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The Humble Masters - folk craft in Slovakia by Helen McCrorie


A web. Human spun. Intricate, delicate; held together simply, by twists and loops, but mesmerising in scale and complexity. Mathematics made human; like music.

Tacked up simply with pins on boards. No titles, no artist’s resume, no exhibition hand-outs. How was it made? Not bobbin; knitted, we think. With a fine silk thread. Working in the round, we think. Too beautiful, far too beautiful, to sit atop tables or dressers. Too big for the walls of a village house. Fitting perhaps for a baby, or a bride, but it is the wrong shape and size.

The artist? An elderly lady. From a local village. She has been practising her craft for over 50 years, with only very local fame; among specialists. Unassuming. This is her passion. Can we meet her? Unfortunately she is frail, she cannot come.

Did she sit at a scrubbed wooden table late in the winter evenings, when the snow had slumped off the roof and made a nest of her home, like the rooftop roosts of storks in early summer? In a traditional wooden village house, built of notched oak beams and adobe brick, with a thatched roof and woven hazel screens; the plaster coloured a soft blue with Gentian flowers. Surrounded by materials that are worked and bound in the most natural and honest ways. Perhaps she attended the local village church: a small jewel-like building, built entirely out of wood, using no nails, a silvered casing of interlocking wooden shingles adorning its walls and onion dome roof. As a child she would wear her Sunday best: tunic and skirts that were steam-pleated in an urn in the traditional way and embroidered by her parents over the long winters. Her grandmother would wear a crocheted head-piece and a dark shawl, hand-painted with floral patterns on both sides. From an early age she may have been surrounded by incredible feats of craftsmanship by ordinary, rural Slovakians.

Dedication to a craft. The need to make.  The cultural theorist Richard Sennett has described craftsmanship as “an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake”. He suggests that at least 10,000 hours may be needed to make a skilled craftsperson.

What did the war do to this making? The 260,000 Russian and Nazi troops that converged in 1944 in the Dukla pass, just a few miles away, dashing the bodies of 138,000 men and leaving skulls like mushrooms in the woods and fields. Death Valley it is called; a strategic pass through the Carpathian mountains. Local Slovakian men fought also, alongside the Nazis, most conscripted by force. Tanks and artillery guns lie there still, among the barley and potatoes. Poking their noses out from behind bushes and cattle, watching over butterfly meadows. The tourists take their pictures, walk round them, climb on them, sit on them. Local farmers and villagers live with these everyday reminders: that this was once Hell on Earth. Lately, local Roma families have begun to dismantle them and sell them for scrap. Some people find this shocking. Others think: it is time.

What did Communism do to this making? Everything you did was for the Party. Everything: for the good of the Party.  Did people mourn the passing of communism? If you had been here, under communism, you would not ask that. People couldn’t worship under communism. Some still went to church, but if you did you weren’t a good communist, you were not loyal to the Party, you wouldn’t get a good position, a good home. The 37m high Soviet Army Memorial in Svidník (the National Cultural Monument), unveiled in 1954 is a testament to that ideological power with its colossal stone reliefs The People Welcoming Their Liberators and  The Village Welcoming the Soviet Army. Now it has become a meeting place for the town youth- who drink and skate under the gaze of the bronze Soviet Generals.

What did Opening Up, Globalization, Consumerism do to this making? Often, the poorer peasants were, the richer the handmade decoration. As they prospered, they began to buy more items -cloth, lace and ribbons that were factory made, rather than hand-woven, hand-embroidered, or hand-painted. As consumer goods proliferated, folk art and costumes were bought rather than made: and cared for less. Before, a person would sometimes take a whole year to make and embroider their own Sunday waistcoat. both-dancers-200 And what will the future bring? The beauty and mystery of this woman’s lace-work continued to haunt me during the Slovakian trip.  It was clear from the traditional Goran wedding we were honoured to witness in Stropkov- of a young couple who had each made their own intricately embroidered wedding costume- that traditional crafts are still treasured in Slovakia. It is evident to me that they could have an important role to play in the future for tourism and the arts. I was amazed by the wealth of ornamentation and decoration in the traditional handicrafts of Slovakian peasant peoples. It made me think about our traditions of folk craft in Scotland; the differences in the crafts themselves and also in the way they are presented and valued within our culture. It threw up lots of questions about how and why things were different here, and has certainly made me want to learn more about the history of folk crafts in Scotland.

For me, the visit to Slovakia was very timely. 9 years ago I was an artist; I worked in a studio and made work for art exhibitions. After having children however, that changed -most of my time over the last decade has revolved around child-rearing, with some part-time community arts and design work and short bursts of creative pottering. Now, when someone asks “what do you do?” my response meanders in a way that usually makes their eyes glaze over.  My youngest child starts school this year and I’m full of optimism but also trepidation about getting back to the studio.  Where to start? This trip gave me a wealth of inspiration. It has also made me consider the role of craft in my work. I am used to thinking about my art practice in the context of the history and traditions of contemporary art since Modernism, this helped me to also recognise a more personal context-the creative traditions of my own working-class family and ancestors- my grandparents and great-grandparents who were lace-makers, bakers and carpenters.


Helen McRorie

Helen McRorie


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