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Russ in StudioColorful character:
Creativity is all
that matters with
Russ Aharonian

By Jeanné McCartin

October 22, 2011 2:00 AM

Russ Aharonian is a man as colorful as his art. His paintings fall into the "biomorphic abstract expressionism category" — and perhaps in his own way — so does Aharonian himself, he says.

Aharonian, 72, is a bit of a character, to say the least. Generally upbeat, he is a circuitous conversationalist, and an unintentional chronicler of the Seacoast's mid to late 20th-century art resurgence.

The painter moved to Portsmouth from his native North Andover, Mass., in 1970, before the art scene took root. The Renaissance Gallery moved in quickly after he arrived, but closed shortly after. The New World Coffee House was largely the music scene. The Blue Strawbery and Theatre by the Sea had opened. "But beauty parlors and bars, that was pretty much it then," Aharonian says.

He'd relocated here for the two-bedroom apartment on Market St. overlooking the water — $170 a month.
In 1971, he was the second artist to take a studio in the Button Factory behind Andy Chulyk. "There was a bag factory on the first floor, bags for potatoes," Aharonian recalls. "I had 1,000 square feet, $40 a month, no heat."

Back then he either worked construction — painting weekends and all winter — or worked the docks.

Dancing Fools"There was a group of us that worked unloading the ships; 'Lumpers' that's what they called us. We were on call," he says. "The four of us would work unloading boats: lamb, rubber and lumber." His comrades where Rod Philbrick, later author of "Freak the Mighty" and other books, Chulyk and Aharonian — "And a crazy guy Jonathan Flynn, entertaining, crazy and a con man. They're making a movie about him," says Aharonian. The film is based on Flynn's son Nick's book "Another Bull—— Night in Suck City." Aharonian's art will appear in the upcoming film.

Over time Aharonian went on to create a "Well Being" program for the Maine Post and Beam employees along with Penny Morrell, and later attended school for massage and opened his own practice. All the while he painted. "Always painted," he adds.

Slowly the town was opening. More music houses, theaters and galleries opened. Artists followed.

In the '80s he moved to Kittery. It was also the decade he was arrested for lewd art.

There was a small gallery off the Whaling Wall parking lot back in '83, he starts. "The owner came to my studio, saw what I did, and invited me to ...; paint a mural on the wall. It was an open space ...; a 17-foot wall that was 7-feet high."

Aharonian had at it, creating a mixed media piece of painting and collage. "There were things that moved too, with batteries behind them." It included erotica from Japan and China.

The day of the opening, the gallery owner asked Aharonian to remove some of the erotica. "I was pretty young and arrogant at the time, I refused to do it, and kept working. I told her 'you knew what I did before you invited me. ...; What happened next? They X-rated me!"

The woman roped off the area he was working in. By day's end a woman who hadn't even seen the piece, but heard about it through her husband, called the police. "The police covered it with sheets and then went under the sheets and took only the erotica art off the wall as evidence against me."

The following Saturday he was arrested and interrogated for some time. Aharonian says they wanted him to say he "felt bad." "But I didn't feel that way so I didn't say it."

The judge presiding over his case didn't seem to think he needed to either and dismissed the case. The Boston Globe ran a picture with the Portsmouth police chief shaking Aharonian's hand along with an article captioned "Police Get Art Lesson."

To LifeShortly after that incident Aharonian created his famous "art car."

In retrospect it was a "rebuttal" to the arrest, he says. "Not consciously. I just started decorating it."

A '63 Chrysler 300, which would later be featured in the book "Wild Wheels," was covered bumper to bumper with paint, collage and insulation foam.

"There were string and toys and rubber bananas. But most people remember the erotica on it. It wasn't blatant, but it was worked in," he says. "But mostly there was a lot of philosophy and quotes on it."

Two women who owned a granola factory in Maine later bought it. Aharonian tried to buy it back later, but it had been allowed to deteriorate.

"Today I don't think I'd dare to drive," he says. "I don't need the attention like I did when I was younger."

Aharonian, who earned a B.A. at the Art Institute of Boston, says one of his biggest influences is Joan Miro, and all the abstract expressionist and surrealists. But there are other influences, many, he says; some for color, form, or vision, "but mostly for the love they put in it."

"I don't copy. I tried it in school; they would make us. I was never good at it," he says. "But I like looking, I never stop looking."

Aharonian has won numerous honors including the Grace Casey and FRIEL for Originality awards, and first place in the Joan L. Dunfey Memorial Competition.

He primarily works with acrylic paint, but occasionally collage or a mix. Whatever the medium, it's nearly always marked by humor.

While his style has changed somewhat with time, perhaps, there is no mistaking an Aharonian whether from his earliest to current stage.

"I do work smaller these days," he says. "And I do less eroticism; that's because I'm older. But it's not going to disappear I'll tell you that — I hope."

When asked how he would describe his work he responds "creativity," in matter-of-fact tone. "And that — creativity — is all that really matters."

Disclosure: Jeanné McCartin is the director/curator of the gallery at 100 Market.

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