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PATMI: From womb to world, mothering a cultural NGO in rural Armenia

March 08, 2021

Stories

By Sarine Arslanian

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PATMI: From womb to world, mothering a cultural NGO in rural Armenia

Two years ago, following their heart’s calling, two souls merged and birthed PATMI into the world. Guided by the vision to turn Armenia’s villages into open-air art galleries, they started with Meghradzor, sharing a local story on a wall. They “breastfed” their cosmic baby with great love and care until it was strong enough to survive on its own. This is their journey, as told by one of the “mothers.”

One look at a colorful logo reminding us of Keith Haring in September 2018 was what it took for the divine “download” to start. Within half an hour of talking about street art with my friend Naira Harutyunyan, PATMI came into existence out of its own accord, choosing us as “parents.” We tuned into our soul’s guidance, knowing that we had no other option but to respond to our heart’s calling.

"We had our first official meeting in Naira’s pink-walled room, trying to act serious as we signed the "important” documents, yet finding ourselves giggling all throughout." Sarine Arslanian (Photo courtesy of PATMI).

Conception

So, what does PATMI Cultural NGO stand for? Patmi (պատմի) in Eastern Armenian, or badme (պատմէ) in the Western dialect, means “tell me a story.” Whereas mi pat (մի պատ), or meg bad (մէկ պատ), translates as “one wall.” That’s exactly what it is: a story; a wall. We collect local tales from village elders—stories which make the life and soul of rural Armenia but are slowly falling into oblivion—to preserve and promote them in creative, engaging, and accessible ways. That is, by turning them into vibrant murals for everyone to enjoy. To this end, artists from around the globe, including Armenia, come together with village youth for cultural exchange. An exchange that started off with Naira being a native resident of Meghradzor, a village in Kotayk, and me, a nomad with Armenian roots.

In addition to creating open-air art galleries inspired by the cultural heritage of Armenian villages, we teach different languages, run all kinds of creative workshops, organize summer camps, and offer mural walking tours guided by young and dynamic community members.

How fitting that even our mother tongue had the perfect name for it! 

collect local PATMI collects tales from village elders turning them into vibrant murals for everyone to enjoy.(photo courtesy of Tsovinar Hakobyan)PATMI collects local tales from village elders and turns them into vibrant murals for everyone to enjoy (Photo courtesy of Tsovinar Hakobyan).

Pregnancy

It is when the seed was planted in the collective womb that the actual work began. We had our first official meeting in Naira’s pink-walled room, trying to act serious as we signed the "important” documents, yet finding ourselves giggling all throughout. It was easy to start an NGO in Armenia. We were even provided with a straightforward constitutional template to fill in! As one cannot escape the paperwork, we wholeheartedly put our time and energy into it, together with our legal advisor, Yana Avanesyan. At this time, we also cheated a little by unofficially collecting stories and teaching English twice a week. “Pregnant” as we were, we could not hold back our excitement. All our classes and activities were then—and still are—free to attend. All in all, the gestation period was relatively smooth; a time of great learning with occasional ups and downs.

"Just as flowers attract bees, so did the mural attract people." (Photo courtesy of Sarine Arslanian).

Birthing

PATMI officially saw the light of day two months later, when Nazan Tatik (“Grandmother Nazan”) was depicted on the wall of a local shop in Meghradzor. This pilot project brought together Yerevan-based artist Sevak Nazaryan, the creative genius behind the mural, artist Noro Hakobyan, and a number of young apprentices—pupils in grade seven and above.

As with every other birth, there was a mixture of joy and pain. Joy, for obvious reasons. Pain, for we had to brave the icy weather on a cold November day. The temperature was just above what it takes for the paint not to freeze. But for our fingers, it was a different story! Moreover, we had to remain heart-centered under the watchful gaze of skeptics for whom street art was a foreign concept, and murals took on meaning only in the context of the church. However, our passion soon proved to be contagious. In the end, the artwork spoke for itself. Just as flowers attract bees, so did the mural attract people. Shortly after the mural’s completion, the first snow landed. It was a magnificent sight to behold, and a beautiful gift for my birthday!

"There was a palpable sense of excitement among the storytellers and listeners." Sarine Arslanian (Photo courtesy of Tzovinar Hakopyan).

Breastfeeding

Now that our baby was born, we breastfed for about a year, assisted by loving “nannies” from all ages and countries. Winter through spring was the perfect time to dive deeper into story gathering. It was incredible to witness three, sometimes four generations come together to listen to their elders who could not stop talking once they started. There was a palpable sense of excitement among the storytellers and listeners. Having grown up listening to stories of genocide and war in Cilicia, of romance and joy in Lebanon, hearing about Soviet times—with all the happiness and hardships people experienced under the communist regime—felt like a whole new world opening up to me. Learning about what ordinary people in rural Armenia valued and what caused them pain, what ignited a fire in them and what drove them to despair, made the pages of history books come alive. The stories often provided an invaluable human insight into human life.

This was also a great time to focus on implementing our educational projects, our creative workshops, and language classes. We held an International Volunteer Culture Carnival in partnership with the Yerevan Brusov State University. Forty volunteers from sixteen different countries were invited to lead nine creative workshops which ended with a stage performance. Thus, over a hundred teenagers from Meghradzor learned to perform traditional Scottish dances, French songs, Korean calligraphy, and Chinese tea ceremonies. Afterwards, we hosted our first summer camp and mural workshops.

As the temperature rose and the rains stopped, we began turning walls into canvases, working with artists like Blojiks, the Balian sisters, BTA Krew, and others. It was touching to see open-hearted talents train the village youth in mural painting, and local kids gain the confidence to unleash their creative potential. The more we worked together, the more they started to think outside the box, and took initiatives—something which the country’s conventional education system did not allow much room for. Soon enough, the stories behind the murals spread far and wide. The free artworks became intergenerational centers attended by both young and old, bringing together people whose paths would otherwise rarely cross. The easily accessible landmarks strengthened the community’s ties and increased the foot traffic. Mural titles made it into the people’s vocabulary. When you ask for directions in Meghradzor, you often hear: “Keep going straight after this mural, turn right after that one.” 

The making of the mural The making of the mural "Nazan Tatik" ("Grandmother Nazan") in Meghradzor (Photo courtesy of Sarine Arslanian).

Caring

Behind the scenes, it was a relentless effort to build strong foundations in a shaky world. And what a ride it was! Some of the challenges were practical, like trying to find the right paint, only to be told that it would not be available in a year, while everyone was ready to start painting, or hiring scaffolding, which arrived with missing boards.

Some challenges were completely different, like when men approached me because I had “passed my expiry date,” meaning I was too old to get married; when we were ridiculed by bank employees, as they thought our mission was naïve and absurd; when people asked me to “correct” the spelling of my name, only because I had written it in Western Armenian; when we dealt with artists and villagers with big egos; when even the greatest skeptics of painted walls had become demanding, without lending a helping hand. 

Nevertheless, we did our best with the resources we had, treating obstacles as lessons to be learned, and in the meantime, setting boundaries (for mothers always find resources to appease their crying baby). 

We were ready to shake the world if need be. The same power which had entrusted us with the project, also gave the strength to face the trials. We were not after money, fame or praise. The project was not about us. It was about creating something for all to share and enjoy. Whenever we felt too overwhelmed, we remembered the excitement on the face of the village children. It was enough to bring us back into balance. Sometimes we cried a little (or much) longer. But in the end, these challenges helped us do the inner work. So, we always grew up, with the awareness that they were blessings, too.

Mural with Bird and Gold (Photo courtesy of BTA Krew).Mural with Bird and Gold (Photo courtesy of  Sarine Arslanian).

Independence

Here, I will be brief, for I was not involved in this stage of the process. From the feedback I received from the “mother” on the ground, PATMI has turned into a beautiful, healthy child who attracts tourists to Meghradzor, and creates income from alternative sources.  There are now cafes, cottages and guesthouses in Meghradzor that serve homemade food and beverages. PATMI still runs workshops on contemporary and traditional art, organizes cultural festivals, gives life to stories, and offers mural walking tours. 

I would love to give a shout-out to all the amazing villagers, artists, volunteers, contributors, and friends who have joined the PATMI family. Last, but not least, I would encourage everyone to live out their truth; if you are feeling called to do something, regardless of how ridiculous or impossible it may appear to the world, do not ignore your heart’s longing, for we all have our gifts, and our role to play. So, be yourself and enjoy the ride!

 

Check out the rest of PATMI's murals in our photo section below...

For more information on Patmi's activities visit their Facebook and Instagram pages.

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