Armenian artist sculpts historic Jerusalemites in layers of paper and aluminum

Karen Sargsyan spent the last three months in a makeshift moshav studio, crafting his unique figures for a Tower of David exhibit opening July 8

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

It’s a colorful collection of historic figures gathered in Karen Sargsyan’s temporary studio housed in a former moshav hen house, ranging from King David, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, to Herod, Suleiman the Magnificent, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and Anna Ticho.

What these figures all have in common is their influence over the city of Jerusalem, and, for the moment, their many-layered faces and bodies, sculpted in multi-layered sheets of paper or thinly sliced layers of aluminum, sometimes sprayed to bright, uniform colors, at other times left to their natural, silver sheen.

“I didn’t separate Jewish history and history, it’s one big thing,” said Sargsyan. “These guys made part of history.”

Sargsyan sculpted a total of nine figures, including Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, Herod the Great, Melisende the crusader queen of Jerusalem, Suleiman the Magnificent.

They’ll soon be moved to their temporary abode at the Tower of David Museum, as part of the “Rock Paper Scissors” exhibit opening July 8, featuring Sargsyan, a Dutch artist of Armenian background, known for his bold, intricate sculptures made of paper.

Karen Sargsyan at his temporary worktable, cutting, slicing and bending paper and aluminum to his will, for ‘Paper Rock Scissors,’ opening July 8, 2018 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Some of the figurines are human-size sculptures, built around a wooden base, yet oddly lifelike, with facial expressions, limbs and bodies seemingly ready to move and act, thanks to the Sargsyan’s signature technique.

His trademark style was developed during art studies at the renowned Rijksakademie art school in Amsterdam, where Sargsyan moved with his family after experiencing economic and political pressures in his homeland of Armenia. He also credits his sculpture technique to his earlier experience as a boxer and his college studies, when he took anatomy courses that helped him understand the workings of the body.

But this internationally known paper artist remembers first turning to paper long before that period, as a kind of experiment as he figured out the planes and lines of the human body.

A jaunty King Herod, as depicted by paper artist Karen Sargsyan (Courtesy Ricky Rachman)

That was more than 20 years ago. Since then, Sargsyan, now 45, has shown internationally, including London’s Tate Modern and in 2019 at France’s Pompidou Metz.

 “These new works by Sargsyan, which were created especially for this exhibition, bring a unique, modern interpretation to Jerusalem’s historical figures,” said Eilat Lieber, who directs and is chief curator of the Tower of David Museum.  “The figures add an artistic dimension which express, in a visual manner, the hopes, influences, plans and challenges which accompany the history of the city through thousands of years.”

Delving into Jewish biblical figures, or historical heroes known for their support of the Jewish or Israeli cause wasn’t all that straightforward for Sargsyan, whose Dutch colleagues and friends looked upon this upcoming show with some consternation for Israel’s politics.

“I’m not religious or political,” said Sargsyan. “I approached this as a novice.”

Karen Sargysan’s King David, set up outside the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem for the exhibit ‘Rock Paper Scissors’ (Courtesy Ricky Rachman)

He turned to some bible study, reading both the Old and New Testament to understand the context of the Tower of David and to familiarize himself with some of the biblical heroes, as well as literary takes on the bible.

“I needed to interpret these people,” he said. “To see what kind of influence they had on the city of Jerusalem.”

Sargsyan and his wife came to Jerusalem three months ago, along with a shipment of 100 kilos of aluminum and schlepping more than 2,500 knives, with plans to create nine works before the July opening of the show.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of the modern Hebrew language, as recreated by Karen Sargsyan in layers of plastic Courtesy Ricky Rachman)

Some of the sculptures are the size of a human body, others are smaller, such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, shown sitting at his desk, or Anna Ticho getting ready to paint.

Ben-Yehuda, in blacks, whites, yellows and reds, ended up being sculpted out of thin sheets of plastic, Sargsyan’s interpretation of this more “modern, very contemporary person.”

Anna Ticho, a round rotund figure holding an artist’s palette, is in the pinks, purples and greens of her own watercolors, and made from aluminum sheets spray-painted to a solid, fine sheen.

The end result of each sculpture is almost scarecrow-like in effect, with layers upon layers of finely cut, shredded paper and aluminum, but with sharp edges, offering planes of a face, hairs of a bear, movement in the limbs, the curled edges of a helmet worn by Suleiman.

“It’s been three months of very intensive work, day and night,” said Sargsyan. “But the Tower of David is a super great place to do this.”

A closeup of the Queen of Sheba, as depicted by paper sculptor Karen Sargsyan, for ‘Rock Paper Scissors,’ opening July 8 at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem (Courtesy Ricky Rachman)

There will be activities and seminars for children, families and adults throughout the course of the exhibit, which is open until October 1.

Children’s activities will be offered during the summer months and will focus on various techniques for using paper, paper-cutting, collage and soft materials for creating multi-faceted shapes of different sizes.

There will also be free entrance to the Tower of David Museum for children from July 15 through August 31. Sargsyan will present gallery talks and art seminars for the community as well.

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