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Memory Guides Blind Sculptor's Hand

Using images from her childhood, an artist creates a piece for national competition.

March 16, 2003|Michael Krikorian | Times Staff Writer

Nare Setyan vividly remembers the way she looked when she was 4. The Glendale High School senior can close her eyes -- eyes that now can't see -- and imagine a photograph of a little girl with pigtails.

She used that memory to shape an 18-inch bust of herself that recently won a regional art award and is now among six Southern California sculptures entered in one of the country's most prestigious national art competitions for middle and high school students.

Judging is underway for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in New York City, with results to be announced in early April. No matter the outcome, Nare, now 17, whose eyes began to fail when she was 7, is well-known to fellow students and teachers at Glendale High.

"Nare has been extremely inspirational to us," said art teacher Jo Butcher. "She gives me hope to come and start a new day and not give up on myself."

Sitting with her friend, Eda Arutyunyan outside Butcher's art classroom, Nare laughed at the idea that she is an inspiration and returned the praise.

"I thought if you have a big disability, you can't do well in art, but Mrs. Butcher told me I could," said Nare, who has long brown hair and pale blue eyes. "She was my inspiration."

Butcher remembers Nare's first days in her class.

"This girl was one tough cookie who was not about to let her impaired vision stand in the way of anything anybody else was doing in class," said Butcher, who has been teaching art for 20 years. "I told her to let her fingers be her eyes and she could tackle any assignment."

Butcher advised Nare not to say she "can't" do something. "She looked toward me and said, 'You will never hear me say I can't,' " Butcher recalled.

Nare's parents, Souren and Aida Setyan, moved from Armenia to Glendale when she was 4 and her brother, Vahe, was 7. Her father works as a pharmacist's technician; her mother is a medical assistant.

When Nare was 7, she was diagnosed with Sticklers syndrome, a condition that causes retinal detachment. By 12, she was completely blind.

Sitting in the sun recently and reflecting on those times, Nare said that when she lost her vision she wasn't thrown into despair.

"I guess I was too young to really understand it," she said. "It wasn't like I was sad all the time."

Nare's mother, however, was devastated. "As for me, it is very heartbreaking," said Aida Setyan, her voice cracking. She's silent for several seconds. "I don't want any parent to go through the things I went through."

She is amazed and proud of how her daughter has dealt with her blindness. "She is so very brave and handles it very good," said the mother, who dreams her daughter will one day be a famous artist. "When you are around her, you never feel that she has a problem. She acts normal."

Nare jokes and laughs easily about herself, about life and her artwork. She and a friend burst into laughter when she describes her latest work as that of a "fat Armenian lady."

That Nare went blind, not abruptly but over a five-year period, helped her adjust to her condition and increased her artistic abilities, her mother believes.

"She was able to gradually get used to it," said the mother. "I ask her, 'Do you remember this picture? Do you remember your fifth birthday party? Do you remember this dress?' I say things like that, and she can imagine back when she could see those things. Nare has a very good imagination."

Jeanie Frias, an instructor at the Otis College of Art & Design, described Nare's work as having a "very subtle texture, and it has a way of expressing her loss of vision."

If Nare's abstract clay sculpture -- painted green and burgundy -- is one of 10 selected from 600 entries in the national sculpture competition, it will be exhibited, along with works by student winners in 13 other artistic categories, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from June 13 to July 21.

"The Corcoran is an extraordinarily prestigious gallery, and for a school student to have their work displayed there is an enormous honor," said Chuck Wentzel, associate director of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

The annual national awards, which began in 1923, honor the creative achievements of students in grades seven through 12, Wentzel said. It is the longest-running and largest student art recognition program in America, he said. Students from throughout the U.S., its territories and Canada, as well as from American-run schools abroad, are eligible.

Nare's teacher and classmates said she doesn't need to win an award for them to know how special she is.

"It would be cool if she wins, but Nare is already a huge inspiration to us," said her friend Eda, 18. "She's awesome. If she can do a sculpture, it makes me know I can get around obstacles in life. Just like Nare."

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