When FIREFISH Gallery co-curators Araxe Hajian and Sigrid Eilertson brainstormed concepts for their next collaborative project, they decided to flip the script. Rather than host a visual art show that invited verbal interpretation, they decided to ask visual artists to interpret Hajian’s short story “This is How You Open a Pomegranate.”
“I didn’t see this as an illustration of a story,” Hajian said. “I wanted to see how someone else would tell this story. We did it backward, not writing responses to art, but art as response to writing.”
Inspired in part by their new memberships with the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, Hajian and Eilertson chose 10 diverse local artists, including Eileen Butler, Chicho Lorenzo, Ken Nagakui, Julia Travers, Kate Hunter, Rose Brown, Suzanne Nelson, Frank Riccio, and Claudia Walpole to create new works that interpret the story.
“It’s a kaleidoscopic story, not plot driven, much more of an inner monologue,” said Hajian, who is Armenian-American. “A few artists I knew said ‘It’s so visual, I want to draw it.’”
At face value, “This is How You Open a Pomegranate” is the recollection of an American woman traveling with relief efforts to an Armenian village leveled by an earthquake. (Though the story is fiction, it takes place in Spitak, a real city devastated by a 1988 earthquake.) When the narrator finds a baby alive in the rubble, she forms an unexpected bond with the child and must decide whether to stay or leave.
In pottery, textiles, paintings, collage, multimedia, mosaics, and letterpress prints and art books, artists’ responses ranged from food imagery to scenes of objects built or broken. “They reminded me how we focus on what themes resonate emotionally, these ideas of being uprooted, of attachment and detachment, of loss and the concept of home,” said Hajian.
All the works are for sale to benefit the Armenia Tree Project, which plants trees in impoverished and deforested zones like Spitak. Though the gallery often hosts collaborative shows to benefit non-profits, “this is the first time we’ve interpreted an object of literature,” Eilertson said.
As a result of artistic interpretation, the facts of the story shifted, and the exhibit reads like a game of visual telephone. For example, one artist believed the infant was a boy, despite Hajian’s description of a baby girl.
Hajian herself interpreted the story three times, once through writing, once through textiles, and again in the compilation of a hand-bound, limited edition book cataloging the project. She saw firsthand how fiction suggests a story without committing to it, how language, like art, is a lens to the truth, not the truth itself.
“Even in real life, we don’t know how much we’re embellishing in our heads,” she said. “When I try to fact check my memory, I’m shocked by how much it morphs. Art morphs too.”
Eilertson, who also contributed to the show, said she painted an Armenian goddess that wound up looking Brazilian.
“But it’s O.K. It’s all art therapy. It turns into something you don’t intend it to be,” she said.
Art writers use words to interpret meaning, to tease out themes like multicolored threads. If you’re reading this, you’re interpreting, too, contributing to the weave. And when you look back, meta-magic will happen. You’ll remember a story about this story, a fiction about artists narrating fiction about what may or may not be a pomegranate.
When the truth dissolves in extrapolation like this, we all become art-makers. As Eilertson said, “I think that’s just what happens in art. Things become bigger than themselves.”