26 July 2013, 13:41
2075 |

The Altar of the Owl

In San Francisco, the most romantic American city, among the sculptures of Rodin, Bufano, and Henry Moore a dozen sculptures of an Armenian master are found. In the foyer of City Hall, four of the twelve bronze sculptures of famous individuals were made by Haig Patigian.

Several years ago the presentation of my book “Russians in San Francisco” took place in the international room of San Francisco City Hall in the presence of Mayor Willie Brown and the Consul of the Russian Federation Yuri Popov. This was the first event of its kind within the history of the Russian speaking community of the city, so local administrators had decorated the venue in a festive American way. I was asked to make an introductory speech and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, during my first visit to your amazing city I stood in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the entrance of the City Hall for quite a while, and noticed something native, Armenian, in the bronze image of the sixteenth president of the United States of America.” To these words the audience grinned indulgently. Nonetheless, I continued unruffled: “No, no, ladies and gentlemen, I wouldn’t dare claim that Lincoln had Armenian roots in his ancestry (although, who really knows?), but the sculptor who created this statue is in fact a full-blooded Armenian.” That is when a unanimous “Really?” rose from the audience. The chief of mayoral protocol – the charming Charlotte Shultz, wife of George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State reasonably noted: “There are nearly one hundred and thirty sculptural monuments in San Francisco, who can possibly remember the names of all the artists?!”
Nevertheless, there are twelve pieces by Haig Patigian in San Francisco, including four in the lobby of the City Hall.
It is time we spoke about the sculptor himself. Before we do, we must move back in time and across the sea to the city of Van. It has been said that during the summer of 1880 the city became incredibly animated. A respected teacher of a local school named Avetis strolled around the city with an unidentified apparatus on a tripod shipped from New York. Only two days later he was showing images of his native city to its residents. Mesmerized Vanians followed Avetis, praising the miracle of his apparatus. But in Osman Turkey under Abdul Hamid II no miracles continued for long. Turkish sleuths were already preparing an accusation of Russian espionage toward Avetis, but the witty teacher was two steps ahead of them; disappearing from the city and turning up in Fresno, California several months later. There Avetis changed his profession and gained employment at a railroad construction site. After saving for some time, Avetis sent the money to his wife Marine, who managed to reach the States with their five children without incidents. Avetis could never have imagined the massacre his family narrowly escaped.
And now, let us visit France for a moment.
In the autumn of 1906, the 30-year old Armenian from San Francisco named Haig Patigian, the son of Avetis, arrived in Paris. He was born in 1876, in the city of Van, and lived in United States from the age of 15. In 1899, convinced by his friends and family, he entered the San Francisco Arts Institute. Although a dilettante student, he was hired as a stuff illustrator at the San Francisco Bulletin newspaper. Modest honorariums soon followed, but Patigian considered himself a sculptor and he was convinced his time would come.
Indeed, in 1904, fate brought the 28-year old Patigian together with a millionaire from the village of Arcada George Zender, who was obsessed with the idea of creating a monument to President McKinley.
- What would you say this work is worth? – Zender asked, expressing his wish of creating a monument.
Haig replied timidly:
- Fifteen thousand dollars (equivalent to a modern half a million).
- Well, that is quite reasonable! – responded the millionaire and made out a check in the amount of $2,500 as an advance.
Patigian threw himself into the project; working intensely on his first ever large-scale commission. In 1906, on the 17th of April the sparkling bronze figure was ready to be transported to the customer. Tragically, the San Franciscan earthquake struck the very next day. The beautiful city fell into ruins in little more than an hour; fire soon captured many of its buildings. Haig rushed to the studio where the sculpture was cast. Sadly, only bits and pieces of the mold remained. And then another miracle happened – three days after the earthquake, a fire marshal visited Patigian and informed him that McKinley’s statue, wrapped in fireproof paper was recovered by the firefighters from the ruins of the foundry.
The dedication of the monument took place in Arcada on the 4th of July, 1906. Mr. Zender issued a check for the rest of the promised sum, $12,500, extolling the artist:
“You have to perfect your art! Not just anywhere, but in Europe!”
Inspired, Haig moved to Paris, but never pursued an academic training. In 1907, he returned to California after the exhibition of his piece “Ancient History” in Salon Des Artistes Francais. Patigian was bombarded with commissions upon his return. However, they were not the large-scale orders he had hoped for. As for the “eternity” and his inner satisfaction, he created the sculpture “Altar of the Owl”. In all probability, in this work Patigian proclaims that a human being must not fear darkness and like an owl must make sacrifices on the altar of wisdom for the sake of higher truth while uncovering the mysteries of nature.
The next year, 1908, was significant in the sculptor’s personal life – he married Blanch Hollister. Interestingly, her grandfather had founded a city in California that bore their family name of Hollister. Another wonderful event took place that year; Patigian along with the “American Marx” – Jack London, was admitted to San Francisco’s Bohemian Club. Herbert Hoover, after becoming the 31st president of United States called the Bohemian Club “the best men’s party on Earth.” Another fact proves the significance of Patigian to the city - he was elected three times (1920, 1921, and 1926) to the presidency of the Bohemian Club.
In 1912 he again moved to Paris, this time with his wife. Their very first visit was paid to Auguste Rodin. Patigian demonstrated photos of his works to the “king of sculpting”. After a long silence, Rodin uttered:
- Yes, monsieur, you are a sculptor.
Patigian recited these words of Rodin every day of his life. And his faithful companion, Blanch Patigian-Hollister religiously repeated:
- He had also added: “Great sculptor!”
Year after year new sculptures of Patigian, delivered in a neoclassical style, appeared on San Franciscan streets. However, I am not here to provide critical evaluations of these works. It seems silly to discuss the virtues of the pieces that have long become essential elements of the city streetscape.
The sculptor created his major monument in 1932 in the Little Italy neighborhood. This was a monument dedicated to San Franciscan volunteer firefighters of 1849-1866. Possibly, in its casting Patigian was also paying homage to other firefighters – those who saved his first sculpture.
Patigian was often asked about roots of his creativity and his teachers. His invariable response was:
- My creative roots are Armenian churches, fresco, and Stone Crosses (Khachkars). As to my teachers - these are my parents and Armenian stonemasons.
One Armenian gentleman from San Francisco who reached the age of 90, recently told me that in late 1940’s at an Armenian restaurant named Omar Khayam, William Saroyan once told Patigian with his deafening voice:
- It is very good that you never changed your surname to something more American-sounding, and never became a “Pat,” for instance. Something else though is bad – you’ve never created a monument to David of Sassoon.
- I was a friend of Jack London’s, Patigian replied, and was acquainted with many writers in my day, but you, son, are by far the most thunderous of them all!
Both Armenians broke amicably into laughter but suddenly Patigian got serious:
- And remember, Willy, a monument to David of Sassoon should be cast only in Armenia!
Haig Patigian lived a creatively dynamic, but tragic life. Young Haig lost his brother, Khoren, soon after his mother Marine “faded away”, and then his younger sister followed. The most devastating loss of all for Patigian was the sudden death of his 16-year-old son. He tried to suppress his grief with creative and community work. On September 10th, 1950 life gave him the final blow – his wife Blanch died. Unable to survive her death, Patigian died exactly nine days later in the arms of his daughter Hollis, at Stanford University hospital, at the age of 74. The next day all major publications in the United States, including the New York Times, notified the public about the death of a “remarkable sculptor from San Francisco.” This is who Patigian remains in the history of the city. Ten or more years ago, an enterprising Irishman conducted tours of Patigian-related sites – beginning with the monument to Abraham Lincoln in City Hall and ending with Patigian’s former Victorian villa with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and the Bay Bridge. For those interested in real estate, a massive mansion once owned by Patigian has been offered for sale. The asking price is $7,800, 000.

Yerevan Magazine, Summer, N1, 2008

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