Varaz and Willie
The Artist, the Writer, the Teacher and the Student
By Samuel B. Geil
It is late summer of 1974 and I am excited about starting my college education. I decided to attend Merced Junior College, a relatively small community college in the California Central Valley town of Merced, known as the “Gateway to Yosemite”. Having recently moved from San Jose, California, I had finally made the decision to start my college education in the town I grew up and was anxious about my return. My grandmother, who we affectionately called “Nani”, was kind enough to take me in as a boarder on a two year scholarship.
Most of my fondest childhood memories were rooted in this small agriculture community where the pace is slow and the summers are hot. It was a great feeling to be back after a five year absence.
In the spring of 1975 I decided to run for President of the Associated Student Body. After losing in a runoff election, I was asked to fill the vacant position of Coordinator of Social Activities, which I accepted with some hesitation.
Not fully comprehending the prescribed duties, I began with learning the responsibilities and working with a very diverse group of people. After a few student council meetings, it became clear that I possessed the real power and influence, and could actually make things happen.
With the semester underway and thoroughly memorizing my class schedule, things were moving along nicely without much fanfare or drama. Having settled into my new role I got down to the business of the associated student council social activities. Still living with Nani in her tidy 900 square foot home, I spent most of my time at school or coaching a local youth football team with my lifelong friend Sparky.
Along with all the demands of starting a new semester and being in a leadership role, I was informed by the college financial aid department, I would be working in the Art Department as the Ceramic Arts lab technician. Never one for handouts, I gladly worked for my financial aid money. My work hours were in the evening, which was perfect as it did not conflict with my class schedule, and not too taxing on the brain. I resigned myself to learning ceramics/pottery while crafting my skills as the social maestro of the college. I never imagined in a million years that the two would intersect. Boy was I wrong.
Upon arriving on my first day on the pottery job, I met my supervisor, Merle Nunes. A round faced, olive skin, slightly overweight art instructor in his late-thirties. Facially, Merle reminded me of Mr. Magoo, the half blind cartoon caricature. As soon as we met he quickly instructed me to pronounce his name, NOONS. Not NOONEES as I had pronounced it during our introduction. I was about to learn the difference between Spanish and Portuguese.
Merle had a great sense of humor and was the champion of one-liners, especially Portuguese jokes. He loved to play music during his classes, especially John Denver, while surveying the student’s progress in his classic white shop coat. He would get upset at me when I would sneak in a Pink Floyd cassette tape and quickly bark at me to eject it for his more culturally acceptable muzak. A part time almond farmer, Merle enjoyed his classes and was a very engaging person as long as things went well. Merle and I hit it off right away. I was the gullible student and he was the crafty and more refined art instructor. One of the many things that impressed me about Merle was his knowledge of art and music, and how he truly loved both…simultaneously.
Merle loved giving people nicknames and I was no different. He immediately noticed my receding hair line and began calling me “cebola” which means “onion” in Portuguese. He was delighted to have an indentured cebola working for him much like the plebs in the Navy. He was a taskmaster, with a soft heart. We would often end our day at 10:00pm after the last ceramics class. When Merle was in a good mood, we would meet at the local downtown bar and drink Mai Tai’s with one condition that I would listen to his Navy stories.
To gain acceptance in the local art community, I began to learn more about the various art mediums and began working with clay, wood and water color painting. In the process of learning about art, I met some very interesting and brilliant people, something I would have never experienced had I not been channeled towards the art department.
Things continued flawlessly, with school, work, student leadership and an occasional soccer game on the pitch. I really didn’t have much time to get into trouble and I was earning enough money to buy books, food and an occasional beer. Merle bought the more expensive Mai Tai’s.
During a student government council meeting, it was decided we, the associated student body, would purchase a piece of art work and dedicated it to the college at a formal dedication ceremony. We discussed who might be the appropriate person to handle such a strategic and delicate undertaking, and the loser was me. Buying art work was not what I had envisioned a key responsibility for the Coordinator of Social Activities. Parties, concerts, parties, rallies, parties, and meeting people were my visions of the job. Buying art work was nowhere on the radar screen.
Not one to back away from a challenge, I decided to accept my new assignment with gusto and began to search out art work. I took my challenge to the one person who I felt could give me the guidance necessary to find a blockbuster piece of art—Merle Nunes.
Upon walking into his office to the sound of –Cebola, what’s up?–I immediately asked Merle to help me out. He didn’t hesitate and it almost seemed like he was prepared in advance of our meeting. Merle exclaimed, “I have just the right artist”. Merle knew of a well-known Armenian artist by the name of Varaz living in Fresno, California about a 45 minute drive south on Hwy 99. The Art Council had featured his art work a year earlier at the Merced College Gallery.
Varaz was able to work with just about any art medium known to man and had left a very positive impression on Merle. Merle quipped that Varaz’s art would one day be worth a significant amount of money and we would be very wise to INVEST in his art.
It wasn’t but a few days and Merle had announced a “field trip” to Fresno to meet the amazing Varaz. I really thought I was going to the circus the way Merle went on about Varaz. So Merle and I packed up his old truck and drove the forty-five miles south to Fresno, only to stop at the Giant Orange drive-in to get a cold drink.
Having been to Fresno on only a few occasions, I was more or less lost. We drove to a central exit and ended up in the middle of town. Driving around for about an hour totally lost, we finally spotted our destination and a bare chested man about 5’4” yelling in an unfamiliar foreign language. “Shad lav, shad lav Merle-Jan!” shouted Varaz. He was so excited to see Merle you thought they were related. The 57 year-old native of Armenia could not contain his excitement.
Merle explained it was an Armenian thing, much like the Portuguese. If you are a friend, you are a family member. This was my first exposure to the Armenian culture and, of course, Varaz.
He was delighted to take us on a tour of his art studio, if that is what you want to call it. It reminded me of the Sanford and Son television sitcom. There was junk everywhere. Merle reminded me that this is how a “real” art studio should look.
I walked along with the two art brethren and kept my eyes open for a piece of art work for the college. “Look around, look around,” shouted Varaz. While Varaz and Merle walked off to have an Armenian coffee, or some type of foreign beverage, I wandered aimlessly in the art “pick-a-part”. The sculptures ranged from walnut and redwood to copper and bronze.
After about thirty minutes I had resigned myself that we had just wasted our afternoon until I stumbled upon Varaz’s wood sculpture artwork. Having never been exposed to a “real” art studio, I then realized what Merle was talking about. It was amazing the number of art pieces Varaz had sculptured that were just sitting around.
When I wandered into the forest, Merle and Varaz walked up and asked if I had seen the “owl.” No, I replied as I didn’t realize he had aviary as well. “No Cebola,” Merle barked the wooden owl sculpture.
With the pride of a million Armenians, Varaz proudly displayed his “owl” hidden in the corner of his studio. The second I saw it I knew this was the “one”. I didn’t even ask how much it was, which I left up to my Portuguese admiral to negotiate. “DEAL!” Merle shouted. Watching these two masters of high stakes negotiating was worth an MBA in International Finance. I am not sure who got the best of whom, but they both were smiling and you would have thought they landed the bargain of their lives.
The ride back to Merced was just as entertaining. Merle couldn’t wait to share with his colleagues back at the college, what a “deal” he got for an original Varaz. It was also during this 45 minute drive that Merle influenced me to attend San Jose State University, where I would receive my four year degree and meet my future wife Donna.
The funny thing was I never realized Varaz had a last name. We just referred to him as Varaz. Merle, who loved to impart his wisdom and superior intellect, explained to me Varaz was Armenian and his last name was Samuelian. “Samuelian”, I said. My first name is Samuel…I will never forget it. I also wanted to know about this Merle-Jan and what was that all about. Merle didn’t know, but I later found out it is a term of endearment in the Armenian culture. It is quite an honor to be call “jan” after your first name.
The next few weeks were business as usual…school, work and football games. Not much happening on the Social scene, until the Student Council decided to hold the dedication of Varaz’s art work on Tuesday, November 4th. This was a very big deal and I was responsible for coordinating the affair. “Why not?” explained Merle, “you are the Cebola in charge of the art of social activities.” He thought he was so clever. I loved the guy.
Not a day passed and it was decided to hold a dedication ceremony on the Merced College Theater steps and I, the coordinator of Social Activities, would be responsible for pulling it together.
November 3rd arrived and Merle called me into his office to insure the final touches were in place for the dedication. “Cebola,” Merle barked, “let’s give Varaz a call and make sure he is set for tomorrow.” Like a good Sherpa I began to plan the next day’s itinerary while Merle dialed up Varaz. “Varaz,” Merle screamed, “Are you ready for tomorrow?” Reading Merle’s reaction, it was a positive. “Great,” Merle exclaimed. But there was one more comment and Merle was quick to reply, “Yes, you can bring your friend Villi.” “Cebola will give your friend Villi a campus tour.” The phone slammed down and you thought Merle was hosting the infamous Pablo Picasso. Merle was simply out of his mind with excitement to be featuring the Varaz “owl” on our campus.
I was quietly disappointed I would miss the private session with Varaz in the morning, but I was getting paid to work and if that meant being the Coordinator of Social Activities and tour guide, so be it.
Tuesday, November 4th, finally arrived and I was ready to give the best campus tour a Cebola could give. Approximately 8:00am Varaz arrived with his friend Villi. Merle and I were standing outside his classroom, when Varaz and Villi came into view. Both men had receding, but thick hair of grey and black with semi handle-bar mustaches and side burns down to the earlobe. Varaz’ sideburns actually connected with his mustache giving him a very manly look. Their skin showed years of exposure to the Fresno summer heat, tan and weathered.
Varaz, “you remember Sam?” Sam, this is Varaz and Willie, Merle snapped.
“Willie?” I said.
“Yes, Willie! You know… William Saroyan,” Merle said, like I was a less than worthy plebe.
With as much consternation I could muster up, I said “Right Merle”.
No, this is William Saroyan, the writer. All I had to do is look at Varaz and I realized Merle was not pulling my leg. Of course, Villi is WILLIE.
I will never forget that shameful moment. Willie was very polite and very willing to share the spotlight with Varaz. He loved Varaz. He loved hanging out with him and talking about art, food, and world affairs.
Saroyan wrote in the dedication program:
“Varaz is our painter, the new painter—to us new, to himself, not new at all, quite old, as old as the hills of Nairi.
Varaz Samuelian, his name in full, born fifty-seven year ago in Erivan, the capitol of Armenia in Russia, brought up in the vineyard and orchard country surrounding the town, under Ararat, new Arox, the mountain and the river trademarks of the old family and its new members.
Varaz fought in the Armenian Army against the invading Germans, was wounded and taken prisoner, escaped, joined the French underground, join the American Army, and after the war painted and exhibited in Paris, Barcelona, and Rome, and then came to America.
He stopped for a while in New York, and then in San Francisco, but finally settled in Fresno. He converted his house and yard into a studio for the achievement of art and a place of business, painting signs.
What does his work mean? It means everything. In all real art there is the meaning that is in everything—there is the meaning of stuff itself, including the stuff of sun and light.
Is he a great man? Yes. It would be impossible not to be great and do the work he has done.
Finally, for myself, I can say that every time I see a painting by Varaz I feel good.”
Merle announced that I, the Cibola of tour guides, had prepared a full morning for Willie and off we should go. Unprepared, shocked, in disbelief and wondering how in the world I will keep William Saroyan stimulated and occupied for two hours.
The Library! Not walking too fast, Willie and I made a beeline to the library, where I was going to ask the school librarian to pull every William Saroyan book and ask if he would be so kind to autograph. He was wonderful and very willing to accommodate my request, to the complete shock and delight of our librarian. All I was thinking was that this was a snapshot in time, a golden opportunity and one that would likely never happen again…at least at Merced Junior College. The thought that our humble community college would have William Saroyan autographed books were beyond reality.
Walking at a leisurely pace, Willie began to talk about the future. He appeared genuinely interested in my future plans and if I was going to take up art. I explained I had applied to attend a four year school (San Jose State) and study business. We discussed his desire to know more about business and his experiences in show business including his challenges with book publishers. We shared more personal philosophies about life and he asked me if I knew about the Armenian genocide. Not even knowing what Armenia was, I felt very ignorant and embarrassed. He explained that most people are like me, and someday the truth would be revealed about the millions of Armenians who died during the conflict with Turkey. I could sense he wanted to educate me about the genocide, even as it was obviously painful. We immediately found common ground as my father was a professional pianist and composer and active in the entertainment industry. In a very humble manner, he shared with me that he had authored more than 40 books, wrote various plays, poems and essays, and included his relationship with cousin Ross Bagdasarian, aka David Saville, the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Both Willie and Ross co-wrote the song “Come on-a my house” recorded by Rosemary Clooney.
What fascinated me about his storytelling, was his disinterest to talk about himself, although I could feel he was confident in his achievements, he talked about his accomplishments in critical terms as if things were unfinished. He admitted he did not make friends quickly or easily. Varaz was his closest friend– good man who would tell you straight up without obligation.
Willie encouraged me to follow my passion and live life each day with full effort. He stressed tolerance and forgiveness.
Before we realized it was time to head back to the library for the dedication. As Willie shuffled and I walked, I began to realize how special this day was and value of time. I could have spent two more days learning about Varaz and Willie, the Armenian genocide, art, literature and life. My lesson for the day was to understand the gifts of an older person and the importance of sharing with the next generation. To say this was a tipping point or epiphany would be an understatement. This was a once in a lifetime experience. Too valuable to measure…priceless.
We hurriedly made our way back to the Theatre for the dedication ceremony afraid we would miss the opening remarks.
Willie spotted Varaz with delight as I met Merle to the chorus of “where in the hell have you been cibola?”
11:00am finally arrived and the ceremony began. It was a very special moment for everyone, especially for the artist, the writer, the teacher and the student. A day I will never forget. I truly had the time of my life.