ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Crafting a Future

Young Georgians build a new life using an ancient art

The quiet in the enameling studio at Caritas Georgia’s youth center is nearly absolute, save for the faint scraping of metal and the occasional whoosh of the oven door.

Three teenage girls work silently at their chipped wooden workbenches, pools of yellow light illuminating tiny jars of brightly colored powder and twists of glistening silver wire as the girls craft intricate designs.

As the children work, the tiny bits of silver metamorphose from minute scraps to delicate pieces of jewelry, each fold of silver serving as a catch for bright powdered enamel, applied painstakingly one drop at a time with the pointed nub of a tiny paint brush.

The finished product — cloisonné enamel, or minankari in Georgian — is an ancient decorative art form the girls” distant ancestors once mastered and used to create stunning religious icons, mosaics and vibrant jewelry. It is also, hopefully, a means to a better future for these girls and dozens of other children in need who participate in such programs.

The enamel studio is just one of several art workshops sponsored by Caritas Georgia — the social service network of Georgia’s Armenian, Chaldean and Latin Catholic churches — as part of its ongoing art therapy program for socially vulnerable children from the ages of 6 through 19.

Caritas Georgia offers the children a safe and nurturing environment, and, for children who are interested in learning, skills they can carry with them through life. The program also offers children the opportunity to learn how to make traditional carpets, design decorative woodcrafts, make ceramics and even write icons.

The arts program serves two purposes, according to Tamar Sharashidze and Davit Qarqarashvili, who manage the program. It provides much-needed psychological therapy for the 120 children who come to the center — many of whom come from troubled families, where abuse or alcoholism has left them aggressive or withdrawn. And it can provide a way to earn money once children master the skills taught at the center and enter into adulthood.

“In Georgia there are many traditional art forms, but we specifically chose the types of crafts that could earn a living,” notes Mr. Qarqarashvili.

“We chose the type of art work that is in higher demand.”

Largely ignored for decades, traditional Georgian cloisonné enamel is making a comeback. Enamels — no matter how small — are suddenly big. What is also big is the impact this delicate form of artistry is having on a new generation of Georgians, who are seeing new hope and possibility emerge from an ancient craft.

The origins of cloisonné enameling are hazy; the art form seems to have first appeared in the ancient Near East. Rings dating to the 12th century B.C. — crafted using something akin to the technique — have been found in Cyprus. Examples of jewelry made with a relatively similar method have been found from ancient Egypt’s Middle Kingdom in 19th century B.C. Georgian artists and art historians believe the Georgian art of cloisonné enamel is one of the oldest, as is Georgia’s high art form of enamel mosaics.

But the art seems to have been perfected around the end of the first millennium A.D. within the orbit of Byzantium, the Eastern Christian empire centered in the city of Constantinople. There, emperors were crowned with bands of gold that featured enameled icons and jewels, while in Georgia, precious icons were adorned with enameled ornaments and icons — the famous Khakhuli Triptych, which enshrines an icon of the Virgin Mary, is perhaps the most monumental example.

The technique was nearly lost, however, until one artist captivated a whole new generation of Georgians in the craft.

A sculptor and enamel artist by training, David Kakabadze was asked by Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II to revive the dying Georgian art of cloisonné enamel — and to then teach the art form to a cloister of sisters of St. Nino Convent in the country’s remote southern Samtskhe Javakheti region.

Mr. Kakabadze says Georgian enamel decorations are similar to those of Byzantium. The colors vary, however, and the Georgian method, especially for icons and high religious art, is more complicated.

For consumers, cloisonné enamel has been making a noticeable comeback for the past decade, says Yulia Abramova, the enamel instructor at the Chaldean Catholic parish of Mar Shemmon Bar Sabbae in Tbilisi.

A few decades ago, she explains, jewelry and other artwork made from enamel could only be found reliably in Mtskheta, Georgia’s ancient capital that remains the center of the Orthodox Church of Georgia.

Over the past decade, however, Georgians — and foreign tourists — have taken notice. The new demand and growing interest have created a potential niche for people seeking a profession, and churches are stepping in to help.

“You cannot just give someone a fish; you have to teach him to fish. This is our goal,” says Chorbishop Benjamin Beth Yadegar, a native of Iraq, who serves as pastor of Georgia’s only Chaldean Catholic parish.

According to the priest, the Georgian Orthodox Church has already trained several women in the art of enamel jewelry and would like to train more.

“Children, especially boys, do not have the means for higher education. Because parents have to pay for everything, it can make education unaffordable — especially for more than one child,” the priest says.

“For this reason many boys don’t go to college, or they drop out of school at 16. Their peers tease: ‘Why do want to go to school? That is for girls. You gotta drink, you gotta smoke, go out and have fun.’

“So we tell these boys: ‘Come on, come with us. You want to work somewhere? You need some money for cigarettes?’ ”

For the boys, wood crafting classes with Chorbishop Yadegar — a master carver who studied with his carpenter father — and driving tests to help secure invaluable driving licenses have helped turn lives around.

For the girls, on the other hand, Chorbishop Yadegar is betting on enamel jewelry making.

The amount girls can earn after completing their free studies is hard to predict; enamel jewelry in Georgia sells for as little as a few dollars in the city shops to tens of thousands in upscale galleries and charity auctions.

But the simple act of earning money — and the ability to do so — is invaluable, the priest says.

“When you can go to the bazaar and buy what you want with your money, you are already someone,” he notes. “When a woman can go buy what she wants without having to ask for money from her husband or her family because she has work, she has money, the relations change in the family — there is more respect. Her husband sees she is helping to pay for the electricity, for the gas.”

And, for women who are not yet married, he adds, learning a skill such as enamel work can make them more cautious about rushing into a marriage just for the sake of getting married. This is an important shift in mentality in Georgia, the priest adds, where domestic abuse remains prevalent and women are often trapped in abusive relationships because they cannot financially support themselves or their children.

That shift in attitude — not just about money, but also about personal behavior — is an integral part of art therapy, noted Caritas Georgia’s Tamar Sharashidze.

“Our children often come from very troubled families, and many children suffer from psychological problems,” she says. The art programs provide a therapeutic creative outlet, and can contribute to a vital sense of structure in life.

“If a child comes to us and is behaving poorly or aggressively, after some time this slowly improves,” she reports. “A child who before perhaps couldn’t sit still for five minutes, after six months is calmly sitting and creating something. This is very important.”

Artist David Kakabadze also stresses that a degree of stillness is necessary to produce quality enamel jewelry — just as a strong spiritual life and a real respect for the church is necessary to create enamel mosaics and icons.

Ketevani Grdzelishvili, one of the enamel instructors at Caritas Georgia’s Youth Center, agrees that once people have the skill to make jewelry, they are a step closer to a better life.

“This provides them with the means to earn a minimum level of income,” she says, adding that the demand is high as classes in enamel arts are otherwise expensive. For those vulnerable teenagers participating in the program sponsored by Caritas Georgia, and the young adults attending the workshops at Mar Shemmon Bar Sabbae Church, there are no expenses even for materials, which are costly. That means these programs are very expensive for Caritas Georgia and the parish to maintain.

At the Chaldean parish, Yulia Abramov can only work effectively with one person at a time in a spare room in the parish center, which has been outfitted with a work bench and a small stove. However, unlike the Caritas Georgia Youth Center, the parish does not have a proper oven to finish the pieces; Ms. Abramov has to take them to a different studio for completion.

On a windy Monday afternoon in December, the girls at Caritas Georgia are making pendants — on other days other students work on earrings and icons during their time in the studio.

For Keti, 18, busy creating a tranquil blue and green pendant, the work is not hard and she enjoys being able to produce something with her hands.

Beka stumbled on enamel work three years ago when a friend brought him to check out the workshop. He has never looked back. The 19-year-old is already selling his enamel jewelry to tourists — mostly Ukrainians, he says — and he is even considering making it into a career. As he works in the studio, he ignores phone calls and other distractions to concentrate on his project: a dainty pair of earrings in cobalt blue.

The final result will be more than just jewelry. He is crafting his own future.

“I like the process,” he says with a bit of a smile, “putting into realization what you imagined you wanted to create.”

The writing of Tbilisi-based photojournalist Molly Corso has appeared in She is a regular contributor to ONE. She last wrote about the “new orphans” of Georgia in the summer 2014 edition of ONE.

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