It was in 2001 that Michal Bycko sat down to interview one of the most famous Rusyn artists, Michal Čabala, and later created a beautiful and a touching documentary about his life and work that you can listen to below – in Rusyn. A fair warning, though, you might well up.
Michal Čabala (pronounce Chabala) was from Čabiny near Medzilaborce (1941-2002). He was raised by his grandparents because his parents died when he was very young and he couldn’t quite remember the way they looked, which bothered him. His grandpa once told him not to worry anymore and to try drawing them. When he was done, grandpa praised the likeness achieved, but in retrospect the artist couldn’t tell if it was true or just to encourage him. From that moment, though, he got to be very interested in drawing and especially, in drawing that fog that he saw enveloping the hills around his village every day before the sunrise and that he thought was hiding something magical.
It was actually our one and only Štefan Hapák who told him to go study art in Brno. And so he did, at 17. After the initial culture shock, he was able to find his place there. Later, in Bratislava, he studied under Dezider Milly, who encouraged him to keep painting the region he came from, as this was where his true soul as an artist lied. And so after graduating in 1969, he settled in Prešov, where he played an indispensable part in the cultural and artistic life as a Rusyn “freelance” artist. At an annual art event called Prešovsky Montmartre, during which artworks are created in the streets in front of passers-by, he was the one who attracted the most people wanting their portrait done. He participated in over 60 art shows; the last and the biggest solo exhibition was held at his 60th birthday in 2001 in the Andy Warhol Museum in Medzilaborce.
His portraits, still lifes, theatrical scenes and landscapes are characterized by misty, muted, earthy tones, and certain unfinishedness, smudginess even, which he defended as intentional, probably brought on by his fascination with that elusive fog of his native hills.
Slovak National Television came up with a great idea this year: a competition of folk singers called The Land Sings. Now Slovakia is a tiny country, but so rich and varied in its folklore – every village has its own folk traditions, customs, songs, dances, and clothes. We are proud of it all and we do preserve it in a very active way, making sure the knowledge is not only recorded for posterity, but also passed on to the younger generations in folk dance groups and other cultural bodies.
I am proud that one of the finalists (who were voted second by the viewers) was Rusinske Triofounded by my friend Dominika “Kontra” Novotna (neé Pročková, on the right), who comes from the same village I do, Ulicske Krive, and who has been researching and promoting the original, unstylized Rusyn dances and songs for many years. She even brought folklore back to our village by creating a folk ensemble Polonina.
I am sharing with you two videos from that show in which the girls combine the beauty of their voices with the beauty of their costumes to create a touching and unpretentious visual representation of Rusyn folklore. The strength, decisiveness and confidence of Rusyn women shine through – I mean they make the musicians follow their lead! 🙂
In this second video the girls are wearing Hutzul dresses because, as Dominika explained, Hutzuls are only up and down the hill from Ulicske Krive, and I love that inclusiveness about her. I hope the CD they will be soon working on will be a hit speaking to a conscious audience.
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.
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.
“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, butprocedures, too. He showed how people used to process crops and wild berries, what crafts they relied on, how they lived.
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.
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.
You will not hear my voice today. Jerry Jumba, a founder of the Carpatho-Rusyn society, an artist, an educator and a collector of Carpatho-Rusyn chants and songs, will tell you about his 1983 trip to Uzhgorod, Ukraine, where he got to meet Vasil Svida, a master wood carver from Patskanovo:
“Vasil Svida – Васил Свида – is a spectacular, disciplined, imaginative, epic Carpatho-Rus’ woodcarver. When you look outward with a mindfulness or attitude that has a clean canvass that receives an image, his stunning wood carvings give insight about life. His most lengthy historic panoramic wood carving of Carpatho-Rus’ history goes across several centuries, and across special support tables. It has perfect continuity and synchronicity of the carving style in depicting the historic life of the Carpatho-Rus’ people. This includes a segment that show Rusin immigrants leaving to work in America and other lands in order to overcome the financial duress and governmental mismanagement in the autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire. I had permission to take pictures of it.
In 1983 I was on a study scholarship to study Carpatho-Rus’ cultural life for three months in Transcarpathia, in the capital city of Uzhhorod (Užhorod – Ужгород.) The Uzhhorod Zamok (Castle) and the Skansen- Outdoor – Museum set up an exhibit of his works on the occasion of his 70th birthday in a building just before the entrance of the Skansen Museum.
When I arrived he was at the exhibit talking with everyone in such a personal way. He was humble about his work and spoke openly and softly about his motivation. I listened to his casual brilliant summations to several gallery people with heart felt questions. On a level of perception that I had not experienced before, it made me feel like Carpatho-Rus’ – my people – the land my grandparents had to leave under historic financial and political duress – survived by some miracle and had an artist, and artists, who created deeply appreciated culture that lifted the integrity and social awareness of our people, to a world class level.
As I walked through the exhibition, I stopped to gaze, and was galvanized, and then mesmerized by aesthetic beauty of the carved detail. The detail carved in the wood was incredibly sensitive, for a wood surface. The wood carved art was so physically close to the onlooker, and not protected by museum ropes around it. You could touch it! It was emotional, to look at it because I was compelled to stretch my own imagination to imagine how much thought – inner realization – and muscularity went into the shaping of the wood. The respect for his work from the people at the exhibit – was so great, that you would not want to touch it so that its integrity could last forever.
At that time my Rusin vocabulary wasn’t articulate enough to articulate his stunning application of symmetrical and asymmetrical form in balanced carved imagery, and sometimes, the juxtaposition of comparative asymmetrical imagery in the dynamic brown shades of carved wood. Every work was carved within its own visual scale of form relationships, but another brilliant artistic contrast he sometimes provided was the strategic artistic use of large, medium, and small carvings within one piece of carved work. There was the use of light and shadow, with carved relief woven in wood and jutting outward from top to bottom to evoke a clear contrast in the eyes of the onlooker.
In the subjects there were the epic personal characterizations of the people in the dignity of their daily work. There were epic historic carvings that made me ask myself, How did he arrive at that profile and angle of height and length of that carved image? Three dimensional icons in wood. Every work has an affirmative sense of purpose, community, and humanity and is “ponašomu ” -” понашому”- in the ways of our people. I didn’t know how to tell all that in Rusin, if I could speak to Vasil Svida, but I am sure he knew it.
I asked my scholarship grant agent, Margarita Michaljova, “Why doesn’t he show any Eastern Christian religious – Carpatho-Rus’ church life carving? He is soooo great.” She said that religious symbolism was not appropriate for an exhibit in an atheistic society. Communism did not encourage church life art for populist exhibitions. To this day, I don’t know if he was allowed to make or exhibit Eastern Christian church life wood carvings, privately.
I moved to speak with Vasily’ Svida (or Vasyly Svyda). He was kind as I said a few words in Rusin, and then my communist agent stepped nearby and translated my English for me! In a warm, friendly baritone voice, he responded directly in spare, economically spoken sentences packed with content and to the point. He reached to shake my hand. He was seventy years old that day, and I could feel the great muscular strength in his hands from the labor put into his masterful wood carvings. After that, I walked away with tears in my eyes because his work in that museum exhibit room, at such a personal scale, had the inspirational artistic effect of an overwhelming majestic cathedral, internally.”
In 2014, Daniela Kapralova, a Rusyn photographer and a curator at Sninsky Kastiel in Snina, Slovakia, put together a little book about a woodcarver from Čabiny near Medzilaborce – Andrej Gavula. Beautiful photographs of the woodcarvings accompany her warm but erudite interpretation of the artist’s life and work.
Gavula has been carving for over 18 years. Even now, although his health prevents him from working on big pieces for too long, not a day goes by without him at least touching the wood. Kapralova writes: “Andrej Gavula has a God-given gift and an innate feeling for this natural medium… He perceives it as a living matter that he communicates with. He focuses all of his artistic efforts on capturing the authentic, everyday work of the villagers that is strongly connected to the nature and traditions. On many levels this authenticity reflects upon the artist himself, because he is part of that community. Gavula’s carving avoids unnecessary detail; it is restrained, sober and rhythmical. His artworks are as natural and pure as mountain springs in the Carpathian forests.”