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Chemist refines formula for art

The former professor makes artworks of items plucked from yard sales, antique shops and scrap piles.

By BRANDY STARK
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 13, 2002


TARPON SPRINGS -- With the skills of an alchemist, Vahak Sarkis transforms everyday items into works of artistic expression.

He is a found-object artist, and many of his pieces start with items picked up at yard sales, antique shops and scrap piles. A door decoration found in a farmers market in France is transformed into Court of a Saleya Bird. From random swirls the parts combine to form a running bird.

Driftwood, a metallic snake, a bronze eye, a tree branch and a wooden apple become the eye of God, the snake and the apple that cost humanity paradise in a piece titled In Search of Adam and Eve.

The artist is as eclectic as his art. Born and raised in Egypt, Sarkis, 68, earned his doctorate in chemistry in the United States and was a chemistry professor on the Albany campus of the State University of New York. Upon retirement, he studied fine arts at the University of South Florida and earned a bachelor's degree.

"I always had an interest in sculptures. I made them throughout my life," said Sarkis, who lives in Holiday. "I really liked the freedom of art, where I'm not restricted by defined steps."

His interest in primitive art was piqued while he was a visiting professor at a university in Armenia during the 1970s. Shortly before returning to the United States, he was given some artifacts from an archaeological dig that appear in many of his works. Totem Figures recreates them into an elegant, elongated image. Coronation solidifies the shapes into figures, which become part of an abstracted throne.

Sarkis' work also touches on several contemporary philosophies. His Duchamp Fountain For the 21st Century honors the controversial artist, but also addresses water conservation.

Votive Offerings For My Body Parts, Repaired and Rejuvenated depict various ailments the artist has experienced. Teeth, tonsils, knees and shoulders are etched into votives, dedicated to an ahnk, the Egyptian symbol of life, lined with pictures of the doctors who treated him. It is a work in progress. In mid April, Sarkis injured his hand in a power saw accident in his studio at his home. Upon his full recovery, he expects to add to this work a new votive with a hand image.

Another piece, From Chaste to the Chase -- You've Come a Long Way Baby!, transforms a bull-restraining device into a chastity belt and clothes a more modern female figure in risque leather lingerie.

"I don't set out to offend anyone," Sarkis said. "I make the art for me. This is what I see around me, what I feel in my heart."

At a glance

"Primitive and Symbolic Sculptures" through May 25, at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, 101 S Pinellas Ave., Tarpon Springs. Free admission. Gallery hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (727) 942-5605.

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