Armenian Refugee Finds Artistic Home in North Dakota


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Norik Astvatsaturov works in his Wahpeton, N.D., workshop

By John Lamb
FARGO, N.D. (Inforum) — When Norik Astvatsaturov arrived in the United States two decades ago, the Armenian refugee brought with him very little from his former life, other than his wife, daughter and son.

But what he carried in his pockets, including a hammer and a few nail punches, were enough to carve out a new life for him and make his mark in a new country.

“To come with just that hammer and a few nail punches and $200 to start a new life with a family of four in a country where they knew nobody and didn’t know the language was truly remarkable,” says Troyd Geist, state folklorist with the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

“A good repoussé artist can carry all the tools he needs in his pocket,” Astvatsaturov told Dawn Morgan, executive director of Fargo’s Spirit Room Gallery.  An exhibit of the artist’s repoussé (a metalworking technique in which both the front and back sides are struck to create depth and volume) goes on display at the Spirit Room this weekend and runs through April 7.

“His work is almost sculptural in its appearance and very ornate and very detailed,” says Geist, who brought Astvatsaturov’s art to Morgan’s attention. With a $10,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Morgan and Geist hope to share Astvatsaturov’s art and story with a broader audience.

Prairie Public Television has already produced a short documentary on the artist, and photographer Robb Siverson and designer Allen Sheets are working on a book of Astvatsaturov’s work. Morgan has a series of lectures on Armenian culture and the region’s art scheduled for early next year.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Astvatsaturov lived in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Caspian Sea port town maintained a small minority of Christian Armenians, from the neighboring country to the West.

Under Soviet rule, religion and ethnic identity were suppressed, but still Astvatsaturov created his traditional iconography and religious-themed works for family and friends and even Muslim customers, all under the radar.

“To me that was eye-opening, that someone so committed to his culture, to his art that he would risk those kind of things to continue (his craft),” Geist says.
But with the crumbling of the Soviet regime, so came down the tyrannical structure that kept the peace. Simmering ethnic and religious tensions started bubbling over and forced Astvatsaturov to flee to Armenia, then Moscow before finally settling in Wahpeton, ND, in the early 1990s.

In a foreign country, his hands found familiar work as a machinist at Primewood Inc. in Wahpeton. Soon after his arrival, he turned his hands back to his trade, crafting a traditional Armenian cross from an aluminum sheet for his sponsoring church.

“I want to do much more to advance my artistry, especially now that we live in a country where it is safe to express our culture publicly,” he said.

While Geist points out that in Baku, Astvatsaturov was exposed to the Muslim Azeri culture, as well as being influenced by classic Greek and Roman styles, the artist still finds inspiration in traditional Christian imagery.

“I know that Mary was a refugee. She run with child,” Astvatsaturov says in the documentary, his accent still so thick, subtitles are needed to translate. “When I see that, it probably looks like our history.”

“I want to show people here who we are because lots of people come here,” he says later in the documentary. “But we have to show who we are. We don’t have to lose our roots, who we are.”