Arlington photographer featured at Armenian Museum in Watertown

By James Sanna

Image Sourche: Al Hiltz


Bertha Dulgarian’s eyes bore into you from the center of a complex painting by Arlington photographer and watercolorist Mary Hilt.

Dulgarian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, is one of several subjects of Hilt’s upcoming portrait show at the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown. Each portrait is based on photographs Hilt took in 1994 as part of a community history project done in conjunction with the museum.

The painting presents a stark image of Dulgarian. Framed by a wave of short white hair and voluminous, almost featureless white shirt, her face immediately draws the viewer in. An intense, unseen light illuminates the right side of her face, casting the lines of her careworn face into sharp relief. Defined with thick brush strokes and dark, almost black colors, the creases match the deep black background in front of which Dulgarian poses.

Hilt said she wanted to make the hardships Dulgarian and other genocide survivors faced as plain as possible in her portraits.

“I had this realization as I photographed all these genocide survivors,” Hilt said. “Their lives are written on their faces.”

“When we were photographing them, you could tell they’d experienced horrors they could never forget,” Hilt added. “It was a deep pain.”

In an oral history of her experiences taken while Hilt shot photographs, Dulgarian described losing nearly all her family at the hands of Ottoman soldiers, and the individual inhumanity she saw during the genocide. Other subjects of Hilt’s project detailed grueling marches through the desert so desperate that parents dropped dead of hunger and exhaustion, and mothers tried to abandon children they were too weak to carry any further. Still others relayed how they went into hiding, forced to abandon their faith and change their names to escape the slaughter.

After shooting the portrait photographs, Hilt produced several smaller paintings based on the images. The entire experience affected her deeply, Hilt said.

“When [Sarkis Bazarian, one of the survivors who posed for Hilt's project] saw the painting, he started to cry,” Hilt said. “He told me, ‘somebody heard my story.’”

“I’m really privileged to have had the chance to do this,” she said.

Hilt said she hoped each painting would serve as a memorial to its subject, and a testimony to the scars left by the Armenian Genocide.

“Hitler said the Holocaust would be forgotten because no one [at the time] remembered the Armenian Genocide,” she said. “We shouldn’t forget history, and we cannot forget people.”

There is more to these portraits than the pain carved into the subjects’ faces, however.

In Hilt’s portrait, Dulgarian’s fingers are loosely interleaved as she nonchalantly rests one elbow on an almost-unseen shelf behind her, as if waiting impatiently for the painter to finish. Dulgarian’s fierce eyes burn through the web of sorrows recorded on her face, her gaze challenging the viewer.

Hilt said she wanted her paintings to be about the pain her subjects experienced as victims of the Armenian Genocide.

“I wanted to tell an uplifting story” alongside stories of horror, she said.

“These people made lives for themselves, they started over” after arriving in Massachusetts, Hilt said. “It took a special kind of person to do that.”

“They were people determined to have a life,” she added.

As she listened to her subjects’ stories, Hilt said, she realized that, alongside powerful personalities, their faith helped power their resolve to persevere.

“There was a monumental quality to each of these people,” she said. “The richness of their experience--the horror, but also what they knew and what they could teach other people--was amazing.”

Despite being two decades removed from the experience of shooting portraits of Dulgarian and others, Hilt said, she found it impossible not to be moved by the experience of painting the most recent set.

“I was transported back in time,” she said. “I really felt their presence.”

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