Home is the place that cradles our souls and soothes our most primal needs. Yet, for most of us, the only place that is certain to be a home is a mother’s womb, for after we are born, we move through time and space sometimes by force, sometimes by will, and spend a lifetime searching for a way of return. My family relocated to the United States when I was just out of high school. It was a decision made by my father who as a young man had been brought to the Soviet Republic of Armenia in 1946. My father’s parents had survived the Genocide of the Armenians on western Armenian lands (Eastern Turkey) in 1915, and like thousands, had made a life for themselves in Aleppo, Syria after walking for days through the deserts of Der El Zor.
We met twenty years ago, my husband and I. I was one in the audience-participants in the traditional Armenian bread baking performance that Charlie and his fellow Armenian artists were re-enacting at the Eaton Canyon Park in Altadena, California. They performed the making of “lavash,” the traditional Armenian flat bread, from scratch. The artists, with the help of the audience, dug the pit in earth, lined it with brick and clay, prepared the dough. Then the dough cut and kneaded into small balls and rolled into flat ovals was stretched over the pillow that the women sewed from straw and canvas.
The performance intended to not only showcase the act of making bread as interactive sculpture making, but by doing so, to re- ignite the lost “hearth” and warm the hearts of the many displaced Armenians living in Los Angeles, those who longed for something of their own to ground them in the land to which many of them had been brought to as children or young adults. I found my anchor apparently: Charlie and I were married two years later.
I find myself retelling this story many times nowadays, as Charlie and Poorang, a fellow graduate art student at Cal State LA, have been repeating the performance on different occasions. Poorang, a transplant from Iran, is also well familiar with the idea of baking bread in an underground clay oven or tonir (“tanur” in Persian, “tandir” in Turkish, “tandoor” in Dari.) In modern days, the tonirs in many Armenian, Iranian, Indian villages have been replaced with gas burners and stoves, but in Armenia, every village still has a home or two, the “hearth” of the village, where groups of women gather once every few months to make the traditional “lavash” bread for their extended families, to rekindle their relations, and to reaffirm their place in the family.
The tonir that the artists have built for the performance at Cal State LA Fine Arts gallery on a January evening is centered in a metal cart filled with what seems a ton of earth and is placed on wheels. The dough that Charlie roles on the make-shift board is not made to perfection, but the many who have gathered for the event eagerly break a piece of the bread hot from the oven and curiously take a bite after wrapping feta cheese with sprigs of fresh basil, cilantro, tarragon, and other greens in the lavash.
Unrelated adults and children become engrossed in conversations pertaining or not pertaining to art, faces glow in the warmth of the fire, and spirits become anointed with the aroma of burning wood and earthly flavors. Once again, in the heart of LA, strangers have gathered around the “hearth” that transgresses culture, language, ethnicity, age and rekindles hearts and spirits with the grace of humanity.
Art at its perfection, whether creative or re-creative, humbly centers “displaced” human souls, reminds us of the eternal integration of the good and evil, dark and light, of our connection to the earth and the divine. It is the “hearth” of humanity.