creative sparks in Armenia

Combining a design career with an academic role often means my weeks are busy and varied, but I had a week at the beginning of this month that was very different to the rest! I’ve been lucky enough to be given an amazing experience as academic at Norwich University of the Arts – a trip to Armenia. The university was successful in securing a British Council bid to work with students at the Tumo Institute in Yerevan, Armenia to help students to create design work with the aim of making products to sell when they come to work at the university in a few weeks time. This is speed educating! A team of three of us, Will – a business mentor from the university, Mia – a graduate from the BA in Textile Design and me – the lead subject academic. Fortunately we all got on brilliantly, complimenting each others’ skills and all being very happy to adapt in order to make the most of the experience. I was only able to be there a few days, while the other two stayed longer.

The journey was long, transferring in Istanbul and we arrived in Yerevan in the middle of the night so it wasn’t until the morning that we could see what the city looked like. We had some time to rest, so we didn’t! … and instead got up and explored … of course! The architecture was a mix of Modernist Brutalism, Art Deco and Post-Modernism mainly and a pink stone was dominant. Many of the buildings featured wonderful carvings and at many points all three of us were heads and cameras up capturing the city. The food in Yerevan was a complete hit with us and I could have stayed far longer and become far wider. Everywhere we went there was wonderful fresh produce: cheeses and meats, pastries, vegetables and breads, all beautifully presented. Luckily we were all happy to share the dishes to ensure we could try as much as possible.

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There was much excitement as we went to meet the team of students we were going to be working with, and we took examples of our work to introduce ourselves as well as a general plan, and open ears, so we could discuss with them all their own creative ambitions. These first few days were really important to get the project up and running before I had to return to the UK. Tumo studios was set up on the first floor of what was previously home to a wealthy family and there were signs of the better days including murals on the ceilings and ornate tiles. The workshop spaces were really inspiring, catering for print, ceramics, jewellery, sewing and more. Products made by students were available for sale too.

Everyone was very friendly and helpful, as well as really excited to get stuck in. We shared our ideas and thoughts about the project and Mia and I talked briefly through some of our own work. The first afternoon went by quickly and then the three of us were off to explore the city again – I really wanted to see Mount Ararat – the mountain taller than Mont Blanc, (and apparent resting place of Noah’s ark) that has in history been on Armenian soil, but is now behind a Turkish border. We climbed steps and more steps to the highest part of the city giving us views over the varied levels of prosperity in the capital . With sunglasses on, when there was a break in the clouds we could just spot the snow and shady top of Ararat, but sadly the view was not easily captured on camera – Wikipedia has better pics!

The next day was a very long but hugely inspiring one. With our local guides and our researcher eyes in we set off to visit three fabulous places to gain inspiration. The city museum presented the history of Armenia. We learned about traditions, society, historic events and politics, and of course the section about the Armenian genocide was hugely upsetting. We were not allowed to take photographs there but we had other places to go so we crossed the city, including a short trip on the metro (it has one line) to get to the Folk Museum. This was a smaller museum but packed with so much beauty! Here we heard about and saw the traditional crafts and our guide explained the processes, tools and materials involved. I took many photographs! The lace and filigree were particular favourites of mine.

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We were full of inspiration but needed energy so lunch was in a restaurant with our hosts helping us to navigate a menu of local dishes – I had lamb soup with pomegranate and mint – it was very good! Soon we were whisked off to the carpet museum / factory and the journey was a great opportunity to see more of the city and suburbs. It was fascinating to hear the history of carpet / rug making in Armenia and I even had a go at learning the right knot but I was very slow in comparison – there is video footage somewhere – and in the picture below, top row, right hand side, you can see my four cream coloured tufts that they have no doubt got rid of once I turned my eyes!

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The colours used to dye the yarns are still made from natural ingredients and it was right up Mia’s street! There were some secret ingredients of course! We were all inspired by the sights, stories and the motifs, border patterns and processes involved. What an amazing day. We headed back to the studio to think about what we had seen, captured some ideas on some post-it notes and discussed the plans for the next day. Another evening of foraging fabulous food in the restaurants of Yerevan did us well – we all ate too much again.

My final full day was spent in Tumo studios leading some workshops to develop the projects. Will, Mia and I planned the next week of workshops and activities, sharing all our different knowledge and experience, alongside talking through the individual ideas with the participants. I ran a session about motif and composition development and it was fascinating to see how differently these young people took on the challenge compared to the undergraduates in England I have worked with. These students were far happier to play with the process and not worry about it not working, and gave the testing much more time. Can this be the different schooling? Several attempts at the same thing, sharing and much discussion, lots of giggling and trying again got us to where we needed to be, lunch!

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We decided to eat all together in the studio so we ordered in food, (I tried cheese soup – it really is like fondue) and as we sat together we tried to learn some of the language … we laughed a lot. We were also bought a local honey cake to try which was very good. In the afternoon I led a practical session about repeat patterns and design rhythms, and again we talked through individual ambitions for design ideas and product potential. The participants will be heading to Norwich next month to develop and resolve product outcomes to test in a commercial setting. We discussed differences between Norwich and Yerevan and about the next phase of the project. At times we had visitors popping in to see what was going on but we kept on track and too soon I was having to say my farewells and leave the group – with the silver lining of knowing I’d see them in Norwich in May.

One more meal, a final evening with Will and Mia, a supermarket sweep around a 24/7 shop to buy gifts, back to the hotel to pack up, a twenty minute nap and that was that, it was Thursday – I flew out of Yerevan in the very early hours, swapping ‘planes in Istanbul and on to home.

I was so sad to leave the people and city, and was so envious that Mia and Will had another week to see more. In only a few days I had experienced somewhere so interesting that before getting there had felt daunting. Everyone we met were so friendly, helpful and proud of the city and country. I had the chance to learn about a different country and textile culture while working on a really different project, testing my teaching in a very different situation. It really was a great opportunity, hooray for saying yes!

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Thanks to Will and Mia for some of the photography and being such great team mates!

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