Varoujan, born of Armenian parents in Aleppo, Syria, began to paint almost as soon as he could hold a brush. His family did not encourage him to pursue his talent, since his father had his heart set on medical career for his son. He threw his paints out of the window and broke his brushes.
At age fifteen, Varoujan took a painting to the State Institute of Fine Arts in Aleppo, and asked the director whether he was worthy of instruction. He was told that he would be given a degree in a few years, but that he already knew everything they had to teach him.
While still in high school, Varoujan attended the Sarian Academy, an art school and cultural center in Aleppo, where intellectuals often met.
In 1969, Carzou, world renowned French artist, visited the city of Aleppo. As a part of his tour, he stopped by the Sarian Academy and discovered Varoujan's paintings among the others. He encouraged him to continue his education in art.
His remarkable career began in 1969, when a magnificent new museum was built in Aleppo. The nineteen year-old artist's paintings were chosen for the inaugural exhibition. The festive affair was attended by VIP's from the Russian Embassy in Damascus, who noticed Varoujan's work. The Russian dignitaries offered to enroll him in the ultra-selective Institute of Fine Arts in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia.
Varoujan left Aleppo in 1969 for Soviet Armenia to dedicate himself to the pursuit and study of fine arts. He was one of only seven new students enrolled that year in the Academy of Fine Arts.
"By this time, my father was in tears," Varoujan recalls. "He challenged me. Was I not intelligent enough to enter medicine?" Trying to please his father, Varoujan interrupted his art studies for a year and entered the Institute of Medicine. His grades were excellent, but he was miserable! He asked the Minister of Education in Yerevan to let him return to Art school. "No one switches from Medicine to Art," he said. "But you... you are crazy. Be my guest."
Soviet Socialist Realism was the style in those days, Varoujan calls. "Do you know what it looked like? Very somber. Preferably factory workers, soldiers or peasants. And my soul needed color and poetry!" He painted just the way he wanted and took care to give the paintings the proper Communist-sounding titles. By then there was almost no connection between his paintings and their titles. It was the only way he could continue to exhibit his art. He soon received his Master's Degree and began work on a Ph.D. in Art.
In 1979, he left Soviet-dominated Armenia, where he had been working on his Ph.D. in art at the Institute of fine Art in the capital city of Yerevan. Feeling stifled by the restrictions of the government-run art projects, he sought a life with more artistic freedom. Leaving behind all his paintings, which under soviet rules belonged to the state, he came to America to fulfill his need for unrestrained creative expression.
Unable to find work in the Boston area related to his artistic talents, he took any job, just to survive. His sister had warned him of the difficulties of finding work as an artist in the US. Already fluent in Armenian, Arabic, Turkish, and Russian, Varoujan began to learn English and struggled to bring his young family to the US. "I was working for a printing company for minimum wage; it was very bad," he remembers. "Still, I couldn't stop drawing my fellow workers."
That artistic expression has taken many forms. To support his family, which soon included a son, Varoujan soon took a job as a billboard painter with Akerly Media. In those days, before computer printouts, the giant 14 foot high billboards were painted by hand. His work for Akerly was incredibly realistic, everything from pizza to portraits of athletes. For an Italian restaurant ad, he recreated Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from Sistine Chapel. In addition, he painted the four-story-high murals of the landmarks of Venice and the contributions of Italy that continue to decorate the Ristorante Philippo on Causeway Street, known as the gateway to Boston's North End.
Over the years, he has also decorated Armenian churches around the country. St. Vartanantz Church on Westford Road in Chelmsford was his first commission of this sort. Here he created 45 murals within a three-year period, all the while working a full-time job. "Time is elastic," says Varoujan, "It stretches to allow us to fit everything in. We have the energy within ourselves to do the big stuff." Other commissions followed for churches in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, as well as locally in Belmont. For these paintings, "tradition is important," says Varoujan, since "they will be here long after we're gone." For the church murals, he adhered to the Armenian religion's traditional iconography and established hierarchy of presentation.
His own paintings, however, are quite different. In one work, Afternoon Melody, featuring two young women - one playing a musical instrument, the other holding a cup - we see a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors dominating the lower right quarter of the canvas. Images implying bountiful fruits - grapes and oranges - combine with gem-like squares and triangles. The opposite, upper left corner beautifully balances the bounty with simplicity: a cloud-filled sky broken by and orange/red frame-like corner. The corner also serves to unite the two women, who form a diagonal through the middle of the painting. The faces and hands of the women are in monochromatic blue/gray tones, like a black and white photograph. As in Indian tradition where women are painted with blue skin, explains Varoujan, "the color symbolizes the purity of the women, showing them as goddesses."
Varoujan is content with his life in the United States and works at giving back to the larger world community, often linking his exhibitions to charitable organizations. He has contributed artwork to benefit such causes as the Red Cross, the Race for the Cure for Breast Cancer Research, the Fund for Armenian Children's Education, and Friendship Without Borders. He has also been an active participant in several charity fundraising events, including Colors in the Sky, exhibitions at the Prudential Center Skywalk to raise money for the Wang Center's Young at Arts Program, the Bob and Anne Woolf Charitable Foundation, Stop Handgun Violence, and others. Proceeds from an exhibition at the Armenian Museum in Watertown held in 2000, celebrating 50 Colorful Years went to the Shriners Hospital for Children, Boston, and those from his most recent event held in June at the Seaport Hotel in Boston went to Community Servings, a nonprofit organization that brings hot meals to people with HIV/AIDS.
Varoujan's fine art gallery: http://www.collectorspalette.com