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A Portrait of Caring : Artist Draws Upon Experience in the Streets to Paint, Repay His Helpful Homeless Friends

October 16, 1988|GINGER LYNNE THOMPSON | Times Staff Writer

If success meant sacrificing his best friends, Yuri Gevorgian wanted no part of it.

Somehow, the artist said, it just didn't seem right to sell his paintings of the homeless people who taught him how to survive on the streets when he was penniless, helped him adjust to life in a new country, showed him how to find peace in the midst of chaos and gave him glimpses of joy when life seemed utterly dreadful.

Sure, he wanted to be a successful artist. He had given up a lot--his Armenian homeland, family, friends and a good job--to pursue this lifelong passion in America.

But, he said, his initial intentions were simply to paint for his own pleasure and earn recognition by exhibiting his work. He never seriously considered making art his livelihood, so when a gallery approached him about selling his paintings of his homeless friends, the money and potential for recognition were enticing, but Gevorgian's heart ached over the idea.

'Selling Feelings'

"My paintings symbolized a lot of struggles I had faced in this country, and since I had no one else, the paintings were like people for me--actually like best friends," he said. "I felt like I would be selling those feelings, if I sold the paintings."

After several sleepless nights and discussions with the gallery owner, Gevorgian convinced himself that money, not his paintbrush, would be more helpful to himself and the destitute street survivors.

He sold the eight paintings to the gallery for about $40,000.

Since then, Gevorgian, 32, who signs his work with the name Yuroz, has sold other paintings of street life to art collectors all over the world, for prices ranging from $1,200 to $60,000. Next month, he plans to auction two paintings, expected to sell for about $15,000 each, and donate the money to an agency that serves the homeless.

Although he has enjoyed a complete about-face from the nights when he slept on the streets and in Skid Row hotels, Gevorgian's life is far from glamorous.

His neat, one-room art studio near Beverly Hills is sparsely furnished with only a bed and dinette, despite his income of reportedly more than $50,000 over the last six months. Gevorgian drives a 1979 navy-blue Ford Fairmont that he bought for $1,200 last fall in a government auction, and he is most comfortable in blue jeans and sneakers.

But, these things are luxuries compared to the days when Gevorgian was homeless and penniless shortly after he arrived in this country three years ago.

Although he earned a good living as an architect in the Soviet Union, Gevorgian wanted to come to the United States because he felt stifled in his profession, and the government would not allow him to pursue painting unless he did so according to its rules.

"There was a committee that told (artists) what they were allowed to paint, and how they were allowed to paint. If an artist did not agree to the rules, then he could not participate in art shows," Gevorgian said. "I did not like the rules, so I wanted to leave."

The artist, who had no family in this country, married an Armenian woman whose family had immigrated to Los Angeles in 1980. Six years later, Gevorgian won permission to join his bride, but by then, he said, "we were like strangers." Gevorgian said he again felt stifled because his wife complained about the long hours he spent toiling over his art, so he left her and headed for Fresno.

"There is a large Armenian community (in Fresno), and I thought they would help me find work, and I would work on my art on the side," he said. "I was wrong. I called an Armenian church, and the guy just yelled at me and called me a failure for leaving my wife."

Guidance from Homeless

With only $150 in his pocket, one knapsack of clothing and no place to live, Gevorgian sought guidance from Fresno's street dwellers, who taught him how to find odd jobs to earn money and safe havens for nights when he could not afford a Skid Row hotel room.

Most times, Gevorgian escaped depression by drawing on napkins or paper bags with any pencils he could find, but one night, when his homesickness, confusion and sheer desperation were magnified by the influence of cheap whiskey, the artist attempted to kill himself.

"Imagine being away from your family and friends, in a new world that you did not understand, with no money and no hope of getting out," he said. "It was pretty terrible, so I thought I wanted to die."

Gevorgian awoke the next morning, a noose around his neck, under a heap of plaster from the ceiling, which was unable to support his 150-pound body.

"I was so ashamed that I could do something like that," he said. "But it made me even more determined to keep trying to make it, somehow."

Returned to L.A.

Gevorgian began sketching more pictures of his street friends, and a few months later he returned to Los Angeles because it offered more opportunities to break into the art world. He spent a few days living on Hollywood Boulevard, until he found a job making building models at Kamitzer & Cotton, a now-disbanded architecture firm.

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