GIFTS IN ABUNDANCE

Chronological Analysis

Abe’s collection consists of approximately 425 items.  “Approximate” is the operative word since the size of the collection is fluid.  Previously undocumented items continually appear, particularly as multiples of specific items.  For example, 3 Birdhouses had originally been documented, with 2 painted ones being in use in Abe’s son Robert’s backyard and one unpainted one being at Abe’s daughter June’s house.

Birdhouse

Yet since the items were originally tabulated, it has been learned that Abe made another birdhouse with / for his young cousin Armen, and perhaps more.  Also since the documentation of the collection was completed, several items have been donated back to Abe’s family by the original recipients.  For example, Abe’s daughter June’s sister- and brother-in-law donated back to the collection an aluminum vase that Abe had made for them as a wedding present.  They were down-sizing and felt the piece belonged with the collection.

Vase 9, 1975

Additional items reunited with the collection are the Panic Button of solid copper and stainless steel,

Panic Button, 1982

a Van,

Van, 1982

and several handsaws.

Saw Handles, 1982 and Undated

Conversely, some items that had been photographed now are misplaced.  In addition, Abe gave an unknown number of his friends original art pieces as gifts, of which there is no accounting.  Abe’s family is reconciled to the fact that the exact number of items in the collection may never be pinpointed.

Of the 425 total pieces approximately 225 are dated, i.e. more than one half.  425 pieces is a remarkable number for any artist.  This many items over a period of 30 years averages 14 pieces a year, or over 1 piece per month for an entire working career.

Abe’s years of art productivity were from 1953, when his son Robert was born, till 1983, the year of his death.  Between 1953 and 1983 the number of pieces per year rose steadily.

During the documentation of the collection, beginning in 2013, it was initially thought that Abe’s collection followed a pattern where the pieces got increasingly more intricate as Abe’s skill level increased over time.  The hypothesis was that the later pieces were of increased difficulty to produce.  However, a chronological sorting of the dated pieces shows a different pattern.  It was learned that Abe created some highly intricate items earlier rather than later, like the Powerboat with Stand in 1967

Powerboat with Stand, 1976

and the Chess/Backgammon Set in 1968.

Chess/Backgammon Set, 1968

Items as “simple” as Baseball “Official” with Stand and the Baseball Bat appeared late in Abe’s art career, in 1980.

Baseball Bat, 1980
Baseball “Official” with Stand, 1980

One breakdown of the 425 pieces in the collection reveals that 225 were dated, 123 were undated, and 79 were jewelry.

Creating his art as gifts was a major motivation for Abe.  He crafted an 79 (coincidentally the same number as the 79 pieces of jewelry) of the 225 dated items as gifts for family members.  Judging by the dates stamped on the pieces, it was easy to see that Abe created his objects for his wife, three children and himself for their birthdays, for his wife Jenny for Valentine’s Day, for their anniversary, and for Christmas presents, though it’s not certain which Christmas presents were for which family member.

In addition to the 79 dated gifts to family, Abe crafted nearly all of the 79 jewelry pieces as gifts for his wife Jenny.  

The total of 79 dated gifts plus 79 jewelry gift pieces out of a total of 425 pieces is 37%.  In other words, slightly more than 1 of 3 items Abe created in total was a gift for a family member.  Even more impressive is that 41 of 79 dated gift items were Christmas presents, i.e. over one half.  Abe’s Christmas presents to his family in 1982 alone numbered 13.  Among the items were a Duffel Bag with Tennis Racquet for his daughter-in-law to be, 2 miniature Pickup Trucks, Ashtrays, Keys, and Pin Cushion Stands.

Abe was to die at the end of February 1983, so he was crafting his art right up to the end.  Likely the last of his gifts was a Valentine’s Day 1983 present to his wife Jenny, a Bacon Rasher Weight.  It wasn’t the most romantic gift, but that wasn’t the point.

Bacon Rasher Weight, 1983

Could Abe have thought in his final months that his life was going to be cut short by his cancer, and that he had to be as productive and prolific as possible?  Probably not for he remained hopeful through cancer treatment that things would turn out OK. 

 


 

Abe’s Prolificacy

To put Abe’s total collection of 425 items into perspective, consider the output of 4 artists.  Jackson Pollack (20th century American) created 363 paintings, Georges Seurat (19th century French Impressionist) drew 500 drawings,1 and Dale Chihuly’s (contemporary American glassworker) pieces are in more than 200 museum collections worldwide.2  Even Constantine Brancusi (19th-20th century Romanian sculptor) left behind 215 sculptures.3  Of these artists, with Brancusi’s brass, sculpted bust Sleeping Muse, 1910,4 

Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse

do we see a slight resemblance to Abe’s Owl Paperweights Pair of 1979.  (Hint: turn your head to the left to view.)  In all likelihood, Abe had never heard of any of these artists.

Owl Paperweights Pair, 1979

Abe never spoke of numbers when making his art, and didn’t keep a count.  Often when he created a design that he particularly liked, he would make several original versions for friends as gifts.  Examples are his Bells with Eagles.

Bells with Eagles

In the 1970s, with great pride Abe machined from solid aluminum, brass or copper, “books” ranging from playing card to paperback size.  These books were college graduation presents for each of his family members, including wife Jenny, who had graduated from nursing school in 1951.  On the face of the book Abe engraved the graduate’s name, college, and year of graduation.  He made several additional and individual copies, only leaving out engraving for future gifting.

Book Paperweight, 1985

As a devout Christian and proud of his Armenian ethnic heritage, Abe loved giving his highly polished aluminum, Armenian Crosses as gifts.  There are several extant unfinished examples, though it is uncertain for whom Abe intended these.

Armenian Cross (Unfinished)

Only now, decades later, in looking at Abe’s art overall, is piece count even a consideration.  Having a large collection has the obvious effects of being able to enjoy many pieces and being able to analyze the collection to determine trends or intents.

 


 

The Psychology of Artists Giving Away Their Art

Abe never sold any piece.  Only once was he offered money for his art.  On that occasion he struggled to reach his ultimate decision not to sell, despite the amount offered being the equivalent of several weeks pay.  The piece was his extraordinary Piano Music Box with Bench, Music.

Piano Music Box with Bench, 1973

The argument of whether or not artists should give away their art is ages old.  For some, giving away free art is a noble and admirable gesture.  Yet the opposing view is that artists need to be concerned about making their living.  Art critic, blogger, curator and artist Brian Sherman argues that giving away doesn’t make good business sense.His argument could be expanded such that giving away an artwork devalues it, both for the recipient and for other artists creating works of the same genre.

In November 2019 Denver artist Jonathan Saiz took a step that probably would have confounded Mr. Sherman and drawn a smile from Abe.  Over a 5 month period Saiz created 10,000 2”x2’ mixed media art pieces on the subject of utopia.  After exhibiting them at the Denver Art Museum mounted on a ceiling high column 33’ in circumference, he one-by-one gave away all the art.  He said of his action, ” Money has a way of ruining everything—it turns everything that is magical and beautiful into a commodity, and it turns artists into robots. To explore a truly utopian vision, I wanted to revolt against that system with this work—I wanted to give all these artworks away for free as a way to express my love and respect for as many people as I possibly could, and to celebrate the idea of a truly free world.”6

Giving away many pieces of his art over 30 years was what Abe gladly did.  His art, and gifting it, gave him great satisfaction.  He didn’t have to worry about devaluing his art because no price had ever been put on any item except his Piano.  No other artist was machining from solid scrap metal like Abe was, so there technically no market for his art.  Since he was gainfully employed he didn’t need the money selling the art would have brought.  That he created at least 425 artworks was irrelevant to Abe, for that was the product of decades of effort.  Abe was setting the own standard for his art.

During the process of documenting the collection, Abe’s son Robert asked 3 appraisers to give quotes.  All declined, claiming they could find no precedents online.  It is doubtful Abe would have cared.  Abe was at ease with the Biblical saying of being better to give than to receive.  Following this credo, he was a giver his entire life.  He donated to his church a pair of metal collection plates he had repurposed from scrap at the factory where he worked.

Outside of his factory work Abe kept himself very busy.  He considered it his duty to be a member of his church’s board of trustees and Armenian language Saturday school executive committee.  Among his hobbies was stamp collecting.  Abe enjoyed getting kids started in the hobby.  He’d give them piles of stamps from his extras.  Two Johnson brothers thanked Abe with their letters.  Abe treasured these letters for he so enjoyed helping kids.

Steve Johnson Thank You letter for stamps

Gardening was among Abe’s other hobbies.  He’d cut the lawn with a push mower. 

Kris Johnson Thank You letter for stamps

Surprisingly, in his art collection there is only one gardening object, a Lawn Sprinkler, which he made and used for years.

Abe Mowing Grass

Surprisingly, in his art collection there is only one gardening object, a Lawn Sprinkler, which he made and used for years.

Lawn Sprinkler

Abe and his wife Jenny enjoyed entertaining, so he made his own Shish Kebab machine

Shish Kebab Machine
Abe showing it off in 1969

and set of Shish Kebab Skewers.

One of Abe’s Shish Kebab Skewers

Bicycling, reading National Geographic Magazine, and amateur photography were among Abe’s other hobbies.

Abe’s Rollieflex Camera with Lens Cap
Abe’s Snow on Fence

Abe spoke of opening a photography studio business after retirement, but didn’t think he’d be able to raise the capital.  His idea never became a reality.  For him, creating his artistic pieces was simply another activity he enjoyed.  Abe had not considered himself an artist.  He took his art seriously, perhaps just a bit more than his other preoccupations, especially when meeting deadlines for his holiday and birthday gift giving.  Buffing the objects to make them totally smooth was, in itself, a very time consuming task.  To accomplish the task, Abe built his own Buffer / Grinder machine. 

Buffer / Grinder

Abe knew he was finished buffing an object when he’d rub it on his face and feel no burrs.

When Abe gave an object as a gift, he wanted it to be the best it could be.  His gifts were always appropriate and fitting to their recipients’ interests.  But it was the recipients’ reactions that were of paramount importance to Abe, giving him great satisfaction.  The reactions were priceless then; the collection is priceless now. 

 


 

References:

1. http://www.art.eonworks.com/archive/2018/how-prolific-were-famous-artists_20181204.html

2. https://www.chihuly.com/sites/default/files/files/media-kit/CS_Fact%20Sheet_PR_External.pdf

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantin_Br%C3%A2ncu%C8%99i#:~:text=At%20his%20death%20Br%C3%A2ncu%C8%99i%20left%201200%20photographs%20and%20215%20sculptures.

4. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/488458?searchField=All&sortBy=Relevance&ft=brancusi+sleeping+busts&offset=0&rpp=20&pos=1

5. http://theartedge.faso.com/blog/88090/lets-have-an-artgument-stop-giving-art-away-for-free
6. https://mymodernmet.com/free-art-giveaway-jonathan-saiz-interview/

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