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Crafting a Future

Young Georgians build a new life using an ancient art

text and photographs by Molly Corso

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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come to the center — many of whom come from troubled families, where abuse or alcoholism has left them aggressive or withdrawn.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.

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