DOWNEY — When he decided to move his family from the Soviet Union to the United States 8 years ago, Yervant Godjabashian thought his talent and reputation as one of the premiere sculptors in Russia would translate into a relatively quick rise to fame in the art world of America.
But life has not turned out as the Armenian immigrant had expected.
"In the Soviet Union I was as high as I could go as an artist," Godjabashian recalled recently. "I came to the United States to be free as an artist. . . . I thought the first few years would be difficult, but I didn't consider the financial problems and such a period of struggle."
Works Odd Jobs
At 49, Godjabashian now lives in a single-family house half the size of his former studio. He works at odd jobs to save money to buy art supplies--designing jewelry models from hard wax and making small clay or wooden sculptures. His sons, 21 and 23, each work to help support the family. His wife, Emma, once a biochemist in Armenia, now works as a dental assistant. Godjabashian sculpts day and night in the garage, which he converted into a studio and shares with car tools, cleansers and a spare refrigerator.
The transition has also been difficult for fellow artist Vartan Ohanian, whose work has been part of the Downey Museum of Art's presentation, "Soviet Emigre Artists." The show, which closes today, includes contributions from Godjabashian and 25 other Soviet Jewish and Armenian artists.
In Russia, Ohanian said, he earned enough to pay rent on a 2-story studio, rebuild a home in the country and enjoy other comforts. But when he and his family arrived in America in 1980, they had little money and only a few pieces of his work as a so-called "blacksmith" artist using welded iron. To rent their 2-bedroom Montebello home, his family relied on monthly welfare checks--until 1986--and what his wife received through her job as a receptionist. Ohanian, 45, worked as a house painter and sold some of his paintings of traditional Armenian scenes.
While most of his art consists of drawings and paintings--his Downey exhibit includes an impressionistic series entitled "Women and Horses"--Ohanian considers his "real work" to be blacksmithing. But he said he is unable to create his iron sculptures because he cannot afford to buy the necessary materials and tools. For that reason, he regards the drawings and paintings as less important.
'Never the Same'
"If you do a big monumental work and then you do small things," Ohanian said, ". . . it is never the same."
Seated in his living room during a recent interview, Ohanian turned somber as he watched a 5-minute video of himself and workers installing a 75-foot iron chandelier that he created for Leningrad's Architectural Building in 1977. It was his greatest accomplishment, he said.
"Right now, my energy goes into painting (small art pieces) and building little things for people, but that is not enough," Ohanian said. "I need to start my real work, to let me expel my feelings. This is my love. It is my life."
Godjabashian's museum display of bronze sculptures depicting women's faces and torsos are very linear and exact--straight noses, lips and eyes--like architecture, said Scott Ward, one of two curators of the museum's exhibit. With his years in the United States, Ward said, Godjabashian's work has assumed a freer, more flowing feeling. The women's figures have become more ambiguous and leave much to the viewer's imagination, he said.
Both artists have displayed their work in Armenian communities in cities such as Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia, but say they are not yet established enough to draw the attention of large museums. Their exposure is limited to small exhibits in Armenian social halls.
"(The Soviet artists) don't know much about the art life here," Ward said. "They aren't used to the deals and the art game here--having the right connections and having enough money to get your name tossed around in different places. They can be easily exploited. They believed that as visual artists they would receive the same amount of attention as athletes and dancers from their country."
Godjabashian and Ohanian say they realize they cannot rise to fame as quickly as someone like ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Both artists say their lack of money has made it difficult for them to do their best work.
That will only come, they say, when Ohanian can afford to buy iron and rent a workshop to contain his sculptures and Godjabashian can return to marble and bronze instead of clay.
"Then my contribution to the American and European art world will be worth something," Godjabashian said.