Gregorio Scalamogna (photo by Olga Livshin)
The current double show at the Sidney and Gertrude Zack Gallery has its origins in the two artists’ friendship. “I met with Greg Scalamogna through a mutual friend,” said Miran Elbakyan, an artist-blacksmith and one of the two participants in the show. “I liked his technique – his lines are plastic-like metal.”
“We have similar philosophy in our works,” Scalamogna elaborated. “Miran’s lines flow like paint. We don’t restrict ourselves, [we] let our materials speak.”
The flowing lines and dynamic energy in both Scalamogna’s paintings and Elbakyan’s sculptures gave birth to the show’s title, Flow, but, aside from that, the two artists are very different, almost opposite in their approaches and subject matter.
While Elbakyan deals with fire and iron, creating tangible objects – sculptures, balconies, staircase rails, wrought-iron gates and other usable items – Scalamogna, a painter, concentrates on water in all its guises. Tame or wild, abstract or real, his waves and waterfalls inhabit the cool bluish-grey palette. His paintings reflect the artist’s fluid personality and his love for water. “I love boating and fishing,” he said with a smile.
Like his beloved water, Scalamogna traveled around the world, flowing in and out of adventures, before settling in British Columbia. He took his first trip when he was 19, a student of the Ontario College of Art and Design.
“I wanted to go to some place sunny,” he recalled. “I bought an air ticket to the Dominican Republic and exchanged my Canadian money at the airport before boarding the plane, but they made a mistake and gave me Mexican money instead of Dominican. Nobody in the Dominican Republic wanted to touch that money.”
As a result, he found himself alone in a foreign country without a cent. Young and proud as only a 19-year-old can be, he didn’t call home and ask his mother for help. “I wanted to do it myself,” he said. To earn some money, so he at least wouldn’t starve, he started painting tourists’ portraits on the beach. He also sold all his spare clothes for the price of a meal or two, and made friends with local people.
“They were poor but they helped me, took care of me,” said Scalamogna. “They were very generous. I couldn’t pay for a hotel, so one guy offered me to spend nights in his home.”
The trip was a success in the end. He made it, paying for his first independent vacation with his art, victoriously returning home a week later. He even brought back souvenirs for his family; he bartered for them with his portraits. “Since then, I wasn’t afraid. I knew I could make it anywhere. I could take on the world.”
Scalamogna spent his last year of college studying in Florence, Italy, and afterwards backpacked across Europe with his artistic portfolio, visiting museums and art galleries, finding work wherever he could. He had a few exhibitions abroad before returning home.
However, like water, which never stands still, he soon felt the urge to move again. This time, he took a bus across Canada. For several years, he lived and worked in Banff, but eventually settled here – the ocean enchanted him.
“I’m an expressionist,” he said. “Nature inspires me. I take photos when I’m on the water, fishing, but my photos are only starting points for my paintings. The photos bring back memories and feelings; they reference a certain time and emotion. There is no visual similarity.”
His paintings also reflect his daily existence. “They are commentaries on my life, my job, my relationships, people around me,” he said. A few years ago, when he was living in Tofino, his paintings were filled with vibrant colors and exploratory energy, with frantic tides and glittering sunsets. Some of them are part of the Zack Gallery show, instantly recognizable, but most of the pieces on display are from his latter Vancouver period. The paintings became calmer and quieter, as if seen through the veil of Vancouver’s rain. “I’m older now, more subtle,” he said.
Like his friend, Elbakyan traveled. He moved from Armenia to Israel and, from there, to Canada, prompted as much by political climate as by other considerations. Like Scalamogna, he, too, found a welcome home here, in British Columbia, and this exhibition is his third appearance at the Zack. “It is always nice to show my art here and get some feedback,” he said, although he admitted that he doesn’t like selling his sculptures.
“I’d rather sell home décor,” he said. “I’m always sorry to see my sculptures go. They are all unique. Even if I try to make a second copy, it has no inspiration in it. The first is always the best.”
The only artist-blacksmith on the B.C. mainland and one of the very few in Canada, Elbakyan is in high demand for those who are not satisfied with mass production, who want an original fence around their house or a one-of-a-kind balcony or some funky furnishing.
Recently, he branched out into the movie industry. His latest movie, Seventh Son, released in December 2014, is a medieval fantasy. “I made swords and shields for it,” he said, “and everything else of metal that their lab couldn’t produce. I also played a smith at a fair. It was fun.”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].