Ode to self-study – and the oud
Natural ability and a lot of study helped make Russel Ketenjian an accomplished artist and musician.
Ketenjian, who lives in Markleeville, is the featured artist for early this month at the Galerie Bluü, the art gallery with a jazz motif inside MontBleu Casino Resort and Spa. In addition to his 33 pieces on display, Ketenjian plays songs on the oud in between sets by the jazz band Prophetz on Friday and Saturday nights.
Ketenjian learned both art and music on his own. But as someone who believes in reincarnation and the eternal journey, he does not consider himself self-taught.
“It’s an egotistical statement for anybody to make, because nobody’s self-taught,” he said. “It’s an accumulative thing. I didn’t invent the paintbrush. I didn’t invent the oud.”
An early aficionado of music, Ketenjian impressed his grandparents as a toddler by picking out the best songs in the family record collection. The Ketenjians’ Armenian music was from the oud, the world’s first sophisticated stringed instrument. An oud has 11 strings and a bowl-like back the size of a half watermelon.
The oud originated from and continues to be one of the most popular instruments in Armenia, Turkey, Iran and throughout the Middle East. After crusaders went through the Middle Eastern countries, they took the instrument back to Europe and put frets on it. It developed into the lute and eventually the guitar.
As a boy, Ketenjian tried to tune his Stella guitar to sound like a oud. But because of influence from his California friends, he bought a Strat and started a surf band. However, by the time he was 25, he got himself an oud and mastered it by ear.
Oud players are rare in the United States. For example, an Arabic man who recently visited the gallery said that although he had heard the instrument his entire life and had a collection of its music, he had never before seen a oud or a oud player.
Although Ketenjian has supported himself as a oud player during various periods of his life, he has too many interests to limit himself to being solely a musician.
“I don’t care to practice eight hours a day to become a virtuoso,” he said. “I like to do the pottery and paint and do other things, and I don’t care to be on the road.”
Perhaps it was restlessness that inspired Ketenjian to give up his contractor’s license and sell his house in Visalia. He leased a piece of property in the middle of a 20-acre olive grove, which had no running water and no electricity.
“I lived for 10 years with oil lamps and a wood-burning stove,” he said. “I carried my water in. I could take a shower and get really clean with four gallons of water. That’s where I built the wood-burning kiln and experimented with that.”
He built the kiln in the middle of that grove, barbecued a steak, then made his first piece of pottery. His interest was captivated.
Ketenjian was a quick study when he took a ceramics class at a community college.
“By the time that semester was over, I had my first show at the chamber of commerce and sold almost $300 worth of pottery,” he said. “That’s not going to put you on the map, but I found it fairly fascinating. People say you have to suffer for your art for 30 years before you can have a show – it’s not true.”
He learned about the effects of different kinds of wood on firing pottery. Glazing the work was not necessary he said.
“Over the course of a long firing, the alumina and the silica from the ash from the burning wood will flux and melt and run, and create its own glaze,” he said.
Ketenjian’s goal was to make pottery so beautiful it needed no decoration. But one day he admired a new pot glistening on the wheel that was still wet. He mixed up some porcelain and put a brush mark on the pot and realized how it felt to be a painter.
“The way I’ve learned is by reading articles,” he said. “I spent the first year choosing an artist I admired and read his or her life story. In reading in between the lines, I learned their process.”
The next year he started making sketches, and the next he bought some supplies and began experimenting with brushwork.
A 10-year career working in massage and studying anatomy has helped Ketenjian’s figurative work.
Portraits, landscapes and still lifes are also represented at the Galerie Bluü. There are five pieces celebrating the jazz performers from the gallery. Another painting is a self-portrait with Ketenjian on the oud.
“The show is a psychological success whether there’s huge dollars or not,” Ketenjian said. “It’s irrelevant because I am going to continue to do it anyway. What I am excited about is my next body of work.”
Ketenjian recently purchased an etching press and plans to create etchings and dry point pieces. He also plans to build a doorless anagama kiln with a catenary arch.
“My main focus is the art of living,” he said.