ART WITH UTILITY

During the last 30 years of his life, which happens to be half his life span, Abe had an amazing streak of creativity.  He created approximately 425 art objects, most from metal, and many as gifts for others.  (See Online Museum, Exhibit #1, Art in Abundance.)  Not surprisingly, 158 of the total were items intended to be actually used.  What makes these items so appealing is that they blend several important features:

  • Access to materials and equipment
  • Willingness to build / rebuild versus purchasing new
  • Abe’s artistic eye
  • Desire to gift the items to others.

Access to materials and equipment

Except for his 3 years in the Navy, Abe worked as a machinist at General Electric making aircraft engine parts.  Industrial items were all around him, along with large metal-working equipment and hand-size machinist’s tools.  Aircraft engines consisted of expensive metals that had to be machined precisely, to very small tolerances.  Damaged parts or metal pieces that were ruined during machining were scraped and sold to scrap metal buyers who showed up periodically.  During Abe’s tenure at GE, when contracts with the government were plentiful GE was not overly concerned about the scrap metal.  As a result Abe was able to acquire it.  The scrap aluminum, brass, copper, lead, and stainless steel were to become the bases of his artwork.  Occasionally he could get wood and Lexan (plastic) too.

Examples of base metals as they looked when Abe acquired them…

Small block of solid brass

Ingots of lead

With his long tenure at GE, Abe’s skill level and proficiency increased to the point where he became a master machinist.  He was given assignments to make prototype parts.  His ability to machine the objects of his professional work prepared Abe to create his art, his interpretations in miniature and full size of everyday objects.

Willingness to build / rebuild versus purchasing new

Abe was not the only machinist who appreciated the opportunity to work with scrapped metal at GE.  Others were recycling metal and other rejected materials into other objects which they made for themselves.  Abe differentiated himself from the others for his creations were utilitarian and artistic.  Much of his art had an industrial look or utilitarian purpose.  Having lived through the Depression, Abe was keenly aware that it made economic sense not to be wasteful.

While serving as ship’s cook in the Navy, Abe learned that he had to be resourceful, with the food he obtained to feed the crew and with the equipment he used in his tiny galley kitchen.  It was there out of necessity that he started to tinker.  Tinkering got him through jams when cooking utensils or equipment failed.  Even at GE Abe tinkered and was willing to take different approaches to making the objects he was assigned.  Occasionally GE rewarded him for his suggestions to management for improvement.  Abe’s fellow machinists began calling him The Tinkerer because he had taken it to a higher level.  They also enjoyed watching him create his artwork at lunchtime.

Tinkering was certainly a part of Abe’s approach to making his art.  He reasoned that if he didn’t have enough money to purchase a power machine for his home workshop, he’d figure out a way to make his own.  He made his a compressor for filling up balls or blowing the dust off the floor of his home workshop.  He made a large band saw for cutting boards into irregular shapes.  Of all the power machines Abe made, only his Buffer / Grinder exists today.

Buffer / Grinder

Buffing his objects to make them totally smooth was, in itself, a very time consuming task.  Abe’s son Robert has used the Buffer / Grinder on many occasions and knows that it’s almost impossible to buff too much.  But Abe knew he was finished buffing an object when he’d rub it on his face and feel no burrs.

As a tinkerer, Abe was inclined to fix a broken item rather than dispose of it.  Several notable examples stand out.  When the plastic part of a shoetree shattered, Abe repaired it with a solid piece of aluminum that he machined to fit.

Shoe Tree Part, 1982

When the handles on Abe’s wife Jenny’s lizard skin pocketbook accidentally got bent, Abe made new ones from brass.  Jenny appreciated the gesture but complained the handles weighed more than the pocketbook itself.

Pocketbook with Replacement Handles

Similarly, when the handle broke on Abe’s lunch pail, he fashioned a steel replacement, and for good measure, he made an aluminum backup too.

Lunchpail H27C Extra Handle

Even if Abe could afford to purchase an object, he was inclined to make his own, just so he could say he did.  The list of utilitarian objects he made is long but the following are a several examples, with some of the items made in multiples as gifts for different people.

Abe started smoking when he was in the Navy.  Smoking was also very popular during his civilian years when he was making his art.  As hard as it is to believe, he made a Smoking Pipe to use.  After one use, however, he found the mouthpiece was just too hot to be practical.

Smoking Pipe with Stand

Abe also made multiple Ashtrays, 2 from solid brass,

Ashtrays, 1982

and 1 from solid copper.

Ashtray

Large belt buckles were all the rage in the 1970s so Abe made 4 of them.

Belt Buckle

Candle holders and vases were favorite items of Abe’s.  An early example of candle holders and a later example of a vase…


Candle Holder Pair, 3 Piece Each

Vase 7, 1974

Perhaps in a nod to his naval service, Abe made numerous pans and a roaster for chestnuts.

One of Abe’s smallest pans was intended for making crepes.  Years after his passing his grandson Greg used the back side of the crepe pan as a palette for his painting class.  Crepes weren’t a staple in the Megerdichian household so the pan really didn’t get used much for its intended purpose.  But Greg’s evidence of repurposing remains.  Abe would have approved.

Pan, Crepe, 1982

Roaster for Chestnuts

Abe had several hobbies.  He was an avid reader of National Geographic Magazine. Bicycling and gardening were among his favorite outdoor activities.  For years he maintained an immaculate garden and cut the lawn with a push mower.

Abe Mowing Grass

Examples of utilitarian art he made for his garden are birdhouses.  Abe’s son, daughter and cousin each have at least one version of them in their backyards.

Birdhouse

One other object Abe made for the garden is his rotary Lawn Sprinkler, which he used for years.

Lawn Sprinkler

If outdoor entertaining can be considered a hobby, Abe and his wife Jenny were experts.  They enjoyed having people over, whether simply for hot dogs or for more lavish lamb shish kebab.  So Abe made his Shish Kebab machine, which could easily accommodate 12 people, the same number as their closest friends.  At one time Abe added a motor to turn the skewers, but since he enjoyed turning the handle by hand, he removed the motor.  Besides, the motor would have required an electric cord, which he really didn’t want to use.  Abe would brag that being Armenian meant, by definition, eating lots of shish kebab and rice pilaf.  The following photo of Abe and his Shish Kebab Machine was taken on 8-31-69, which happened to be a Sunday.

Shish Kebab Machine

Abe also made a set of Shish Kebab Skewers.

Shish Kebab Skewer

Abe enjoyed making lamps.  With at least 11 examples to his credit, all are in use by members of the Megerdichian family.  They could be of solid aluminum or brass and were very heavy,

Solid brass and aluminum lamps

or, delicate with brass legs and arms or a scallop shell.  All 3 of these lamps have been restored.

Lamp with 2 Disks, 4 Arms, 4 Legs

Stamp collecting was a favorite of Abe’s indoor hobbies.  Abe enjoyed meeting his other stamp collecting friends to exchange duplicates (see Online Museum, Exhibit #1, Art in Abundance).

Photography was another favorite hobby of Abe’s.  He took hundreds of color slides, mostly of family, friends, home and backyard, and outdoor scenery with his trusty Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera.

Abe’s Rolleiflex Camera with Lens Cap

Abe’s Snow on Fence

Abe’s photograph of his son Robert, painted by Dertad Studios

Abe employed the same high attention to detail to his photography as he did with his other activities.  He spoke of opening a photography studio business after retirement, but wasn’t certain he’d be able to raise enough capital.  His idea never became a reality.  Abe’s son Robert donated much of the slide collection to Project Save Armenian Photograph Archives, Watertown, MA.

For Abe, 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.  He knew he was onto something with his art, but he got great pleasure from giving his pieces away.

Abe’s artistic eye

Even when making objects intended to be used, Abe’s artistic eye is evident in all the above.  Occasionally he even outdid himself.  Several examples stand out, all games and toys.  All were meant to be played, and were.

Two of three chess sets he made:

The first combines chess and backgammon, beautifully machined, smooth with a glossy, glasslike finish, and backgammon stones in black and white plastic.

The second is a large set made of painted nuts and bolts.  It has an industrial, masculine feel.

Chess/Backgammon Set, 1968

Chess Set

A aluminum and brass Backgammon Set on which Abe’s kids played hundreds of games:

Backgammon Set, 1967t

An all brass Tic-Tac-Toe Set:

Tic Tac Toe Set, 1981

An aluminum and felt Pool Table that Abe’s kids played tiny games of pool on:

Pool Table with 2 Cues, Bridge, Rack, Balls, 1969

3 toy trucks with the same tractor, which Abe made in 1953:

The first features a hanging fabric curtain in the rear and a spare tire on the underside of the trailer.  One of the 2 stands went missing and has been remade and replaced.

The ramps for the Trailer (Car Carrier) also were missing and have been remade and replaced.

The “logs” for the Trailer (Wood Carrier) are broken off, painted broomsticks.

This set was intended as a play toys for Abe’s son Robert, who actually played with it a lot.  However, in reality, this set is not appropriate toys, with their weight, rough edges, metal fasteners, and paints.  The Tractor alone weighs nearly 3 pounds and the windshield wipers are painted on.  Rather, the set is an excellent example of Abe’s early artistic sense and lifelong caring nature as a father.  In Abe’s defense, toys of the era often did not have the kid friendliness of today.

Tractor, 1953, Trailer (Box)

Detail of Tractor, Trailer, fabric curtain

Detail of Tractor, Trailer, spare tire


Trailer (Car Carrier) , 1953


Trailer (Wood Carrier), 1953

Tractor

Desire to gift the items to others

(See Online Museum, Exhibit #1, Art in Abundance.)

Of Abe’s 158 utilitarian objects 35 were gifted to others, i.e. 22%.    For an artist to give away 1 of 5 of his pieces is a generous gesture in itself, but to give away industrial metal and utilitarian objects, makes it remarkable.  This is what Abe liked to do.  His collection is amazing in its size alone, but adding his skill level, sense of humor, and willingness to part with his pieces, makes him an artist extraordinaire.

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