Gérard Paraghamian has established a well-earned reputation as a talented and innovative illustrator in commercial art today. In addition to creating commemorative representational and promotional illustrations for leading international corporations, Paraghamian was the official artist of the Toronto SkyDome and Vancouver’s Expo ’86. His ‘Neighbourhood’ painting donated to UNICEF was Canada’s top selling card. His extensive philanthropy work for worthy causes has resulting in his being nominated for “The Order of Canada”. We had the pleasure of chatting with him about travel, his inspirations and what UNICEF means to him.
How did you become an artist?
My background in art started really when I went to OCAD in Ontario. I didn’t know such a school existed. Not knowing what to do with myself, actually, even though I painted and doodled when I was young, I didn’t really want to be an artist or to make a living out of it. I said I’m going to be starving. I mean, people have heard of the words 'starving artist'. So when I found out about the Ontario College of Art and Design, I said, 'Oh my God, this is great. I’ll enroll there. I’ll keep warm in the winter for four years at least."
Not wanting to be a starving artist, I studied advertising design. I was lucky I ended up getting a job with the second biggest agency in Canada and I became an art director. So that’s what I did, I worked in an agency. And then I got disillusioned after 15 years. I was doing advertising for things I didn’t think people needed. So I quit the ad business and went on my own for 18 years. I was still doing ads but choosing what I wanted to do. And then the way I finally ended up in this art publishing business or fine art, I was lucky I guess. I was just on Lake Ontario with a friend who had a sail boat and we went up and down the lake and I looked at Toronto, and this was back in 83. And I looked at the city and said maybe I should do a painting of this of the waterfront. And I did and I called it “On the Waterfront – Toronto” and I said maybe I’ll do another one after that. So I called it “On the Waterfront – Toronto I”.
What causes are you the most passionate about?
I would say the first thing that comes to mind is poverty. Simply because I love to travel and I found that in order to see as many places as possible, you can’t be a tourist you have to go inside deep. So I became a backpacker. I basically flew to one area and walked the rest. This is not a one-time thing, this happens every year - I would take time off work and go further and further. And the further I would go I would see more poverty. So poverty is one of the things…especially when you see children that are involved. Whether you’re in Africa, SE Asia, South America, anywhere really, it’s not just located in one spot. I found it everywhere. Especially the children, it really hits the spot. They’re helpless.
You’ve done art publishing, advertising and fine art. Is there anything else you would like to do?
Maybe I should become a monk! I guess right now I’m just looking forward to doing the next painting. I would like to do something closer to what I like as opposed to doing something just to be published.
What’s one thing you can’t live without?
The winter. I like to see what I see. I don’t particularly like the below 0 weather. Actually I love all seasons, but winter, it looks serene. It’s peaceful - peaceful when you get out of the city.
Are there any creative rituals or patterns you do when you’re in the process of creating?
I like to experiment, and this what I call my work. If I do a watercolor, it’s not really just a watercolor. I start with watercolor paint, but then I put everything else in it. So I call it mixed media. I’ll do pen and ink. I do pencil, I’ll do opaqueing, I’ll put some acrylics. I might accentuate it by putting some dark areas to bring out certain things. So I just go on and on and on until I figure you might stop here before you wreck it. I call it mixed media.
What does UNICEF mean to you?
Well it means children, of which as I said before brings back so many memories in my trekking around the world. From what I’ve seen with that the suffering. And that’s how I got involved with UNICEF. I originally called and said, “Look you know, if I can do anything for you, I notice that you do cards and things. If you can use some of my work I would be very happy.” Basically to help the children, because that’s what you do. When I would come back from my trips, sometimes I would have bad dreams, you know, nightmares because I mean wow, unbelievable. I mean I have heard about it but only when you’ve seen it with your own eyes does it hit the spot. And I would say to myself, “How can this be?” Why in today’s world, it’s supposed to be a modern world, how can it be, it’s not a modern world. It’s a world that’s not together at all. But I never believed it was like that until I saw it.