City Parks: Artists on the Central Park Mall

by Mia Johnson

It’s a hot summer day in Central Park, and artist Jacob Torossian is eagerly painting away to the tune of classical music on his small portable radio. Seeing the child-like grin on his face as he paints a portrait of me, I can only wonder what’s taking place on the other side of the easel.

I didn’t expect to be the focus of Torossian’s musings for nearly half an hour. Before being coaxed into the subject’s chair, I originally wanted to speak to the painter about his art and how he made his mark as an artist in Central Park.

Torossian isn’t much of a talker when I ask him about what he does. Between brush strokes, I learn that he’s spent parts of his life in Armenia (where he says he is from), Moscow and New York. When I ask him did he attend art school, he gives me a hearty laugh.

“Of course!” he says. “Are you crazy? Every school; university, everything…I was a teacher 20 years in university.”

That’s about the best I could get out of him as I continue to hold an awkward smile for my portrait. Whenever I do try to utter a thought, he gives me a playful “shut up.” It’s not to be taken harshly, it’s just his way of saying “everything’s going to be all right.” I received several “shut up’s” throughout the session.

“Relax,” he says. “I’m your mother. Are you afraid of your mother?”

“No,” I respond back sarcastically. “Well, on some days.”

Without a doubt, I have good faith that the final product will come out excellent.

The past works around him demonstrate his amazing ability to paint. A detailed, dry brush portrait of Obama stands out the most. The painting technique nearly looks like charcoal, though he says he uses black oil-based paint. Each line on the painting adds a unique sense of depth to the image. It’s astounding how in one brush stroke, he creates boundaries of light and shadows that form the bigger picture.

Not long after I sit down, a crowd of onlookers comes and goes as the portrait begins to take its shape. Some gaze back and forth between me and the portrait while others take photos with their phones. I take that moment to ask how the portrait looks, and a friendly spectator flashes me a photo he captured of the painting so far. From the little bit that I can see, it looks pretty good.

As I reach the half hour mark of meeting with Torossian, he quickly finishes up the painting for time’s sake. I get up and take a look behind the easel. The resemblance is remarkable, and I’m left speechless at how well the dry brush portrait came out. I enjoy the work so much that I try to tip him for his service, but he refuses.

“I’m a rich man,” he says. “A rich man here,” he continues, pointing to his heart.

At the moment, I realize that art is a selfless act. Art had the power to bridge two different people together to create great memories. As cliché as it may sound, it really wasn’t about the money. And in the end, money was never exchanged. I saw that for him, having something new to paint was just one part of the formula that enriched his life. Together, we got the most value out of simply getting to know one another for a short period of time.

Just before we part, Torossian offers to paint a more detailed portrait of me when I have more time. I like the offer. I’m sure making another trip to him in the future would be a great investment so one day I, too, can be rich in my heart.

Photo Gallery: Artist at Work

Learn more about Central Park in Treasures of New York: City Parks