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The Pencil is Mightier than the Sword

Massis Araradian’s lifetime of creativity and dedication to the Armenian people

by Shahan Sanossian. The Armenian Reporter, February 23, 2008.

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2012 at 06:00 AM UT

LOS ANGELES, California USA — Massis Araradian, a warm, gray-haired man of nearly 80, has been drawing since 1940. Generations of Armenians have enjoyed his Armenian-language political cartoons. His work has also appeared in Arabic- and English-language newspapers and magazines. But Araradian is more than a cartoonist. He has designed more than 35 Armenian and Arabic typefaces. He is a deft silhouette maker and a sculptor. He recently began writing a column in Asbarez, and he will be giving a lecture March 15 in New Jersey. The guiding principle for his work has always been his Armenianness.

“Soldiers fight Turks with their guns, I fight with my pencil.”

Massis Araradian

"Soldiers fight Turks with their guns," he says. "I fight with my pencil."

You want to be a what?

At the age of ten, Massis Araradian had discovered the magazines with political cartoons that were tucked away in his parents' drawers. He began drawing feverishly. He even recruited his friends to pose for the cutout silhouettes that he taught himself to make. He certainly didn't have the desire to become a mechanic. But his father was sure it would be a solid profession for the young boy. At age 14, Araradian was sent to work at an Aleppo shop.

"Father put me there because the boss of that molding place was an artist also," Araradian says, "but he had turned into a businessman. [The owner] started giving me every week a raise. And my father went to the boss and said, ‘My son is doing good?'" The shop owner showed him what his son had been doing: drawings.

"In school, I paid attention to drawing more than to the lessons," Araradian says. Many of his teachers didn't appreciate what he was doing. But one teacher, Garabed Ulubeyan, did. "He supported me, ‘Bravo, my boy. Bravo. Continue.'"

"I liked cartoons because I could read cartoons. I read in the cartoons more character in the person than any photograph. I started to draw cartoons, to exaggerate, to see whatever I like to see, whatever I like to show."

To practice his art, Araradian had to battle more than unimpressed teachers and well-meaning parents. During World War II, materials were scarce and expensive. "There was no black paper," Araradian says about the material needed to make silhouettes, "I went to the photographer, who had negative papers. So I start to beg, can you give them to me."

"I never draw big. I draw small. When I was 10 years old, 12 years old, there is no paper in Aleppo." Instead of sketchbooks, Araradian was forced to use the backs of daily calendars. "All my relatives, they never tear them out; they bend it. And they give it to me the next year as a gift. So, this is why until today, I cannot draw large."

A career spanning continents

"I started drawing in Aleppo in Arabic newspapers," Araradian says. He then placed drawings in Armenian newspapers. He moved to Beirut, worked for Aztag daily, and married Maro Der Ghougasian, with whom he had two sons.

From 1955 to 1975, Araradian worked with the now-defunct United States Information Agency, which was dedicated to fostering understanding of the United States in foreign countries. He began as a cartoonist, drawing for the agency's publications. After 20 years, he had worked his way up to a position as the art director. "For my success, for my ability, that center helped a lot. I had the opportunity to find out many things, to think, to know the good from the bad." The agency sent Araradian on his first visit to the United States in 1964, a trip that included stays in several states including New York, California, and Wisconsin. The USIA center was closed soon after Araradian's bosses were kidnapped by Palestinians.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1976, Araradian was hired by the Herald Tribune as an artist. "The same thing happened here. When I came here, I started on the very bottom. But it took me about four or five years, after which I came to be the art director for the California Living section." During this time, he also drew for Asbarez, a daily published in Glendale by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

Although Araradian shares an outlook similar to the editors of Asbarez, it is not surprising that during his decades of work, not all of his submissions have been accepted. One political cartoon that Asbarez refused to publish depicted a meaty spear of kebab being grilled over a flame fueled by Armenian-language books and coals inscribed with the letters of the Armenian alphabet.

"I know that this is right," Araradian says. "They know that this is right. But we cannot publish this." The newspaper didn't want to offend its readers, and Araradian was understanding of their position. "You make a mistake, they blame [the editor]. You make something good, they give credit to him. I am free in my book, but I am not free in the newspaper."

Typeface jealousy

While working for publications in the Middle East and the United States, Araradian designed numerous Armenian and Arabic typefaces. "When I was a kid, I was really jealous of the Latin letters. They had hundreds and hundreds of typefaces. In Armenian, we had only three typefaces: Barz, Aramian, and Kevorkian." All the Armenian publications throughout the world used only these three typefaces, according to Araradian.

He asked himself, "Why don't we have another typeface? So I start to create. While I'm creating, I start to create Arabic ones also. In Beirut, I drew the typefaces by hand. I reduced them, put all the kerning together. Three typefaces, I did in Beirut, all at the drawing table." Now, Araradian uses his computer to design and develop his fonts, which are available for purchase. The typeface he is most proud of, HFM Araxia, is popular for wedding invitations. The serifs of its letters flow across each other and overlap, a feature Araradian says is unique to his font. "There is not any type in the world like that."

The making of a cartoon

A recent cartoon published in Asbarez features Senator Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A proud Obama holds a protest sign above his head that reads: The USA needs a president who recognizes the Armenian Genocide. The prime minister stands beside him looking disgruntled, saying "What a disaster."

Araradian begins the process of drawing a cartoon during his daily walks in the Glendale Galleria. He is such a regular at the mall that everybody knows him. "Security guards, trash men, they think I am one of the bosses of the building." Araradian reads up on current events and considers them from an Armenian perspective. He is more than willing to change his mind about a political figure.

"Oh, my God, this President Bush," Araradian says. "I liked him in the very beginning, but later on he denied the Armenian Genocide Resolution." The later cartoons Araradian drew expressed this disapproval.

About Obama, Araradian says, "I don't care if he's Black, or woman, anything. [Obama] said a very good thing for me. Maybe we can elect him president. Two years later, if he denies [the Genocide], I will draw him again."

While walking in the mall, Araradian ponders how best to represent his ideas visually. Later, he begins sketching in a small notebook at his drafting table. In his home office, the walls are paneled in wood and hung with his work. Behind him, his computer's screen saver displays pictures of his grandsons. Araradian works out variations of his idea. For the Obama drawing, he had begun with the two men on a stage.

"What is the stage? It's nothing special, so I started the second one. Okay, where I shall put him... like a demonstration? Not bad."

Araradian starts to draw again, showing Obama and Erdogan at a rally. Once content with the composition, he draws a larger version, still using pencil and adding in the details. The figures begin to look like the men they represent. Once he is done sketching in pencil, Araradian will go over his drawing with ink before turning to his computer to scan the image. On the computer, he will add shading to Obama's skin and type in text using an Armenian font of his own design.

Nearly 80 and still going strong

In 1965, Mechag published Araradian's book Symphony of Life containing cartoons about the life and struggles of a Genocide survivor. In 1997, Araradian published Smile is Light: Cartoons by Massis, 1947-1997, a book containing hundreds of pages of his work. It was reprinted twice but is now out of print. In fact, Araradian only has one copy left for himself. In 2002, he released the CD-ROM version of the book, which is still available for purchase. In 1998, he published Armenian National Figures, a tiny book, measuring just 1.25 inches by 2 inches, containing drawings of Armenian heroes from the 1920s.

He still draws for Asbarez and has recently begun to write a column every other week in which he takes on the voices of people who have died. His writing is humorous while touching on the fact that, he believes, most people do not complete their worldly work before they die.

On the anniversary of Hrant Dink's death, Araradian wrote in the Turkish-Armenian journalist's voice about his untimely death. "But when I go up," Araradian reads in Dink's voice, "all my old friends, poets, martyrs from 1915, all are coming to ask, why did you come?"

Two years ago, Hamazkayin sponsored a trip to Armenia and the Middle East to promote cultural and educational connectivity among Armenians. Araradian was invited to speak in Yerevan, Beirut, Aleppo, and Nicosia.

"In Yerevan, I visited the university for journalism." Out of a 60-person class, only one student was a man. "I told them as a joke, so really, years from now Armenia is going to have a ‘mother press'. I like it because mothers have more pity."

In 2006, Hamazkayin and Asbarez presented Araradian with an award for his lifetime's contribution to the Armenian press. On March 15, Araradian will be giving a Hamazkayin-sponsored lecture and slide show about Armenian cartoons at the Sts. Vartanantz Church in Ridgefield, New Jersey. After he speaks, Araradian plans to choose a few audience members to come up to the stage where he will draw caricatures of them.

Araradian is concerned that cartoonists are a dying breed. "Twenty years ago, there were 200 cartoonists in the United States," Araradian says. "Today, there are 60 cartoonists in the United States. This means that the Los Angeles Times has no private cartoonists right now. They collect from others."

"I am a very optimistic person," Araradian says. He doesn't spend time brooding over his own problems. And, although he cares deeply for people, he doesn't believe in pity. "I don't have pity for them, but I do whatever I can. I enjoy my work. I talk through my work. I walk one hour per day. If I have work, I stay up until midnight, one o'clock. It's all right. No problem."

Massis Araradian | | ma [ a t ]

Massis Araradian: Lifetime of Artistic Creativity and Activism

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