Artist Norik Astvatsaturov Named NEA National Heritage Fellow

Norik Astvatsaturov
Norik Astvatsaturov

Norik Astvatsaturov

WASHINGTON—Armenian-American artist Norik Astvatsaturov, of Wahpeton, ND, has been named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and will be honored at a special ceremony in the nation’s capital on September 14.

Astvatsaturov, who is an Armenian Repoussé metal artist who using a hammer and simple nail punches, works both sides of metal sheets (copper, bronze, brass, German silver, sometimes gold) and uses semi-precious stones like amethyst, turquoise, garnet, topaz, and carnelian as insets to create ornate works of art. Cultural items like jewelry boxes and icons made by Astvatsaturov are used by the Armenian diaspora to maintain their ethnic identity and remember their turbulent history.

Astvatsaturov’s father, Ygishe, lived in the area of Zangezur, Armenia, and moved to Baku, Azerbaijan, after the Russian Revolution of 1917. This is when the family name was “Russified” from the Armenian “Astvatsaturyan,” meaning “God-given,” to Astvatsaturov to deflect ethnic and religious persecution. Astvatsaturov was born in 1947. As a young man, he apprenticed to an elderly Armenian artisan named Goga. Astvatsaturov stated, “He taught me old techniques…to create depth, volume, and detail.… Each kind of metal has its own properties, elasticity, and feel.”

Jewelry box. Copper, inlaid freshwater pearls and malachite, 10” L x 7” W x 4” H, 2014. Photo by Troyd Geist, North Dakota Council on the Arts

Jewelry box. Copper, inlaid freshwater pearls and malachite, 10” L x 7” W x 4” H, 2014. Photo by Troyd Geist, North Dakota Council on the Arts

Soon, Astvatsaturov obtained a full-time job in metal repoussé in Baku where he supported his family solely with commercial work from 1970-88. Yet, the traditional art he created that reflected Armenian culture and religion had to be hidden from prying eyes for fear of persecution. According to custom and tradition, he made such decorative metal items as crosses to pray for health, covers protecting family Bibles, and jewelry boxes for marriages.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and simmering ethnic and religious tensions rose to the surface. “Pogroms” ensued against Christian Armenians by the predominant Muslim Azerbaijanis that echoed the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Astvatsaturov and his family fled and eventually found a home in Wahpeton, North Dakota, in 1992. While they were forced to leave most of their possessions behind, Astvatsaturov brought with him his hammer and nail punches. He said, “A good artist is one who can carry all the tools he needs in his pocket.”

To support his family, Astvatsaturov worked as a machinist in Wahpeton while also continuing his art—this time freely and openly making items cherished by the Armenian diaspora in the United States. Astvatsaturov’s work is known not only for extraordinary technique with simple tools but for the meaning and feeling he infuses into his art. He said, “Technique without meaning is lifeless.”

Large jewelry box. German silver with inlaid gemstones, 10.5” L x 12” W x 15” H, 2008. Photo by Troyd Geist, North Dakota Council on the Arts

Large jewelry box. German silver with inlaid gemstones, 10.5” L x 12” W x 15” H, 2008. Photo by Troyd Geist, North Dakota Council on the Arts

Since arriving in the U.S., Astvatsaturov has worked tirelessly to teach and share his traditional art and its message with Americans and the Armenian diaspora regionally and nationally. He has taught, given workshops, presented at folk festivals, exhibited regionally and nationally, and is a recipient of fellowships from the North Dakota Council on the Arts, the Fund for Folk Culture, and the Bush Foundation.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to honor these individuals for artistic mastery, as well as a commitment to sharing their traditions,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “Our nation is a richer, more vibrant place because of these artists and the art forms they practice.”

The National Heritage Fellowships recognize the recipients’ artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage. Including the 2017 class, the NEA has awarded 422 NEA National Heritage Fellowships, recognizing artists working in more than 200 distinct art forms, such as bluesman B.B. King, Cajun fiddler and composer Michael Doucet, sweetgrass basketweaver Mary Jackson, cowboy poet Wally McRae, Kathak dancer and choreographer Chitresh Das, and gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America

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