Voted “best actress” at the Armenian National Cinema Awards and recipient of the Celeste Prize for contemporary art, Lucie Abdalian is a striking multi-dimensional artist. She is a person who is who she is because she loves what she does. Her current life as a worldly and free-spirited New Yorker, fascinated by humanity and culture, is more a result of happenstance than of a dogged desire to achieve fame. Despite the ugliness of war and forced migration she experienced in her youth, she has built a life around the beauty of art.
Abdalian’s story might seem atypical in any setting other than when discussing Armenians over the past 100 years. She was born in Beirut during a war, bombs falling around her family’s home. When there was an assassination attempt on her father, Zaven Abdalian, her parents chose to leave, emigrating to Montreal, Canada. She grew up there but something was missing, so she left her studies in Canada and moved to the west coast of the United States, where she settled in Southern California and completed her education.
Not long after graduating, she ended up in San Francisco. It was there that she first began to paint, not because she wanted to become famous or because she thought she was particularly talented, but because she needed a creative outlet – and painting did the trick.
Lucie Abdalian at her studio in Yerevan.
Left for dead
Lucie is a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors – people who, over generations, became more and more geographically distant from their homeland. But not culturally. “We were only allowed to speak Armenian at home,” she recounts. Father’s rules.
Even though she grew up in a fully Armenian household, the Genocide was rarely discussed.
She had heard about it when she was five years old. “I was traumatized and never wanted to hear about it again,” she says.
She didn’t know her maternal grandfather, Mihran, who died of pneumonia seven years after marrying her grandmother, Hrantuhi, in Damascus, Syria; they were from Kesaria (Kayseri, central Turkey) and Marash (now Kahramanmarash, southern Turkey). Before Mihran’s death, they had two children: Alice and Rose Mississian. Her paternal grandmother, Lucine Kizirian, married Hagop Abdalian, her paternal grandfather, in Lebanon. They had three children: Hampartsum, Vany and Zaven Garabed.
Lucie’s maternal grandfather’s side of the family. Lucie’s mother (second right) stands next to her parents (third right and center) with Lucie’s grandfather’s parents (on the left).
It was partly due to her not knowing about the Genocide that she couldn’t grasp her paternal grandmother’s anger – Lucie didn’t get along with her when she was young. When she grew older, she learned that her grandmother had been raped and left naked in the street, only surviving because she hid under a mass of dead bodies from which she became ill. She arrived by foot in Damascus, alone, where she slowly rebuilt her life. Despite their difficulties, Lucie says she came to understand and love her grandmother after grasping the horrors she traversed.
A promise to be kept
On her mother’s side, the story is as dramatic if not as gruesome. Her great-great grandfather, Messiah Mississian, was born in Marash. He owned a carpet factory and when Turks invaded the village, they demanded a large heirloom rug, which he had kept in the family. The family was Protestant and the rug told the stories of the Bible, as Armenian carpets often do. The penalty for not handing it over was the murder of all the Protestant Armenians in the village. He gave up the carpet.
Lucie’s maternal great-grandmother’s family pre-Genocide.
Lucie has since asked the owner of the world-renowned Tufenkian Carpets, James Tufenkian, to help her find that rug, if it still exists. It was a promise she made to her maternal grandmother before she died – a promise she intends to keep.
Both sides of her family ended up in Damascus during the Genocide and eventually settled in Lebanon, her paternal grandparents traveling through Aleppo first.
Art as a new start
It was Lucie’s friend who first recommended she submit her paintings to an art contest in San Francisco, which she did. Much to her surprise, she won. It was then that she thought there may be something to her hobby and she began taking her craft more seriously. She painted more and more, accumulating several works that she just stored at home. But what ended up on the canvas wasn’t what she was trying to tell the world, and she threw them all in the trash. Abdalian was going to start over.
Armenia was hardly on Lucie’s radar earlier in life. She was focused on getting an education, a budding artist career and raising her little girl. That was until her aunt, Ruth Kupeian, invited her to come to Armenia.
She fell in love.
A tattoo etched in Aramaic across her clavicle and dressed as fashionably as anyone could manage to a lunch meeting, she would stand out anywhere – but especially in Yerevan.
Yet she feels right at home in a place where her appearance is not a common sight.
She’s comfortable with herself and it shows.
She comes to Armenia to relax, reflect and reenergize. The vivacity of New York is exciting but it can be taxing as well; Yerevan is where her mind is at rest. It’s here that she connects with people, gaining friends and deepening friendships. It’s why she refuses invitations to big family dinners: she prefers the intimacy of small groups gathering for interaction to the grand engagements replete with custom, pomp and ceremony.
Armenia has its own challenges, but what she produces here is the embodiment of its creative atmosphere. Here, where she has limited or no access to the paints she prefers, Abdalian has found an ingenious solution: makeup. The nail polish and eyeliner she brings with her on trips to the homeland were the tools she used to create paintings of girls on papyrus.
In the present and beyond
Lucie may have started out as a painter, but her creativity seems boundless: one medium is not enough. She takes photos, designs costumes and acts. In fact, her greatest achievement in her view was to win the “best actress” award at Hayak, the Armenian National Cinema Awards for her role in the film “Caucho.” She was surprised, but grateful: “Something happened to me that I never even thought could happen,” she says.
To this Armenian woman, being Armenian is not about history, it’s about now. It’s about how she feels in Armenia, about how she feels with her Armenian friends. The history has shaped her – her life, her outlook, her interests – but she is a person living in the present, interested in the present.
That’s the life led by someone with faith in the future.
A person who has not let the unbearable bear her down. Someone who knows about evil in the world, but believes that good will prevail. It’s that person, Lucie Abdalian, who, looking at the survivors of an immense tragedy, would say: “I believe they were not victims, but heroes.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.