The front desk at Roslin Art Gallery used to be where Seeroon Yeretzian would sketch fantastical drawings of peacocks, serpents and colorful flora that, with a mix of oils and gold foil, took on an illuminated, glow-in-the-dark quality.
But now, the Glendale artist sits at that same desk, mostly motionless, unable to draw. Her muscles have been frozen by a degenerative disease.
“It’s terrible. My hands are gone,” Yeretzian said, using her eyes to select each letter of her sentence on a computer screen that repeats her selections verbally, giving her a digital voice.
About two years ago, Yeretzian was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Before the disease made her muscles decline, though, she became obsessed with drawing ornate Armenian initials, illustrated letters that have their roots in medieval Armenia.
She became famous for an intricate poster of the Armenian alphabet that was printed in 1991. Her drawing can now be found in Armenian households throughout the world, on greeting cards and mouse pads. Several people have had her intricate letters tattooed on their bodies, her son, Arno Yeretzian, said.
Even after the alphabet poster launched her to stardom within the worldwide Armenian community, she continued painting her illunimated letters. She drew so many over the years that she decided to compile her life’s work into a 245-page book that was released to the public this month.
The book, “Seeroon Darer,” which translated into English means “Pretty Letters,” features hundreds of her drawings as well as historical background and symbolism of the ancient Armenian art form that she repurposed for the 20th and 21st centuries.
Yeretzian’s interest in the initials, which were first drawn by so-called “illuminators” as a way to spread the word of God, began when a man, who would later become a lifelong friend, walked into her latehusband’s Armenian bookstore 25 years ago looking for a complete Armenian alphabet done in the illuminated style. His search inspired Yeretzian to make one of her own.
At the time, she was mostly drawing paintings of screaming heads, homeless people and crucified women. Her paintings had dark themes related to the Armenian Genocide and her experiences growing up in a refugee camp in Lebanon and later immigrating to Los Angeles in the 1970s, a foreign land with few friends.
But drawing the brightly-colored Armenian letters, and becoming obsessed with incorporating peacocks into the initials, became an escape for the 63-year-old. The detailed nature of the work made her happy.
“They were so beautiful and they were composed with every creative creature alive,” said Yeretzian, who jokes that she’s drawn so many peacocks and other colorful creatures that she could win a Guinness World Record.
Her son remembers her being obsessed with drawing the letters. She’d wake up in the morning and head straight to the gallery to work and then at home, she’d continue, long into the night and early morning hours. She’d call her daytime art her sunshine painting and her nighttime art her moonshine painting.
“She’d work like crazy, that’s why it’s hard to see her like this,” Arno Yeretzian said.
Harry Mesrobian, her longtime friend who originally sparked her interest in the decorated letters, remembers a man three years ago walking into the art gallery and starting to cry. He was IranianArmenian and a recent immigrant to Glendale. When he asked the man why he was crying, the immigrant pointed to Yeretzian’s painting that would later become the famous poster.
The man had received the poster as a gift and, for two years, he labored over a gold-plated copy of Yeretzian’s work. He was so elated to meet the mastermind behind the ornate initials, he couldn’t stop crying.
Yeretzian has always intended to inspire others to love the ornate letters, whose colors and design each hold a special symbolism, as she does. The book is a way to do that, despite her disease.
“It’s her intention that this art form never dies,” Mesrobian said. “She was able to keep the art form alive for her generation. She’s a time traveler. She goes into the past and brings it into the future.”
In addition to drawing decorated Armenian letters, Yeretzian has also used illumination techniques to create artwork of Hebrew, Arabic, English and Cyrillic alphabets.
Although she can no longer physically draw, Yeretzian continues to express herself artistically by writing poetry with the machine that has replaced her voice.
“I’m telling you, she can’t stop,” Arno Yeretzian said.
“Seeroon Darer” can be purchased for $120 at Roslin Art Gallery, 111 W. California Ave., and Abril Armenian Bookstore, 415 E. Broadway.