Magazine Summer 2008 The Altar of the Owl

20 May 2008, 17:40
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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.

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