vahe. The book, “Pages from a Diary”, includes an autobiography and interviews in Armenian and English, as well as samples of Vahe’s artwork, many of which are full page and in color. The documentary “Pagakidz” (Parenthesis) is in Armenian. In 1996, Arvest organized a month long exhibition of Vahe’s artwork at Barnsdall Park in Hollywood which also featured the documentary and the two books, “Pages from a Diary” and “Letters from Zaatar”.
“The members of Arvest are artists, art lovers and people with a sense of humor. What is good about it is that there is no pretentiousness or bureaucracy in this group. We are all doing what we like to do, and having fun doing it.” says Vahe. Members of Arvest include, Ani Astourian, Narbeh Nazarian, Henrik Mansourian, Vatchig Der Sarkissian, Ara Oshagan, Hratch & Seta Simonian, Ani Boghigian, Harout Dedeyan, Vazken Brutian and others.
On another sunny afternoon outside Starbucks, a friend who hasn’t seen Vahe for a few weeks inquires about the monologue’s progress. “Yeah, it’s coming along. Actually, it’s right here, I am almost done,” says Vahe as he opens his black leather bound handbook, marked #11, the latest of the identical handbooks that chronicle what seem to be his thoughts, sketches, stories, names, phone numbers of new friends, and in this case, his monologue. “You know, a couple of people have already asked me about it in the past week,” says the friend. “The strange thing is,” says Vahe, “people have been asking about it before I thought of writing it. I don’t understand.”
But the reason people have been anticipating this has been the result of two hugely successful productions of “Comedy Night”. For two consecutive years, these performances have brought in more than 600 guests each time and kept them laughing for over two hours. The “Comedy Night”s, off-the-wall sketches co-written with Vatchig Der Sarkissian and Henrik Mansourian, produced by ‘Arvest’ and directed by Vahe with great humor and wit, won the hearts of the audiences and kept them asking for more.
And more is what Vahe is planning to give them. More of the humor, more of the wit, but mostly, once again, more of himself. As he has in every single creation, with this monologue Vahe intends to touch his audience with an open heart. When not working on the monologue, Vahe is finishing the final draft of yet another script he has written, and working in his studio on the pieces which will be included in an exhibition he hopes to have later this year.
For once, after being asked to share some thoughts about himself, Vahe is speechless. “A rare thing. Betty would rejoice at this, she thinks I am ‘shadakhos’ “, he laughs. But of course the eloquent Mr. Berberian manages to say it like it is, “”I am pretty confident when it comes to my art and myself. I can say this with humility. I can have me as a friend. Of course there will always be major arguments, but at the end, it will all work out. It has taken me a lifetime to simplify my life to a point where, despite life’s angst and ever present difficulties, being able to love and accept love is the only thing that makes it worthwhile.”