I got involved with GenNext, because I had always enjoyed working with youth. For people who haven’t heard of GenNext, it’s a mentorship program that helps at-risk Armenian high school students in Southern California become contributing members of society by matching them with successful role models in the Armenian community. I had close friends who were part of the founding taskforce in 1997 and together we accomplished a great deal in a short period of time.
Vasken Brudian is helping to shape the future of Armenian art and design in the twenty-first century. Through his work at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, Vasken is creating the next generation of Armenian designers by teaching them to reinterpret the cultural tradition of a centuries-old people for the modern age.
An architect by trade, Vasken—a former chairperson with the AGBU Generation Next Mentorship Program—worked at some of the very best architectural firms in Los Angeles, started his own firm and tried his hand at development before moving to Yerevan to share his talents with his students.
In our conversation, Vasken describes the origin of his interest in the arts, his involvement with the AGBU Generation Next program and his work in cultivating the contemporary arts scene in Armenia.
How did you develop an interest in arts and architecture?
I was very lucky to have excellent teachers who exposed me to the arts early on. Although I was born in Cairo, I spent my childhood in Armenia before moving to the United States at fourteen. In Armenia, I was very interested in the arts, especially drawing and painting. In high school in California, my interest grew to include photography. It was my art teacher who encouraged me to continue with the arts and enroll in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
When I started at the Art Center, I was planning to become a sculptor, but I soon discovered other interests within the arts. Environmental design, product design and transportation design all intrigued me, but I wasn’t sure what my path would be. After a brief foray into economics, I came to settle on architecture after a trip to the major artistic capitals of Europe. The beauty of the architecture in Paris and Florence helped me see that a career in architecture would be a natural fit.
What led you to become a mentor with the AGBU Generation Next Mentorship Program (GenNext)?
I got involved with GenNext, because I had always enjoyed working with youth. For people who haven’t heard of GenNext, it’s a mentorship program that helps at-risk Armenian high school students in Southern California become contributing members of society by matching them with successful role models in the Armenian community. I had close friends who were part of the founding taskforce in 1997 and together we accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. I was the chairperson from 2000-2005 and was part of the program until 2007. During those years, we grew the program from several mentors to over 50 mentors and raised the quality of the mentorship and expanded the reach both in numbers and quality.
GenNext certainly helped prepare me for what would come a few years later: working with young adults—both students and staff—at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan. It helped me develop certain skills to reach them in a much more effective way.
How did you come to join the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies?
For years, I had been traveling to Armenia hoping to find a way to connect with the country in a meaningful way. When I heard Marie Lou Papazian talk about TUMO’s mission in 2010, I knew I had found it and volunteered to lead a two-week lecture series. In its first year, I lectured on the history of art and architecture to a group of 120 students. The material was dense and the class period was long, but the students didn’t even seem to blink. I could feel their interest and their quest for knowledge was so great that even after an hour and a half many would stay after class to ask questions. Their curiosity, maturity and commitment to learning impressed me quite a bit.
I returned to TUMO the next year for a design workshop for students between 13 and 18 that culminated in collages and compositions based on photographs they took around Yerevan. When their work was exhibited, it gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction to see their progress and talent. After the exhibition, I slowly started to think that a move to Armenia would be in order. After returning to TUMO once more to lead a workshop, I made my decision to move to Armenia.
What kinds of projects have you and the students worked on?
When I returned to TUMO, we decided to do something a little different. Instead of a workshop, we decided to do something closer to an internship. We chose some of the best students—most of them were my students from the previous two workshops—and decided to develop product designs based on Armenian culture and heritage, taking cues from Armenian ornaments, architecture, khatchkars, carpets and other art forms, but focusing on modern products that would appeal not just to the Armenian community, but to an international audience as well.
Outside of TUMO, I had founded a small studio called Ardēan. In classical Armenian, ardean means modern, which captured the spirit we strove to embody in our art: taking something from the past and bringing it into the present. I spoke with Sam and Sylva Simonian, the founders of TUMO, about the studio and tried to see if there was an opportunity to collaborate and bring some of the products we designed to life in the workshops.
They agreed enthusiastically and we came up with some interesting products in various fields, from leather goods to paper products to packaging for chocolate and honey produced in Armenia.
How do you see your work with Ardēan and TUMO as contributing to the development of Armenian arts?
I’m very interested in formulating what twenty-first century Armenian arts and architecture will look like. Of course, Armenians have a fantastic artistic and architectural history. Our culture is very rich in several disciplines: architecture, manuscripts, khatchkars, carpets and many others. In the studio, we draw inspiration from the past and put it in a new context—a modern context—and offer, in both architecture and the arts, products of the twenty-first century created with the technologies of the twenty-first century.
Is there a recent project you are particularly proud of?
In June, we at Ardēan organized an exhibit at TUMO in honor of the centenary of the genocide to look forward and show the rise of the younger generation one hundred years after the catastrophe. We wanted to show the imagination and the flight of the young generation, while also supporting creativity in Armenian youth. The proceeds from the show will go toward the TUMOxAGBU centers. The exhibition was comprised of 24 large pieces—honoring April 24—on the walls and 100 works honoring our roots on the floor of the exhibition hall. All of the works—photography, manuscripts and collages—were inspired by Armenian history and culture. This exhibit has plans to travel to New York, London, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the coming year.
What is the next step for you and your students at TUMO and Ardēan?
We are going into production! I have been talking to experts in production and distribution in Los Angeles and New York to learn more about international markets and have received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception. We are going to start in the United States and move on from there.
In October, the students will also have a major exhibit at the Casfejian Center for the Arts in Yerevan. We have decided to present the work of the young generation in Armenia. This exhibit will be even more developed and expanded than our April exhibit.