Ever walked your dog around Baldwin Park or navigated its streets on the way to an al fresco café happy hour? Then it’s likely you’ve meandered through a three-dimensional scene that began life as a rendering on Vashon Sarkisian’s computer screen.
As a senior urban designer for VHB -- where she’s worked for seven years -- Sarkisian’s specialty is large-scale master planning and site design. She loves her work from Baldwin Park to Horizon West for many reasons, not the least of which include a diversity of projects.
That’s not surprising, as Sarkisian’s childhood was gypsy-like and colorful.
Her father – then a Navy man – was ever on the move with her mom and two siblings in tow. Born in Maryland, Sarkisian logged wonder years in Washington state, California, Georgia, then back to Cali and finally, Virginia. But the States were just the beginning.
“When my dad retired from the Navy, he took a job with an Iranian company, and so we moved to Iran when I was a junior in high school.”
Two years in Iran, she says, were amazing, but the color of her childhood followed the family everywhere – and it’s something Sarkisian credits to her mother.
“She was an artist – and she always had us, the children – engaged in whatever project she was working on…. She became an expert in whatever she did: acrylic, oil, papier-mâche, ceramics, gold leaf on glass, faux painting, sculpture, interior design – she was an artist of the highest caliber. We had color all over the house….”
Sarkisian enjoyed art, as well. And nature. And had anyone in her family known that landscape architecture was an actual profession, they certainly would have pegged her as a natural.
That discovery came during freshman year of college, when she had been planning on pursuing art but felt a growing concern it wasn’t the best option. “I took one of those tests that are supposed to see what you’re good at or interested in,” Sarkisian explains, “and what came up at the end of the test was landscape architecture.”
She’d never heard of it.
“My counselor explained that it was a profession that included art and the outdoor environment, and it just sounded fascinating. So, I decided, right at that moment, that this was the career choice for me.”
She transferred into a five-year program at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, N.Y.
“Even if I never practiced landscape architecture, it was the best education I could have gotten,” Sarkisian says. “A marriage of art and history and design and engineering – plus there was a lot of studio time. I think in that environment, where you’re all working together, late hours and group projects, is where I developed my love of teamwork.”
There were few teams to join, however, upon graduation. It was the height of a recession, and Sarkisian moved to Miami. Being near her grandparents who lived in Coconut Grove seemed as good a reason as any.
She found a job at a nursery, learned all about tropical plants and worked up to small-scale residential design, eventually landing a job in Palm Beach doing larger-scale urban planning and design. She wound up in Orlando after signing on as an urban designer in 1990 for MSCW (later acquired by VHB).
Love and marriage followed to a well-known natural healer in the macrobiotic community, as did the birth of Sarkisian’s son. But the fairy tale began to unravel with her husband’s cancer diagnosis. He fought bravely for three years before succumbing in 2008. Her son was 8 years old.
“Back then, part of me was trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to our family … trying to figure out how to heal because it was devastating. I was afraid that I might never be happy again. You go to this really dark place and because you’re in grief, you just sit there. You don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. You think you’re going to be living in this grief for the rest of your life.”
But she had an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘If someone can follow a diet to lose weight or set goals to achieve a higher education, maybe there are steps you can take to move through your grief.’”
And she realized that maybe, something good could grow from the seeds that tragedy had sown.
Sarkisian self-published a book: “Finding Joy After Loss: My Seven-Step Journey of Transforming Grief Into Joy,” and the ideas therein resonated with others.
She began doing speaking engagements, sharing her story and her steps with others, and volunteered for the Modern Widows Club, a national organization with 19 chapters. Sarkisian now heads the Orlando chapter, organizing monthly speakers and continuing to share her wisdom and experience with others.
“It’s giving back,” she explains. “Giving back to my community, to my fellow widows…. For these women to be part of a group where they see they’re not alone is wonderful. And it makes you realize that wow – I really am doing okay. I did survive this. And there is beauty in life after loss.”