Ivanovo children’s school of folk arts and crafts, in the Brest Region, passing secrets down the generations
The lives of our ancestors revolved around simple, practical tasks, for which tools and home-ware items were created by hand, to ease their working burden. Mixing bowls were carved from wood, as were the oak bowls in which water was carried for the sauna and the pine jugs for drinking water. If you haven’t tried mushrooms pickled in an alder barrel you’re missing out. Ivanovo is a great place to head to if you want to see traditional crafts in action. While you’re there, don’t forget to sample honey from a linden tub.
Ivanovo’s School of Cooperage distinguished itself five years ago, when its director, Tamara Golik, and its students received a Presidential award ‘For Spiritual Revival’. Their preservation and promotion of ancient crafts is well recognised. Since then, a lot of water has flown down Ivanovo’s Samarovka River. Children and teachers have made many ‘biyanka’ churns, jugs, and ‘kukhlya’ and ‘kumchan’ storage containers.
Ms. Golik tells me, “The water container is called an ‘ankerk’ while a ‘barilo’ is a wine jug; the small version is called a ‘bariltse’. Kvass and beer are kept in ‘kumgan’ or ‘kukhlya’ barrels ‘but bar-kumgan’ can also store wine bottles. Meanwhile, bathing ware is called lokhan and shaika.”
Why is Ivanovo such a centre of craftsmanship? Why not Drogichin or Pinsk? The city was called Yanov-Polessky until 1939, explains Ms. Golik. “The village of Rylovichi, near Ivanovo, produced dishware for the royal court in the 16th century. Its ‘glory’ lasted almost until the end of the 20th century.”
Most likely, this ancient art form would have been undeservedly forgotten, were it not for Ivanovo Cultural Department, headed by Vladimir Shelyagovich; his passion is matched by Tamara’s husband, Vasily (an architect by education) who loves to make sour cabbage in wooden barrels and salt mushrooms in oak vats. Vasily became the first director of the local art school, later passing his mantel to Tamara.
Challenges arose, since their special curriculum had to be approved by six ministries. They then installed cooper`s workshops and ordered the necessary tools, made individually by Rylovichi’s Sergey Svirepa — from automobile springs.
Already, 186 boys (‘bondaryata’ as they call themselves) have received diplomas. Another 63 are currently studying. The skills of this ancient craft are taught from the 7th grade and above, since certain strength is needed to wield the tools. It takes three years to learn the trade of making dishes, barrels and jugs from wood, using knowledge of science, drawing, design, painting and composition, as well as creating decorative trim.
“Is it difficult?” I ask Dima Svirepa, the great-grandson of the famous cooper from Rylovichi. He shrugs his shoulders, saying, “Not now.” None of the youngsters have calloused hands, although their enthusiasm is evident. They can already make a good barrel or more difficult barilo while their simple ‘bianki’ are perfect.
Ms. Golik notes that the parents of the students are delighted that their children are learning such practical skills. “Some go on to enter an art college, while others take quite different paths, but all learn to work confidently with tools and wood.”
There are no girls among the students although women teach at the school. Of course, Tamara is the head teacher; Natalia Kotsevich teaches the basics of cooperage.
Tree with character
The young coopers’ skills include choosing the right species of tree for each project, since various woods behave quite differently, having their own character. Aspen is best for pickling cabbage while poplar is great for gift-spoons and lime is best for kvass and honey. Pine is suitable for dry goods and grain while dough vats use oak and pine. Oak is also perfect for pickles, bathing ware, wine barrels and cupels.
Each year, the school uses 50 cubic metres of wood. It’s no problem sourcing the materials but wood can be costly. The children learn to split in a radial and tangential direction, although old masters did not use such terms. They believed that each item should be made with measurements reflecting the size of the new owner (matching their shoulder length or hand breadth for instance). It would then resonate with the body of its owner, bringing health and happiness. Mr. Svirepa told me so, when I met him a few years ago.
Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to see him this time, as he’s quite frail at almost 90. He’s no longer working of course, since he lacks the strength, perseverance and patience.
Reader Sergey Korsak recently sent in a letter: ‘I come from the village of Rylovichi and am a grandson, son and nephew of coopers. Unfortunately, I’m not skilled in this art myself, as it’s a true miracle to see barrels, vats and cups being made from split oak. The coopers can calculate the length of a circle hoop by eye alone, and there are 3 or 5 needed for each barrel, of different sizes. Most villagers wake at first cockcrow but those from Rylovichi awake three hours earlier. People from all over the Soviet Union used to buy those barrels, as the best oak was used, dried for 15-20 years. My uncle, Stepan Korsak, was a cooper all his life and even made souvenirs for Brezhnev and Masherov... Please, do not allow this art to die...’
Barrels not for Diogenes
The items made by the students aren’t for sale, only going on display at exhibitions. The school also accepts invitations and has visited Russia, where it’s been suggested that the talented villagers set up a local workshop; barrels, tubs and butter churns should sell like hot cakes. It’s only a case of investment, since the school has a limited budget and lacks sponsors. Parents pay less than $5 fees each month.
Only teachers take commercial orders, making items in their free time. However, it can take up to six months for them to complete a single piece and lessons take priority. Tamara shows me photos of the best works, saying, “The most memorable order was a cupel made from oak, for a church in Minsk. We were also given orders to make a barilo to hold 100 litres of wine, a barrel for mushrooms and bathing ware. Belarusians and Russians apply for pieces.”
An oak barilo with a 10 litre capacity costs about $200. It may seem expensive but the wood alone has been seasoned for three years, with boards seasoned for a further two years. It takes over a month to make the barilo.
By Valentina Kozlovich
From ‘biyanka’ to ‘barilo’
[b]Ivanovo children’s school of folk arts and crafts, in the Brest Region, passing secrets down the generations[/b]The lives of our ancestors revolved around simple, practical tasks, for which tools and home-ware items were created by hand, to ease their working burden. Mixing bowls were carved from wood, as were the oak bowls in which water was carried for the sauna and the pine jugs for drinking water. If you haven’t tried mushrooms pickled in an alder barrel you’re missing out. Ivanovo is a great place to head to if you want to see traditional crafts in action. While you’re there, don’t forget to sample honey from a linden tub.