For a whole week now, just before the start of chess class, fellow instructors and the director himself have been asking Ara Tonoyan the same question: “Is Abraham back?”
“Not yet,” Tonoyan says as he goes on to teach his class the intricate movements of chess. Twelve-year-old Abraham Kocharyan is one of his top students. After winning a championship in France recently, Abraham is expected back in Artik soon. His return is eagerly awaited by everyone at the Varaz Samuelian Cultural Center. “Abraham is the pride of not just myself, but the whole city and our beautiful center here,” Tonoyan says. “At the chess tournament in France, he emerged as the winner from among a field of 150 contestants.” One reason Tonoyan loves teaching at the Varaz Samuelian Cultural Center is that he knows his students share his great enthusiasm for the game of chess, he adds.
The Cultural Center was founded eight years ago. The chess class is among those with the most students. Equally in demand are the several dance classes, for various age groups, taught by Rafayel Vardanyan. The teacher has high hopes for the senior dance class. He says one day they’ll be proud of the number of countries in which they’ve performed. In the meantime, Vardanyan continues to nurture a passion for artistic excellence among his students.
Next door to the dance classroom is the choir room, while the recitation classroom is located upstairs. As one of the students, Garegin, stands up and is asked about his favorite recitation subject, he says, in a serious tone, “God,” and proceeds to recite a tribute to Mesrop Mashtots for having invented the Armenian alphabet. At the end of the recitation, the teacher says to him, “Son, what you recited was about Mashtots, not God.” But Garegin remains unwavering in his conviction as he poses for the camera.
The art classes are held in a relatively smaller room. Today, the kids are drawing nighttime cityscapes, complete with high-rise buildings, applying white watercolor on black paper. One day, Artik will become just such a city — a dream that was probably shared by Armenian-American painter Varaz Samuelian. It was with his bequest that Armenia Fund built the Varaz Samuelian Cultural Center in Artik, which had sustained extensive damaged in the 1988 earthquake. In accordance with the globally renowned artist’s will, many of his paintings were relocated to his eponymous Cultural Center. Thus, devotees of his art from across the world can come to Artik to see his canvases, surrounded by which is being reared a generation of talented children.
Currently 170 children attend classes at the Varaz Samuelian Cultural Center. Their tuition is a symbolic 1,000 drams, or $2, per month.