On any gift-giving occasion in the Megerdichian household, the most exciting presents to unwrap were always both the smallest and, funnily enough, the heaviest.
Some boxes held metal miniature re-creations — a brass violin with horse-hair strings and a latched case; an aluminum piano music box that played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Others concealed stainless-steel jewelry, intricately detailed, immaculately formed. And others still contained children’s toys, like steel tractor-trailer sets to be nudged along the wooden floors of their Cambridge home.
“They were 14 ounces of love, 1 ounce of metal,” says Robert Megerdichian, 63, of the tiniest pieces his late father, Abraham, bestowed upon the family throughout his lengthy career as a machinist. “He started off with a solid block of metal, brass, aluminum, copper, or stainless steel, and he gouged away, like a sculptor would, like an artist would, to create all of these objects.”
Megerdichian’s description of his father as an artist has recently earned official validation, with museums across New England displaying an array of Abraham’s pieces. The Attleboro Area Museum of Industry, the Lynn Museum, and Boston’s Museum of Science all currently house some of his metal miniatures. Additional museum exhibits are set to open in the fall, including at Connecticut’s New Britain Industrial Museum. For more than half a century, however, Abraham’s creations were reserved for his loved ones.
“He wanted to make utilitarian objects but he also wanted to make personal gifts,” says Megerdichian, who professionally measures and draws floor plans for architects. “It was important to him to make things that made the people he cared for happy.”
Born in Franklin to Armenian immigrants, Abraham was raised in Cambridge and lived there for most of his life, working as a machinist. It was in the 1950s, at his place of work at a factory in Lynn, that he first explored metal art. During 20-minute lunch breaks, Abraham would parse through scrap bins, carefully selecting worthy material, and repurpose what he could to craft everything from cutlery to candleholders.
“He machined all these pieces for the house, at first a lot of them very practical,” Megerdichian recalls. “But his hobby evolved into a passion for these elaborate metal miniatures.”
By the time he died in 1983, Abraham had completed more than 300 items, nearly all made for family or friends but each resolutely specific in purpose and presentation.
“Some of them were very simple, but others were extremely sophisticated,” says Megerdichian. “His range was extraordinary.”
And yet, after Abraham’s passing at 59, from a heart attack, the miniatures were tucked away out of sight.
“When he died, everyone in the family picked a piece and took it, and all the other pieces went into a box he’d made that morbidly looked like a casket,” Megerdichian recalls. “And it was locked up and put away in this box he’d made with a little tag on it that just says, ‘My Created Objects,’ in Armenian. Just like that — he was prolific but very casual.”
It wasn’t until 2013, when family friends asked about the status of the pieces, that Megerdichian began digging around, ultimately uncovering a treasure trove.
“That there were hundreds of pieces floored me,” says Megerdichian. “How many bona fide metal artists are there out there who have that many pieces?”
Emboldened by rediscovering Abraham’s extensive collection, Megerdichian decided it was time to bring the miniatures out of storage and into the public eye.
‘It’s become a work of love. Keeping his memory alive, both for me and other people, is really a joy. . . . It’s very reward-ing, because my sons never met him. This is my way of introducing my own sons to their grandfather.’
“On a lark, I grabbed this elaborate little violin he’d made and took it to an open house at the Charles River Museum of Industry,” he explains.
He asked to speak with the director, who he says was visibly impressed with the piece and made plans to see the rest of Megerdichian’s collection. Though unexpected circumstances led that museum to eventually pass on an exhibit it had arranged, the encounter assured Megerdichian that his father’s work was worthy of display.
Soon after, he approached the director of the Attleboro Area Industrial Museum, who was equally taken with the miniatures, agreeing to exhibit select pieces. Other successful meetings soon followed with the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, R.I., the Providence Children’s Museum, and the Museum of Science in Boston.
“The artwork speaks for itself,” says Megerdichian. “It’s very unusual, even though the subject matter is very commonplace. There’s a story behind this. This stuff was made by a real person, with a career and a life, and that’s what’s so interesting about it to so many people.”
Carleton Legg, executive director at the Attleboro Area Industrial Museum, was particularly taken with the functionality of many pieces. “They’re everyday pieces,” he explains. “But they’re so intricate and realistic that it brings a smile to your face.”
When Megerdichian first approached the museum about the pieces, now-retired director George Shelton and other board members were enthusiastic, Legg recalls. Out of the 50 pieces originally put on display, 25 are now part of a permanent exhibit.
“They’ve been a massive success for the museum,” adds Legg. “The craftsmanship and detail are incredible, and the more people see it, the more they recognize their prized, precious nature.”
For Megerdichian, introducing the world to his father’s art meant revisiting grief along with happy memories.
“It’s become a work of love,” he says. “Keeping his memory alive, both for me and other people, is really a joy. But it’s hard sometimes. He’s been gone 33 years and this is opening it all up again. I missed all those 33 years. We could have done stuff together.”
The most thrilling part of exhibiting the miniatures, he says, has been watching his own sons grow to understand Abraham as both an ancestor and an artist.
“It’s very rewarding, because my sons never met him,” he explains. “This is my way of introducing my own sons to their grandfather. Armenians are very big on memory; people die, but they don’t just go away.”
In showing the next generation of Megerdichians the detail and diversity of their grandfather’s miniatures, he hopes to impart in them an appreciation for Abraham’s creative spirit and generous heart.
“This is my way of bringing him back,” says Megerdichian. “It’s his legacy. . . . My sons never saw the stuff before, but now they’re finding this grandfather they never knew through his art.”Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com.