Sculptures spill out over the lawn of Kegham Tazian’s neat suburban home as if the restless creative impulse inside can’t be contained. Tazian, a trim and cordial man with salt-and-pepper hair, meets me at the door, and ushers me into an interior where hundreds of sculptures and paintings are neatly displayed, evidence of nearly 60 years well spent as a prolific and productive artist in Detroit. Like architects Eliel Saarinan and Albert Kahn and sculptor Corrado Parducci, he is an immigrant creative who has found a home in the city, nurtured by its energy and sheltered by its community.
Tazian’s story begins in Turkey, where his family was part of a persecuted Armenian minority. His mother, displaced during the troubled times of World War I that culminated in the Armenian genocide, was taken to Beirut, Lebanon as a child to study in a Catholic convent. During a lull in the unrest, her family moved her back to Turkey, but after her marriage and the birth of her 5 children – of which Kegham was the youngest at 1 year old–the entire family relocated to Lebanon with the support of the French government. Tazian’s father died when he was 4, and his mother carried on raising the family alone. Their first years in Lebanon were difficult. “My mom is my hero,“ Tazian says. “She couldn’t read or write, but she spoke 4 languages… She never asked for any help.” Tazian recalls, “[when] I was 7 years old, along with my 3 brothers and my mom, we would walk some 8-10 miles one way to pick potatoes and onions.”
Tazian developed an early ambition to become an artist, even though he had very little exposure to the arts. “My background was completely zero in art. There were no classes in elementary school or high school. I went to two different high schools, and none of them had art, but in my mind I always planned to be an artist.”
“The only person [who encouraged me] was my 5th grade English teacher, Olivia Balian,” he says. “She really opened the doors of art for me. She said, ‘Those students who are interested in art can stay behind after school and I will show you how to paint and draw.’ Somehow [that] changed my life– she gave me that spark.”
When one of Tazian’s older brothers started a successful button-making business, giving the family some stability and making study abroad financially feasible, Tazian came to the U.S. to study at St. Francis College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Tazian humorously recalls his lack of preparation: “When I came there … to an art school, I had no idea what an art school [was]!” Somehow, in spite of this, he earned a bachelors degrees in art and a masters in art education, and then managed to get admitted to Wayne State University in Detroit, where he went on to receive an MFA in sculpture in 1966. For the next 47 years, he taught art at Oakland Community College’s Orchard Ridge Campus in Farmington Hills, while maintaining an active studio practice, showing his work regularly in galleries around the country and fulfilling numerous commissions for public art in the Detroit area.
Kegham Tazian is a kind of magpie artist, always on the sharp-eyed lookout for materials that spark his creative impulse. Ruined styrofoam from a job site, a cow bone, a battered oil pan, a discarded circuit board – all of these apparently un-prepossessing materials have found their way into his work. He collects and combines objects he finds in the environment and enters into a dialog with them to create a finished painting or sculpture. “I’m open minded …If I see something in nature, then that becomes part of my art work… More than anything else I’m curious about how I can express myself, in what medium.” He continues, “I never know from one day to the next what I’ll do. It all happens in that moment. One of the luxuries I’ve had is teaching – a steady income – so I never [had to] weigh doing something the public likes so I can make my car payments or house payments.”
Asked about his creative influences, Tazian takes a panoramic view. “When it comes to… the idea of uniqueness, I always say, I’m indebted to the first person, man or woman, who did something in a cave.” He is dismissive of the idea of the artist as a solitary, heroic figure. “To me, it’s all work,” he says. “We’re all walking that same road, just maybe in a slightly different way… the idea of originality – I don’t really believe in it…all you’re doing is making a variation on what others who have preceded you have done. So you put your own stamp on it.”
Since his retirement from teaching in 2014, Tazian has, if anything, increased his creative output. He is currently preparing for a solo show of his recent work at Detroit’s highly respected Galerie Camille, from October 3 – 10. Among the planned 40 artworks on display will be new limestone and bronze sculptures, multi-media paintings and computer-aided works on paper, evidence – if any were still needed – of the artist’s continuing curiosity and restless energy.
For more information about the exhibit Kegham Tazian: A Journey Through Art go here