A Portrait of Caring : Artist Draws Upon Experience in the Streets to Paint, Repay His Helpful Homeless Friends

Times Staff Writer

If success meant sacrificing his best friends, Yuri Gevorgian wanted no part of it.

Somehow, the artist said, it just didn't seem right to sell his paintings of the homeless people who taught him how to survive on the streets when he was penniless, helped him adjust to life in a new country, showed him how to find peace in the midst of chaos and gave him glimpses of joy when life seemed utterly dreadful.

Sure, he wanted to be a successful artist. He had given up a lot--his Armenian homeland, family, friends and a good job--to pursue this lifelong passion in America.

But, he said, his initial intentions were simply to paint for his own pleasure and earn recognition by exhibiting his work. He never seriously considered making art his livelihood, so when a gallery approached him about selling his paintings of his homeless friends, the money and potential for recognition were enticing, but Gevorgian's heart ached over the idea.

'Selling Feelings'

"My paintings symbolized a lot of struggles I had faced in this country, and since I had no one else, the paintings were like people for me--actually like best friends," he said. "I felt like I would be selling those feelings, if I sold the paintings."

After several sleepless nights and discussions with the gallery owner, Gevorgian convinced himself that money, not his paintbrush, would be more helpful to himself and the destitute street survivors.

He sold the eight paintings to the gallery for about $40,000.

Since then, Gevorgian, 32, who signs his work with the name Yuroz, has sold other paintings of street life to art collectors all over the world, for prices ranging from $1,200 to $60,000. Next month, he plans to auction two paintings, expected to sell for about $15,000 each, and donate the money to an agency that serves the homeless.

Although he has enjoyed a complete about-face from the nights when he slept on the streets and in Skid Row hotels, Gevorgian's life is far from glamorous.

His neat, one-room art studio near Beverly Hills is sparsely furnished with only a bed and dinette, despite his income of reportedly more than $50,000 over the last six months. Gevorgian drives a 1979 navy-blue Ford Fairmont that he bought for $1,200 last fall in a government auction, and he is most comfortable in blue jeans and sneakers.

But, these things are luxuries compared to the days when Gevorgian was homeless and penniless shortly after he arrived in this country three years ago.

Although he earned a good living as an architect in the Soviet Union, Gevorgian wanted to come to the United States because he felt stifled in his profession, and the government would not allow him to pursue painting unless he did so according to its rules.

"There was a committee that told (artists) what they were allowed to paint, and how they were allowed to paint. If an artist did not agree to the rules, then he could not participate in art shows," Gevorgian said. "I did not like the rules, so I wanted to leave."

The artist, who had no family in this country, married an Armenian woman whose family had immigrated to Los Angeles in 1980. Six years later, Gevorgian won permission to join his bride, but by then, he said, "we were like strangers." Gevorgian said he again felt stifled because his wife complained about the long hours he spent toiling over his art, so he left her and headed for Fresno.

"There is a large Armenian community (in Fresno), and I thought they would help me find work, and I would work on my art on the side," he said. "I was wrong. I called an Armenian church, and the guy just yelled at me and called me a failure for leaving my wife."

Guidance from Homeless

With only $150 in his pocket, one knapsack of clothing and no place to live, Gevorgian sought guidance from Fresno's street dwellers, who taught him how to find odd jobs to earn money and safe havens for nights when he could not afford a Skid Row hotel room.

Most times, Gevorgian escaped depression by drawing on napkins or paper bags with any pencils he could find, but one night, when his homesickness, confusion and sheer desperation were magnified by the influence of cheap whiskey, the artist attempted to kill himself.

"Imagine being away from your family and friends, in a new world that you did not understand, with no money and no hope of getting out," he said. "It was pretty terrible, so I thought I wanted to die."

Gevorgian awoke the next morning, a noose around his neck, under a heap of plaster from the ceiling, which was unable to support his 150-pound body.

"I was so ashamed that I could do something like that," he said. "But it made me even more determined to keep trying to make it, somehow."

Returned to L.A.

Gevorgian began sketching more pictures of his street friends, and a few months later he returned to Los Angeles because it offered more opportunities to break into the art world. He spent a few days living on Hollywood Boulevard, until he found a job making building models at Kamitzer & Cotton, a now-disbanded architecture firm.

"After I got the job, I would work until late in the evening, and after everyone would go home, I would just sleep on the couch in the office," Gevorgian said.

After several months, Gevorgian had saved enough money to rent a small apartment in a 2-story, dingy-white Hollywood building, where he started to "paint like crazy," and quickly finished a series of paintings, entitled "Hollywood Boulevard," which portrayed the street people he had met during the previous year.

Gevorgian reminisced about them while driving along Hollywood Boulevard one recent afternoon, pointing to the corners where they gathered and the doorways where they slept.

"During the day, you can't find them, because they hide. But at night, this street looks entirely different," he said. "The tourists are gone, and the homeless people come out."

People of the Streets

One of the people Gevorgian painted was the "Bag Lady of Means," who, despite her poverty, mustered the pride to enhance her beauty with blue eye shadow and bright, peach-colored lipstick and the compassion to care for her frail dog, Poppy.

There was the "Woman in Blue," a retired entertainer who never made it to the big time but still carried her dreams of stardom. The artist painted one side of her face in dark blues and greens to show the tough shell she developed after repeated rejections from nightclub owners, but the other side, painted white, shows the naivete and gentility of her core.

There was the bearded "Old Man in Hollywood," who wore tattered clothes and open-toed hospital slippers that exposed his swollen feet, burning red with cuts and infection.

Not Depressed

Although their poverty is obvious in Gevorgian's paintings, none of them appear depressed.

"Homeless people do not walk around sad all the time. They are just like everybody else, but they don't have homes," the artist said. "They have accepted the fact that they will probably never have homes, and they go on living--sometimes happy days, sometimes sad days."

Gevorgian said he made slides of the paintings and took them to gallery owners throughout Los Angeles, hoping they would display his work, but when he explained that he was from Armenia and that he had paintings of drifters, they would rush him out the door.

One who did show interest was May Babitz of the Los Angeles Art Assn., which has operated a gallery to display the work of new artists since 1924.

"As soon as I saw Yuri's work, I realized that with his originality and dedication, he was going to be a permanent influence on the industry," Babitz said. "He's not a fad, like so many others I've seen."

Gevorgian's work was displayed at the West Hollywood gallery, and an art aficionado, impressed with the paintings, introduced the artist to Steve Gruskin and Deborah Murry, who were opening a commercial gallery in the Beverly Center.

Black-Canvas Paintings

Murry said she was immediately impressed with Gevorgian's style and, after Gevorgian hesitantly agreed, she took several paintings into her gallery on consignment. Since June, 61 original works have been sold.

Most of Gevorgian's work is painted on black canvas, a technique he calls "Stygianism," derived from the mythological river Styx--a dark, dreary waterway which all dead souls had to cross before they were sent to hell or heaven.

"It's kind of appropriate, since sometimes I feel like I've passed through a dark time in my life," said Gevorgian, who added, "I am more comfortable painting on black background because when I close my eyes to visualize a painting, images appear from the blackness."

Gevorgian said he hopes his paintings will help give the homeless a voice in this society, where they are so often ignored or shunned.

In mid-November, he will be the featured artist for "Who are the Homeless?" a conference to raise money for the Clare Foundation, which operates a feeding program for the homeless in Santa Monica.

Two of Gevorgian's paintings will be auctioned, including "Merry Christmas America," his version of the celebrated virgin and holy child, which portrays a homeless mother carrying her baby in a tattered sling across her chest.

"I want to make (the homeless) see how beautiful they are," he said. "Maybe they will look at me and see that they can have their dreams if they just truly believe in themselves."

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