What are three words that describe you?
Funny, spiritual and creative.
What was your first artistic memory?
The first creative thing that I did was in Syria. It was in seventh grade at a military school. We had an art class where we could make anything and I remember making...oh wait I'm having this crazy memory right now. I basically made Micky Mouse's face, but collaged it from colored paper. The ears were black, [paper] woven and glued on top of each other. That is crazy because I have not thought of that in years. That's really interesting, yeah I think that was the first time. I remember being in kindergarten doing the 'kid' things. In Syria they'll give you a piece of felt, a drawing and darts...I can't believe that they used to give us darts... And we would go over the line [using the darts] and you could cut out the image. That's what we did as kids. But that's it – I am self-taught. I never went to art school or anything.
When did you realize you wanted to become an artist?
When I went to see a Salvador Dal's exhibit around age 16 or 17. You know, Dali is known for his paintings, but there was a whole selection of his collages and earlier work. I was like "Oh my God, you don't have to just paint to be an artist."
And Joseph Beuys and [Robert] Rauschenberg because I used to be really into resin and found object assemblage. Rauschenberg [has a piece] where he dipped shoes in resin.
That's about it. Now I don't delve into artworks. I know art isn't really ours, not that anything in life is. But when you're flipping through an artist's book, and it's their whole life, work, career...you'll see images that you're not really registering. It gets into you psyche, and then all of a sudden you might recreate that.
Now when I'm in a creative mode, the less I see the better. When I'm creating a lot, I want to be more internal. In silence, meditation...not too much excitement. No sensory overload. So those are my influences, even though my art doesn't look like them. That's the cool thing about art. When you put intention and thought into something, it becomes art already. When I take it through my ritual, adding definition and intention within it, it becomes art because I am seeing it from a different angle. I like that about art. It can be nothing but it can be something; the tension between nothing and everything.
When did you know you wanted to pursue life as an artist?
I am a crazy dreamer. I have intense dreams that are very vivid, informative – with information downloads. I see things that could happen, sense things since I was a kid. I remember it was senior year at UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) where I was studying mathematics, towards the end. I was writing my thesis on robot motion planning. I had this dream where I was making these ginormous paintings, very abstract. It was like I had bottled up emotions, [represented by] a bucket of color[ed] paint that I would [throw and splatter]. It just felt...so right, so amazing, that the next morning I went to the art store and bought a whole bunch of canvases, paint and brushes. I knew then that I needed to be an artist. That I couldn't go be an engineer.
It makes sense that you come from a scientific background, as your art makes me think of vintage natural history illustrations.
Ratios are big for me, creating from a scientific brain. It doesn't feel right when it's off – I couldn't explain it to you. Something doesn't feel right, then all of a sudden it shifts and the ratio is now right. It's a feeling, but it's supported by the brain.
What's your first step in the creative process?
Nowadays it has been research – images, books, inspiration. Sometimes I'll be researching, and when I'm open, new downloads happen. I'll find myself deep into another world, wondering why until four months go by and I'm like, "Oh my god I'm so happy I went down that [worm] hole."
Animals seem to be a prominent theme in your work. Can you tell us more?
I come from a family of intuitives, very strong intuitive people. Sometimes I sit for ceremony with plant medicine – six years ago was my first time. When I was in ceremony, I would look left and right and whoever was around me I would see their animal totem. Literally...this dude with his wings and a a woman with a snake around her face. That energy taught me that this is my gift and I need to take this to my art world. And I did, and I haven't really looked back since. Now it's become what I do. Our animal totems are our spirit guides. I show people that we can learn so much from them, even if you just read into the characteristics of that animal. You will find so many parallels between you and them. It's a different perspective, way of seeing yourself and the world. I don't want to say spiritual, but maybe instead a conscious tool that you can apply if you're trying to apply yourself and live a more understanding life.
Do you have an animal that you see as your spirit guide?
The elephant. Since I was a kid, and when I am [been] in ceremony, it's always been the elephant. For me, personally I feel my spirit has visiting this earth so many times. And it's a representation of that – ancient yet it represents a heaviness and playfulness at the same time. And I feel it hits a lot of parallels of who I am.
What's the message behind what you're creating?
I want people to understand that we all come from the same energy. And that's reason why all my creatures have their eyes covered. Eyes are the window of soul – and I don't want it to be about the ego. I feel [with the eyes] you can recognize people's cultures – it's very apparent. Understanding perhaps the culture, where they're coming from, but not necessarily who they are. We are all apart of this collective and it's not about me. Not trying to intellectualize spirituality, but showing people. It's all about showing, perspective. And if I can change someone's perspective from looking at my piece and they can walk away from it thinking different thoughts, I'm happy with that.
I know you also DJ, what do you listen to when you create?
I listen to a lot of music; Zambian Psyche Rock, 60s Thai Funk, Soul, Funk...I'm very into 60s and 70s, a lot of world music. I buy a lot of music a month. I'm a moody listener though. From the moment I wake up til I drop there's always a soundtrack that's being curated in my realm, especially when I'm creating. When I'm doing my murals, I want to listen to something really mellow - like Alice Coltrane's new album. It's helps me get into the zone.
What is success for you?
Success for me is to keep on doing what I'm doing; creating constantly and getting compensated for it some how. And I don't mean just money, but energetically. I already feel that everything just needs to keep rolling. The snowball has already left the peak of the mountain, it just needs to keep rolling.
Are there any causes you are particularly passionate about?
I did a limited edition print of one of my pieces, 'Innocent' with proceeds going to the UNHCR which [provides relief aid] to Syrian refuges. I'm not Arabic but I was born and raised in an Arabic country. Even though I left when I was eleven – I speak it, read it, write it – and my family still lives there. I feel that for things like that I need to give back and raise awareness. The more I get to do in this life the louder my voice gets – [the more I get to] give back, especially to the land that I come from. And it doesn't necessarily need to be my culture. Because culturally I'm Armenian, but I've never been to Armenia. It was the land that I was born in and if I can do my two cents and help. Although [this type of activism] is an avenue I would like to get more involved in, I am [cautious] of being categorized. I just want to be an artist. I don't want to be this type of artist, or this type of cultural artist. I want to be careful of not diving too deep into a certain angle. Even if I believe in it and want to help, I just don't want to be pigeonholed. Ultimately I want my art career to die with me.
What your favorite piece that you've ever made? One that you'll never let go of?
Wow that's a tough one. 'Behind the Cloud' is one that I have kept. It's one of my first pieces, and one of my favorites because you could my whole process – so raw, so unedited. You can see all the mistakes, my thought process, how accidentally experimentation happened and it all worked. A lot of people have wanted [to buy] it, but it's not going anywhere. It's apart of my archives. Even though so much work has come after it that I have perfected. There are some newer ones [that stand out], but that one was a left turn.
What projects do you have coming up?
I doing a new piece for an upcoming show where I'm collaging on Samsonite® luggage [with proceeds going to Los Angeles Ronald McDonald House]. It's been really fun because I challenged myself to get extremely detailed. I feel it is apart of this new wave of what I'm doing. In the past year, there needed to be nature involved [in my work along with the animal totems] to become this trifecta. This piece has a lot of greenery - cutting it was so gnarly. I was dreaming of exacto knife cutting for two days. But it came out really awesome and I can't wait to show it. The show is happening October 19-22 [at the WestEdge Design Fair at The Barker Hangar in Santa Monica].
I love doing commissions – who doesn't. I interview my clients to understand the reason why they want me – why they want the commission, what it represents for them and a little bit on their background. From a half hour conversation about their whole life, I get to chew up, process it and let it come into this piece of art. That's only based on that half hour conversation, energetically taking it all in.
What would you imagine your last words to be?
I am grateful.
Hagop Belian is a nomadic multi-media collage artist sometimes based in Venice, CA.For more info, visit: madeofhagop.com