The Man Carving History out of the Caucasus Mountainside
For many people, Sno, a small village in the mountains of Kazbegi, is known as the birthplace of the current head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II. Visitors often drive to a small cross at the edge of the village to pay their respects before continuing on their way. But this village has another claim to fame- and sculptor Merab Piranishvili is carving it out of the mountainside, one stone at a time.
Driving into the village on the winding Sno-Akhaltsikhe-Juta road, just before the entrance, you pass a collection of massive stone heads, somewhat reminiscent of Easter Island, carved out of granite. Merab has been carving these statues by hand since 1984. Each statue is of a different prominent figure from Georgian history.
From left to right in the image above, the figures are: Ilya Chavchavadze, Vaja Pshavela, Shota Rustaveli,and Alexandre Kazbegi.
The valley in which this village is located is a fitting place for the grandiose nature of Merab’s work. Untamed waterfalls rush down the deep green grass slopes of surrounding jagged, snow-capped mountains. Cows graze in nearby flower meadows, gazing in curiosity at our car as it rumbles down the road.
Continuing on, the road enters into Sno. This village in many ways resembles other Georgian mountain villages in the Kazbegi region. A mix of traditional stone-tiled houses and newer metal-and-brick homes line the village’s central street. A few satellite dishes peak out over the stone and sheet-metal thatched roofs. Stacked stone walls denominate one plot of land from another. Pastel colored metal tubes run along the streets, supplying households with natural gas. There is a general noise of chickens clucking throughout.
I had the opportunity to visit Merab in his home to discuss his work. He lives in what one may call an artist’s workshop. It is a two-floor home with vivid magenta roses growing along the wall by the main entrance, which he points out to me with pride. There is a large entrance room which doubles as a work space and living room.
Intricate stone and plaster sculptures line two shelves which wrap around the wall. There is a wooden carving table perched in front of a window overlooking the nearby Caucasus mountain range. Various chisels and knives are laid out on top.
Along the back wall of the room there is a carved dark wood bed with a light blue cover, towered over by an extensive collection of landscapes and portraits chiseled into granite.
There is another table in the room by the entrance, on which rests a thin granite slab and the weekly newspaper. Merab sits down at one end of the table and begins etching a portrait into the stone slab. His wife, Nato, brings us turkish coffee and chocolates.
She leads a local children’s folk choir. “They won 2nd place in the Tbilisi championship!” Merab tells me with proud excitement. The choir consists of local children from the Kazbegi region, some coming from Sno, others from surrounding villages.
At a time when many young Georgians are gravitating towards decidedly westernized and commercial music, Nato is striving to kindle in these children an attachment to traditional Georgian polyphonic singing, recognized by UNESCO as a form of “intangible human heritage”.
Merab was born in the village of Sno in the 1950s, and went to high school in Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia.
In 1977, he graduated from the Art Academy in Tbilisi and began working as an art teacher in the capital.
After a few years, he no longer felt that being in the city offered him enough artistic opportunities for the type of work he wanted to pursue, and he decided to return home to his village of Sno, where he started to develop his masterpieces. He began carving the large stone heads in 1984.
I asked him why he decided to work with stone instead of a different material. “Stone is the best”, he responds firmly, all the while edging out a portrait of Vaja Pshavela in a thin granite board.
Granite, the material he uses for his massive sculptures, is durable and naturally occurring in this region. It’s meant for posterity.
I ask how long it takes him to complete a sculpture. “Oh, I don’t know…” he says, “it depends. Now I have a tool with which I can work much faster.” He pulls out a large rod attached to a motor, which carves stone through a concentrated electric current.
“It sounds like an airplane!” he says. “With this I can work very fast. Back when I used to work with a hammer and chisel it would take me an entire summer to finish one sculpture. Now I can finish a sculpture in one week.”
The topic shifts to tourism- a topic which is increasingly relevant in villages like Sno where an increasing flow of tourists from around the world has the capacity to transform places like this, both for the better and for the worse.
I ask where he stands on the question- would he like more tourists to come into the village and encourage economic activity, or does he think that this could be an issue for the traditional way of life here? He answers quickly and proudly “No! What I’m doing here I want to the whole world to see! If I am just carving these stones for myself, then who cares? Everyone has to see!”
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I ask him if life in this village is better now than it was during the Soviet period, and how he thinks it has changed over the last few decades. “During the Soviet time”, he tells me, “the stones were brought here for free. Now it costs at least 500 Lari. In this way it was better back then, at least for my profession, because the government would fund and buy my works.”
He pauses, then sighs: “I would work on creating the massive sculptures every day if I could, but I can’t afford to bring up the stones anymore”.
“This is hungry work. I have no electricity anymore either because they suddenly increased the price for the whole village. The electrical company asked the village to pay for the electricity usage of the Church. Doesn’t the Church have enough money to pay for its own electricity? How am I supposed to be able to pay more?”
I ask him where he can go to file a complaint. “The municipal government, but no one cares about this, they won’t change anything.”
He tells me about another tension he has had with the Church. Before the conflict with Russia broke out in 2008, the Orthodox Church commissioned him to sculpt a stone statue of Giorgi Saakadze. The church paid him half of the commission up front to help him acquire a stone and bring it up to Sno to begin work.
They promised him that they would pay the other half upon completion of the work. This piece was intended to be displayed at a monastery in Martkhopi, a village in the south of Georgia which is is famous for having six monasteries all standing in close proximity.
Halfway through Merab’s work on the piece, however, the church contractors took the unfinished sculpture away to Martkhopi without paying him the second half of the payment which they had agreed upon. They told him that he could come later to finish the piece in person and that they would pay him then.
Nearly a decade on, he has yet to hear back from the church contractors.
It should be emphasized here that the Georgian Church itself was not necessarily responsible for this misconduct, but rather potentially the sub-contractors it hired to commission the sculpture. There is not enough clear information at this point regarding who made the decision to relocate the sculpture to Martkhopi without paying Merab to make a definitive conclusion.
This should therefore not be read as an accusation of any party in particular, but rather as a description of the events which transpired based on the information we have available from Merab’s perspective. Furthermore, it should be understood that the Georgian Church is a nation-wide entity, and the institution as a whole should not be held responsible for the misconduct of one party.
Despite his setbacks, however, Merab remains positive. I ask him what he anticipates for the future of his works. “Here’s my vision”, he tells me. “All of the great figures from Georgia’s history: the poets, the writers, the kings- all of whom who made Georgian history- should be represented by these stone statues so that travelers can come and see all of these great figures in one place. An outdoor museum. This would be at the entrance of Sno.”
So far, he has finished Ilya Chavchavadze, Shota Rustaveli, Vaja Pshavela, and Alexandre Kazbegi. Next, when he has the opportunity, he plans to carve the great Georgian kings like Tamar Mepe (the female King) and David Agmashenebeli (David the Builder).
Sno is a closely-knit community. 150 people live in the village, all of whom know each other well. The village is facing similar challenges as other small villages throughout the country.
There are few employment opportunities for young people living in the village, yet going to the capital Tbilisi does not necessary offer a better option, as living costs are higher and employment is far from guaranteed. This has lead many young people in Sno to resort to unproductive behavior like excessive drinking, and would appear to leave little room for a better future. However, just as other villages in Georgia are breaking out of this toxic situation with the help of tourism, so too can Sno.
After the interview, Merab takes me outside to see his first and largest sculpture, of Saint George on a horse. Along the way, we pass by a local bicycle gang. This sculpture, unlike the four heads mentioned earlier in this article, is not on the main road. It is tucked away in the Caucasus foothills behind the village of Sno- a worthy hike in its own right to witness such an impressive piece. Merab, clearly more agile than me despite his years quickly crosses over a half-built bridge.
The work of Merab Piranishvili signals a step in a positive direction for spurring outside interest in the village, but he is not alone. Though Sno may be small in population, it is rich in artistic talent. Another artist- Bidzina Snoveli, is also making a name for Sno through his wood-carving masterpieces.
Merab’s work is the building of a legacy where none previously existed- a literal creation of history. It is important to understand here that the type of tourism which Merab is seeking to develop is one which is based on the celebration of local culture and art.
He is not creating a touristic product for the sake of quick profit, but rather expressing his own artistic vision and remaining true to his culture. His vision represents the type of creative thinking which can allow many of Georgia’s villages to move in a positive direction forward, and, as many readers of Stories of Georgia will know, he is not alone in his creativity. For now, though, Merab waits, until he can once again have the opportunity to bring up a stone and continue working on his sculptures.