Michal Sirik – the carpenter with a palette

Please note: this article is an English version of the original article written by Helena Dvorakova for Pravda newspaper, translated and reproduced here with the Chief Editor’s permission. Click here to view the original.

Michal Sirik is from eastern Slovakia, just like the family of Andy Warhol. They were peers – one, however, was an avantgarde artist in the USA, the other painted naive art at home. Sirik, too, exhibited in the Warhol’s Museum in Medzilaborce, and his paintings are in many galleries and collections, like the one in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

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The artist at work. A photo by the painter’s son Miroslav Sirik

Michal Sirik was born in 1925 in Sterkovce that is now a part of Čabalovce near Medzilaborce. His family was poor, and so he was expected to help out from an early age. He took care of the cattle, worked in the field, accompanied the lumberjacks and assisted them in making lump charcoal. This now rare craft used to be wide-spread back then. The lumberjacks who “burnt” the lump charcoal in the forests were called “miliari” in Slovakian.

Based on these memories, in 1987 Sirik created a set of six oil paintings titled Miliari. They capture not only the process of making the lump charcoal, but also the interesting and demanding life style these lumberjacks led, often spending winters in the forest, and working at the lowest temperatures. On the turn of the 20th century, charcoal burning was a regular source of supplementary income for people in eastern Slovakia. Young boys were apprenticed at 14.

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Michal Sirik: Miliari (1987)

“Miliari” lived in cottages in beech or oak forests, and every day they felled and sawed trees, and tightly layered the logs into a tall spire. They covered it with leaves and soil and set on fire on the inside. The logs burned slowly, changing into charcoal within twelve days. The fire had to be kept day and night, and in any weather. When the charcoal was ready, they filled the sacks and took them in wagons to Sterkovce and Medzilaborce, from where they were transported by train to towns further away. The blacksmiths in that region used exclusively lump charcoal made by “miliari.” Michal Sirik captured it all, and according to Rusyn ethnologists Nadezda and Jozef Varchol, these six oil paintings are among the most valuable and captivating artworks of his.

The life of the Rusyn people

It is only natural that work is a common subject of Sirik’s paintings. It was his world, the world he knew, and so he documented it. He convincingly portrayed many themes from the Rusyn life that was not always easy. Some titles give us a clue as to the subject matter: Wheat Harvest, Hauling Grain, Threshing, Making Sauerkraut, Hazelnut Harvest, Hauling Trees, Slaughter. He painted not only scenes, but procedures, too. He showed how people used to process crops and wild berries, what crafts they relied on, how they lived.

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Michal Sirik: Dressing the Bride (1988)

Sirik painted many typical village customs and practices – from kitchens and backyards of the Rusyn people; practices that faded away with time. He showed people weaving, grinding flour in millstones, baking bread, plucking geese. The ethnologists Varchols are convinced that this part of Sirik’s art has an immense value as a historical documentary – he often depicted religious events and customs of the Rusyns, their holidays, rituals, weddings, newborns, Christmas and Easter.

Brides at a fair

Michal Sirik was a carpenter by occupation, but when he retired in the 1980s, he committed himself only to painting. The dates on his artworks are therefore fairly recent (he passed away in 2012), but their subject matter is from the old world, the world that is no more. Sirik had a phenomenal memory and was a great storyteller, so he was able to paint from memory with great precision. The ethnologists are in awe at his ability to vividly capture such long-forgotten moments as, for example, girls’ Easter games.

He was also interested in architecture and landscape. The monastery in Krasny Brod has a special place in his work. They used to hold famous fairs near the monastery. A legend has it that during these events young men would pick brides there. Young girls would line up and the men would look for their one and only, chanting: “Come to see a priest if you need a husband!” Later, a basilian monastery was erected on that spot, yet Sirik painted the ruins of the original building from the 14th century. The new monastery building that stands there now is from the 1990s, and, of course, young men don’t pick their brides there anymore. The problem was that these couples could go from the fair straight to the priest and get married right away, without the consent of their families, which would then fall out. This was the reason these fairs were banned in 1720.

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Michal Sirik: The Monastery in Krasny Brod (1988)

Sirik did not paint contemporary themes too often, but there are some paintings that show, for example, rebuilding a local road that crosses a beautiful landscape, and Medzilaborce – a square with pedestrians and a busy traffic. His characteristic works are paintings of abodes. They are welcoming and pleasing to the eye because they contain many characters and stories; and they are composed with a strange order and peace that is rather rare today. They feel almost therapeutic.

Jews also used to live there

The paintings of the life of the Jewish people in eastern Slovakia form a special chapter in Sirik’s work. Before the Second World War, the Jews were numerous and well-established around Medzilaborce and Humenne, and they actively participated in the economical and social life of the region. Sirik painted street scenes full of  small shops and pubs owned by the Jews. An oil painting from 1997 titled A Selling Jew captures a market with villagers and townspeople. Sirik also masterfully painted a Jewish wedding and the synagogue on the Rybne Square in Bratislava and the Staronova synagogue in Prague. Whereas the pre-war period was depicted peacefully, Sirik added a lot of drama in his works on holocaust. The canvases from 1991 titled Deportations of the Jews convey the tragedy of this experience. The critics agree that naive artists usually do not deal with holocaust, which only adds urgency to Sirik’s message.

Baptized by hazelnuts

A newly published book about the artist was compiled by a team of authors – Katarina Cierna, a curator of the naive art in the Slovak National Gallery, the ethnologists Jozef Varchol, Nadezda Varcholova and Maria Miskova, a critic of Sirik’s work in the Museum of Humenne. It was delightful that the book was “baptized” in a very original way – they pulled it out from a pile of hazelnuts! Maria Miskova compared Sirik’s work to these fruits: only when they ripen, they fall on the ground, and when we crack them, we feel their sweet taste. This is the case with Sirik’s work that was cracked open and went out to the world. The book contains 85 reproductions accompanied by texts in Slovak, Rusyn and English. The graphic design was done by Stanislav Stankoczy, the Dean at the University of Visual Arts in Bratislava, who also comes from eastern Slovakia. And one more good news – the Gallery of Naive Art at the Slovak National Gallery held an exhibition of Sirik’s work in Pezinok in summer 2016  where the book was introduced, too.