By: Matthew Maroot
A 30-foot-tall monument to Fresno’s most prolific author, rescued in October from the wrecking ball, now rests behind the Conley Art Building at California State University, Fresno where it patiently awaits restoration. This rusted configuration of twisted metal and decayed wood was once a shining tribute to the late author, playwright and Fresno native, William Saroyan. The statue titled, “Tribute to Saroyan,” was created by the late Fresno artist, Varaz Samuelian. Samuelian, who was a close friend of Saroyan’s, died in 1995 at age 78.
The statue, which features a stack of curiously arranged 4-foot-tall books by Saroyan beneath a large bronze sculpture of his head, previously sat on a dirt lot at R Street and Mariposa Avenue in downtown Fresno. The lot was once home to the Varaz Modern Art Museum. Community Medical Center, which now owns the lot, planned on demolishing the statue to make way for a parking area—plans that didn’t sit well with those interested in preserving the work of local artists, including University President John Welty. “The statue represents a significant part of the cultural history of this area. It is important for the university to be committed to preserving art and culture,” said Welty, whose phone call to a hospital administrator came to the rescue of a small group trying to save the statue.
That group included Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, Coordinator of the Fresno State Armenian Studies Program. “Dr. Welty played a crucial role at just the right moment. He accepted without reservation that the statue come to Fresno State for restoring. He literally told university officials to simply ‘Make it happen.’ And it did,” Kouymjian said. Professor Ed Gillum of the Fresno State Art and Design Department will oversee the statue’s restoration which will be done mainly by advanced art students. “With luck and determination, we might see results by the end of the spring semester,” Gillum said.
Funding for the restoration will come from the Office of Career Services in the form of Scholars Service Grants offered to students with at least a 3.5 grade point average and demonstrated financial need. Additional funding will be provided by the Armenian Studies Program in the form of scholarships. The statue’s internal frame will be replaced to make the towering tribute more structurally sound. Most of the books around the lower section of the statue were made of plywood and have severely deteriorated. Gillum said students will carefully measure and log the necessary information from each book on the statue before reproducing replicas from architectural foam and a durable, weatherproof, cement-like coating that will recreate the visual look of the originals. “We intend to borrow the visual elements of the actual titles of Saroyan’s books from original edition dust jackets to embellish the finished pieces,” Gillum said.
Gillum said community interest and the capacity to provide an involved professional experience for participating students made him decide to get involved with the restoration. “In the end I hope the pride of accomplishment is shared by the public and that the restored piece of sculpture is placed in a suitable location,” Gillum said. At this point, those involved with the rescue and restoration of the statue are uncertain about where it will end up. “I suspect that the restored statue is going to look really terrific. Professor Gillum has a very healthy and creative approach to its restoration, and all spruced up, many will want to have it,” Kouymjian said.
Kouymjian views the statue as a symbol of what was lost by the destruction of the Varaz Modern Art Museum after the artist’s death. “What might have been an interesting addition to the city’s cultural life was just dismissed as junky and trashy because his wonderful murals on the walls were faded and pealing away,” Kouymjian said. “Any art abandoned would suffer the same fate.”Rescuing the statue has been just a small part of the Armenian Studies Program’s involvement with preserving both the art and the memory of Varaz Samuelian. As a personal tribute, Samuelian willed his “house and all the art in it” to the Armenian Studies Program. “He knew that by leaving it to the University in the care of someone who knew his art and taught Armenian art, that it had a better chance of surviving,” Kouymjian said.
The bulk of Samuelian’s artistic estate now rests in the care of the Armenian Studies Program — including hundreds of sculptures, paintings and watercolors and thousands of lithographs, sketches and drawings that now sit in storage. Funding is needed to hire a professional curator to properly catalogue the collection. Ultimately, Kouymjian would like to see the construction of a building that would house the collection and serve as an Armenian Studies Center, archive and museum. “Who knows, someday we might get someone interested in endowing such a structure,” Kouymjian said.
Thanks to the efforts of a small group of community-minded individuals, the “Tribute to Saroyan” statue will survive for others to admire. “The statue has different meanings to many different people, it has artistic value to this area,” Welty said. As for local appeal, Gillum said the fact that the statue commemorates one of the most important creative minds that has called Fresno home, seems to have provided the impetus to save what others have referred to as a pile of junk. “Is there anything like it in Fresno? No. Thirty feet of fun devoted to the memory of someone who loved fun, loved pranks, loved tongue-in-cheek humor. I have said several times that although it may not be classified as great art (how much art today is?), it’s wonderful kitsch. And what’s wrong with kitsch and fun art?” Kouymjian asked.