Kristin Saleri was an Armenian woman and artist ahead of her time.
Born in 1915, the artist – who made her home in Istanbul, Turkey – was a child prodigy with a lifelong career, producing more than 3,000 works.
“She transcended the challenges of being an Armenian woman living in Turkey to become an integral part of the modern art movement in Europe and Asia Minor,” says Carol Tikijian, a prominent Fresno artist who helped curate an original retrospective exhibition of Saleri’s works at Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library. The show, titled “Discovering Kristin Saleri,” runs Saturday, Feb. 6, through May 31 in the Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery and Pete P. Peters Balcony gallery.
Saleri died in 2006. Her legacy is getting a major push thanks to her family, who published a catalog of her work and created a handsome website. One of her two sons, Houston-based Dr. Nansen Saleri, promised his mother on her deathbed that her work would not be forgotten and would be viewed worldwide.
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We caught up with Tikijian, who curated the exhibition with Joyce Kierejczyk, for an email interview.
Q: Saleri spent most of her life in Istanbul. What was life like for an Armenian woman when she was younger?
A: She was encouraged as a young girl to develop and follow her talent as an artist. Notice the spelling of her last name; the “an” at the end of “Salerian” was removed in order to not call attention to the family’s Armenian heritage. This was common practice for Armenians who continued to live in Turkey after the Genocide.
Q: What is her connection to the Armenian Genocide?
A: She was the niece of Rupen Sevag, a famous Armenian poet and one of the first 100 Armenian intellectuals, writers, artists, etc., who were arrested on April 24, 1915, and subsequently killed during the Armenian Genocide. Kristin Saleri was born in 1915, the year now commemorated as the year of the Armenian Genocide.
Q: When you first saw her art, what drew you to it?
A: Joyce and I were overwhelmed by the volume of work she produced with rich-nuanced color and a sensitivity to her homeland and culture. Her paintings tell the story of a life of joy, toil, experimentation and devotion to art.
Q: How did this original exhibition wind up in Fresno?
A: The Saleri family published an impressive comprehensive book of Kristin Saleri’s work. The photographer who worked on the publication, Michele Thomas, is a friend of Fresnan Larry Balakian. Larry was quite impressed with the quality of the Saleri work. Through Balakian’s vision and efforts, the work made its way to the Madden Library at California State University, Fresno.
Q: Talk about Saleri’s painting “Ulkiye – The Village Woman.” To me there’s almost a landscape quality to it, as if the woman’s head could also be a rock formation. What are your thoughts?
A: I agree with you. At first glance, one sees what appears to be a landscape of a large mountainous structure that on further study reveals the image of a strong earthy peasant woman gazing into the distance. This large figure with head scarf and layered garments reminds me of one of my Armenian grandmothers.
Q: How many works are in the show? Why did you and Kierejczyk pick the ones you did?
A: There are 72 pieces in the exhibit. Joyce and I were drawn to her beautifully rendered self-portraits that range from her teenage years to her maturity. The tree of life series was another favorite of ours. The trees all have large rounded tops, filled with figures and animals. One of the interesting aspects of Saleri’s work is the subtle imagery. Its complexity makes the viewer hunt for the figures and familiar themes. We also wanted to allow viewers to experience the richness of the culture in which Saleri worked from the Whirling Dervishes to the fishermen and folk dancers. She loved family, nature, and life.
Q: What do you hope visitors to the exhibition take away from the show?
A: Saleri was a woman ahead of her time. She flourished as a feminist before the term existed, making art under unlikely circumstances. Yet, she thrived, producing a body of work that parallels the finest painters of her time.
Discovering Kristin Saleri
- Saturday, Feb. 6, through May 31
- Henry Madden Library, Fresno State
- www.library.fresnostate.edu, 559-278-2551
- Free admission