Lithuania's Nationalism Spurs The Arts
Woodcarver's Powerful Images Evoke Freedom Struggle
VILNIUS, LITHUANIA — ALL of Lithuania mourned that fateful night last January when 14 citizens perished in clashes with Soviet black berets during their takeover of the central television tower.Ipolitas Uzkurnys grieved, too. But he was also struck by inspiration. The white-haired woodcarver stayed up till dawn to create what instantly became one of his most famous works: a giant cross with Jesus draped around it, a kind of stylized crucifix that is part folk art, part religious icon. That cross has become a symbol of Lithuania's now-realized dream of renewed independence and a must-see attraction for visitors to this tiny nation's capital. A half hour outside of Vilnius, another cross by Mr. Uzkurnys towers above the road leading to his home and workshop in a small artisans' colony. Crosses are Uzkurnys's signature creation - he's done more than 200 of them - placing him in a centuries-long tradition of Lithuanian roadside-cross building. A visit to Uzkurnys's workshop reveals the full range of the man's considerable gift and explains why he has earned renown as one of Lithuania's premier woodcarvers, with works on display in the United States (at the World Lithuanian Center near Chicago) and in Poland. Stepping into the courtyard behind Uzkurnys's house, one enters a real-life fairytale, where trunks of oak, redwood, poplar, and linden have been transformed into trolls, forest animals, or huge heads. One almost expects a creature from Grimms' to emerge from a giant carved hut at the yard's entrance to collect a toll. Uzkurnys grumbles a greeting to his visitors, then announces he's tired and will retire for the evening. Though he had agreed earlier to see us, he declares he's tired of talking to foreign journalists. He ascends to the award-draped loft overlooking his work area and vanishes. "Won't he please show a few of his works to his guests?" he is asked. No, comes the curmudgeonly reply from above. Aukse Uzkurniene, his gracious and somewhat embarrassed wife, fills the gap and tells the story of Ipolitas Uzkurnys. Woodcarving has always been his avocation, not his formal profession, she explains. Over the years, Uzkurnys has worked at factories as a carpenter and a bricklayer. "He was never in trouble with the authorities, but before his first exhibition in 1965, life was hard. We had no money, so he took a factory job," says Mrs. Uzkurniene. Five years ago, he retired. But his workshop is so packed with carvings - either free-standing, sitting, or hanging - that it is hard to believe he spent his "spare time" before retirement working at his craft. "He works fast," his wife explains. On one wall, two huge oak bas-reliefs depict rich Lithuanian themes. One shows deportees to Siberia during World War II. Along the edge are words from the "song of the deportees," says Uzkurniene. "Let us get back to our motherland," the song goes. If someone was caught singing that song, they risked being put in prison, Uzkurniene explains. The candles in the carving are for those who died and weren't buried, and for those sent off to forced labor. Uzkurnys also shows the treatment of Lithuanians under the czars. In one scene, Lithuanian prisoners wear signs around their necks that say, "Doesn't drink spicy vodka" and "Babbles in Lithuanian." Around the room, sculptures depict Lithuanian kings, saints, and whimsical characters. Uzkurnys's grand "throne," sitting empty, is carved from poplar and upholstered with boar hide. A piet a common theme in the folk art of the primarily Roman Catholic Lithuania - sits partially finished in the center of the room. Another common subject is "the Man of Sorrows," or Rupintojelis, which depicts a long-faced Jesus in meditation with his head resting on one hand. Uzkurnys usually steers clear of current political themes, but sometimes he can't help himself. Take the alligator carving that sits on a shelf next to the woodstove (which has a sculpted clay face on it, of course). Clenched between his particularly menacing teeth is a carving of a hapless Vytautas Landsbergis, the Lithuanian nationalist leader who drove the movement to regain independence. The inspiration for that carving came from a Landsbergis press conference in Moscow before the August coup, when real independence still seemed distant and the Kremlin leadership was putting the squeeze on him, Uzkurniene explains. The Soviet journalists seemed angry with Landsbergis. "Every tooth of the alligator represents part of the Kremlin wall," says Uzkurniene. Perhaps that sculpture also expresses Uzkurnys's feelings about the meddlesome press.