Through the ancient art of book-binding, Great Barrington artist Suzi Banks Baum teaches Armenian women to express themselves
Great Barrington — Suzi Banks Baum has hands that are made of gold — not literally, of course. The phrase comes from the Armenian blessing “Your hands are made of gold,” traditionally uttered by the recipient of a handmade gift from one deemed a maker — a group to which Baum most certainly belongs. New Illuminations is an artists’ residency in which Baum teaches the book arts and personal narrative writing to a group of women artists in Gyumri — the second largest city in Armenia, a once giant expanse of prosperous and diverse land. “It is a city struggling with the aftereffects of the 1988 earthquake, the residual historic trauma of the genocide, and an enduring cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity for women,” she explained to me on a recent weekday afternoon in her kitchen. As we chatted, the counter — strewn with dozens upon dozens of pint-sized jars of homemade lemon-plum jam — served as a fitting reminder of her lifelong dedication to the creative process. On Saturday, Oct. 12, Baum will embark on her fourth trip to Armenia — an oddly shaped country that, hundreds of years ago, was called “The Land Between the Seas” in a nod to its position between the Caspian and Black seas — where she will spend three weeks. As to the purpose of this yearly pilgrimage? To share her passion for daily creative practice with women for whom creativity has been declared taboo.
Baum made her first trip to Armenia in March 2016 as one of a group of photojournalists led by her friend photographer John Stanmeyer (who, at that time, was working on a story about Armenia for National Geographic). As a result, she created a story based on her desire to talk with women artists and understand what their lives are like. The genesis of this residency came via an incredibly personal route: Baum’s sister adopted a child, who is now 8 years old, from the Congo. “When I learned her life story,” Baum explained, “I [came to understand] what women’s lives were like in the Congo.” This ultimately led Baum to an even broader conclusion: “The condition of women’s lives around the world prohibits them from personal expression; creativity isn’t a choice: it becomes, ‘I am not allowed to use my voice in that way.’”
Sadly, Armenia is but one of myriad places in the world where it is not socially acceptable or politically safe for women to express themselves. It was through a feeling of unease, coupled with understanding her niece’s life story, that she grew to understand creative expression can be deadly for women (and not just in far-flung countries, many of her friends reminded her in the process.) Despite her research, prior to that first trip, Baum did not fully understand one integral thing: “I hadn’t appreciated — when I said I wanted to interview women — how strong the patriarchal hold is there, [despite it being] one of the most literate countries in the world.” While the standards of education in Armenia are very high, women are generally expected to get that education and then marry, move into the homes of their in-laws and leave their professional lives — as well as everything else — behind. Her main goal, on that first trip, was simple: She wanted to go and sit in people’s kitchens and talk with them, which is pretty much what she did for two weeks.
She carried her journal with her everywhere, and she would show it to the women she met. Baum’s biggest obstacles came in the form of humans — husbands, employers, in-laws — whose very presence often precluded Baum from being able to speak with the women she had traveled to sit with. “I see your work, this is my work, this is what I do” is how a conversation, all through a translator, might go. “And they were fascinated,” simply to learn, Baum remembered, that she writes in a journal every day. It took Baum a while to wrap her head around the root problem: “People who have no privacy — why would they write?” And, perhaps more importantly, there was a rhetorical albeit unspoken additional question: What would we write about? These women, living with their in-laws, were tasked with keeping house, cooking, cleaning and tending children, and had little time for inner reflection. Baum met sculptors, dancers, painters, poets, writers, teachers, rug weavers and, for the most part, the women who were able to continue their artistic life into adulthood were those with very supportive families whose fathers, in particular, were not invested in their being married. “So it’s not impossible,” Banks surmised, “and feminism is not outside of the lexicon,” she added of the strong, outspoken Armenian women in Constantinople, who, before the genocide, were incredibly vocal.
That said, Baum’s takeaway from that initial visit to Armenia was salient: “There was a fierce sense of survival among people who seemed to be my contemporaries.” By the end of her stay — as the 12 photojournalists invited their subjects to celebrate the presentation of the final projects — Baum noticed she was introducing the women to one another. “That’s when the light was fully on, and I realized there’s no community here,” Baum recalled. “They are not connected to one another.” Baum returned home via a Metro North train where she was seated, in the last available seat on the train, next to a woman who was part of the staff of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, an organization with an annual gathering that was happening the following day in New York City. As a result of this serendipitous meeting, Baum met an Armenian woman who teaches at Columbia University and specializes in trauma, and she has helped Baum to understand not only the various kinds of trauma that happen, but also how trauma persists and is self-sustaining in a culture. In Armenia, there is the historic trauma of the genocide; there is the natural-disaster trauma from the earthquake; “but there is something called horizontal trauma, especially prevalent in women, where your survival is so high in your life priority that you just would not even help the next person. That sense of fierce dedication to your survival — of you and your family — prohibits you from really knowing much about the person whom you’re with.” This bleak outlook for women in Armenia includes domestic violence, “extraordinarily low-paying jobs, little opportunity to advance professionally, and high social expectations for them to look a certain way, and to behave a certain way.” The reality of life in Armenia, the 73rd poorest nation in the world, is that it is considered a nation of need but low consequence. “There are not people starving on the street,” Baum explained, “they are starving inside houses.” It is these multiple layers of trauma that, when combined, make the everyday Armenian feel invisible to the world and unmet by their own country’s ability to help them.
The third and final piece of the puzzle Baum has uncovered is this: As the first Christian nation, Armenia has the longest tradition of illuminated manuscripts, dating back generations. Monks and then artisans made amazing books, from Gospels and philosophy to village practices, up until the genocide. Under the Soviet regime, book production ceased; anything related to religion was stopped, and so the book arts no longer existed. Women have never been part of this tradition, despite the fact that the book remains a revered object in Armenia. Thousands of books were lost in the genocide — anything related to Armenian culture during the genocide was burned — so when Baum talks about the feelings of loss, it’s not just the loss of entire families. “It’s also an annihilation of [the Armenian] culture and a desecration of what they consider holy.” The thing about books is this: The Matenadaran, the museum of ancient manuscripts in Yerevan, is heavily invested in both conserving and restoring old Armenian books. Women work in the conservation lab, and many are educated about the books, but it has been confirmed that women have not been part of the book art production in Armenia — ever.
Next week, Baum will return to Armenia with a steep task: to weave community building, personal narrative writing/journal keeping, and book arts into a cohesive whole: three arenas in which she is oddly gifted — not to mention that group of women, whom she met on her very first trip, had a need. Baum’s work is independent of any organization, and her workshops hinge on teaching the participants to teach. “The artists who have been with me now, for three residencies now, they have begun to teach. Some of them have just absorbed the practice as another part of their expression, and they are all connected to one another,” she explained, “which didn’t happen before.” For this trip, in partnership with the Matenadaran, Baum is being supplied with a specialist to teach the traditional Armenian book-binding style, “which, to my knowledge, is not taught,” Baum explained. She then showed me her visual aid, which she unwrapped from a square of calico-printed cotton cloth to reveal a handmade book: “This is lacking its leather binding,” she said, “but this double row of end-band stitching is what is unique. Normally we see just one ridge of that,” Baum explained. It is complicated and “particularly Armenian” she added, placing that specimen next to the Coptic-stitch book (developed by the Egyptian Copts) in which she writes daily.
“This is what the women are beginning to sell,” she explained. They are constructed out of Armenian paper, often hand-painted. For the first three residencies, Baum hauled most of the supplies, housed in two gigantic pieces of luggage, to provide participants with nice materials. Now she is teaching them to source their own so as to avoid making the Armenian women dependent on her — or anyone else, for that matter. “This time, I’m bringing some tools, but mostly we will source everything there.” As to who will participate? Women who have graduated from school, still live at home, and have parents who approve of their participation; women who are married, who have participated before, and have families who understand this is a big deal. There are some women, who Baum would consider outliers, who are independent enough to make the trip from Yerevan, which is not easy. And then there is this: “I have women who travel a couple hours on the bus [each way] to come to the workshop everyday,” Baum divulged. She runs two five-day workshops, for both beginners and advanced artisans. Participants sit in circle every day, they do some yoga — with which very few of them are familiar — and they check in with one another. During her first workshop, Baum asked the women assembled about her: “Tell me what you do that makes someone say, ‘Your hands are made of gold.’” And the reply — from woman after woman, each of whom Baum had seen make beautiful things — was quiet yet consistent: “No one has ever said that to me.” The next day, using a tube of lotion from the pharmacy, Baum sat in circle with a group of Armenian women and one by one, she rubbed their hands with lotion and told them, “Your hands are made of gold.” She knew it was pushing a boundary, but the aim was to make cultural inroads. And their trust in her made the incredibly intimate exchange possible.
At the end of the day, this is what Baum is inching these women toward: to stand in their Armenian-ness, to look at their neighbor as a safe person, and to recognize that in this practice — as a fellow artisan in this community — they can ask one another for help and feel part of something together. It’s really come to be “a thing,” what Baum calls “thereness”: an idea cultivated by Gertrude Stein to describe anything that occupies a certain physical space. Baum’s book practice does just that: allowing the artists who really commit to it to express something about their lives that doesn’t look like a beautiful painting of Mount Ararat. “I can’t put my Western values on their life experience,” Baum said matter-of-factly. “I just have to provide them with the tools and see what happens.”