Known for his dramatic skies and magnificent redwood forest landscapes, Serop Vardanian studied, painted, and lived in Europe, the far east, and in the Western United States for much of the 20th century. The beauty, grandeur, and engaging qualities of his work, his mastery of color technique, and his insightful attention to detail offer us a vision of the passion and commitment with which he lived.
At the age of two, Vardanian traveled on horseback and by steam ship with his parents from his natal home in Isfahan, Iran, to Java in what was then the Dutch East Indies. It was to be the first of several journeys to carry him across the globe in search of a homeland that would provide all he ever wanted to see and paint.
By the time World War II raged through the Dutch colonies, Vardanian had discovered his love for painting, studied under many local artists, and met the love of his life, Hedwig “Hettie” Obdeyn, who would become his greatest promoter and avid travel companion. Despite the hardships of war and the challenges of starting a family, Vardanian took what opportunities he could to continue painting. His first showing was in the largest Dutch bookstore in Sourabaya, “Van Dorp”, where he sold his first pieces. He hired local villagers to frame his paintings. Today, a few of his early works still hang in these unconventionally-designed frames.
Vardanian’s career as a painter took off in the late 1950s, when his work first gained international attention, and continued to blossom for more than three decades into the mid-1980s. The Dutch masters and French Impressionists were his early influences; Western artists of the United States such as Russel and Remington influenced his later work.
During the late 1950s, Vardanian was launched into his quest for a new homeland. Revolution tore through the Dutch East Indies, driving out European rule and creating the Republic of Indonesia. Under the new government, European colonists lost their businesses and many fled. Vardanian and his small family were torn apart in the exodus. Vardanian was forced to move to Tehran, Iran, where he had some family, while his beloved wife and young daughter Marianne fled to the Netherlands. Over the course of three years, with help from friends and family across the globe, they were reunited in San Francisco in 1962.
Once safely settled in San Francisco, Vardanian returned to school for architecture. His day job as a designer and architect with a prominent international San Francisco Firm offered him the opportunity to relocate internationally many times. Vardanian happily rejected every offer. “America has everything I would ever want to see,” he said.
Vardanian and Hettie traveled the western United States extensively, painting, drawing, and photographing nearly every beach along the west coast and inland from the mountains and valleys through to the high and low deserts. He loved to paint dramatic skies, for which he quickly became recognized. Oils and acrylics were his primary mediums, although he played with others such as oil pastels and pencil and pen as well.
Vardanian’s favorite excursions were into Northern California’s and Southern Oregon’s redwood forests, where he would invite his best students to paint the redwoods on site. Vardanian redwood paintings were so prized they were often sold even before the paint had dried. The California redwoods inspired Vardanian like no other subject matter. The mystical strength and stunning magnitude of these trees comes through in his work. After falling in love with them, he took to affectionately calling Hetty “Sequoia” because he said she has always been there for him, much like the steadfast presence of the redwoods.
In 1986, Vardanian lost his soulmate, Hettie, to cancer. This blow marked the end of his most passionate and prolific period. His later works slowly became more mystical, influenced heavily by the French Impressionists, and serene, quiet even. As his painting tapered off in the late 1990s, he decided to move to Oregon. Marianne, who was running two businesses in San Francisco at the time, decided to make the move as well. She chose Florence, a town Vardanian had always liked, because of the beauty of its coast. Together, they made the move in 1996, a year before Serop Vardanian passed away.