Wednesday, August 28, 2013

June 2013: Two weeks with Petr Floriánek

The passionate journey I have been on for the past three years pursuing knowledge, craft, and community has already lead me thousands of miles away from my home both East and West.  The fulfillment I have found and the hunger I have for more only reaffirm this as a lifelong journey, which is interwoven with the rest of my life's tapestry in ways I may never fully realize, but can always feel pulsing under the surface of things.

Petr assuming the guise of Grímnir
With the sale of my first sword and the generous invitation of the brilliant beacon of creativity Petr Floriánek, I was able to purchase tickets for a two-week trip to the Czech Republic at the end of June.  The agreement we made was that I would stay with him at no cost to either of us, and that we would work side-by-side on our respective projects.  Obviously I realized the immense amount of observation I stood to gain from.  Petr's work has been a constant source of inspiration for me, and I do not use that word lightly in any sense.

The pieces born in his mind and formed in his hands come not only from there, but also from elsewhere.  There is an impressive amount of study and experience behind Petr's design and craft, but there is also a certain element that cannot be accounted for among waking life.  There is a channeling, a tapping of ancient things beneath his pieces that are not entirely tangible.  Anyone can make a blade incorporating wrought iron, carve some Salin style II serpent-ornamentation on the antler handle and call it "period".  There is a harmony beyond subtlety that transcends technical perfection and artistic style.  This sense permeates Petr's work.

With a buzzing sense of excitement growing in my spine, coupled with the heady surrealism of being in a country whose language you do not speak, I arrived in the Czech Republic.  A cobblestone road lead from the palpably post-Communist outdoor train stop into Petr's small village on the outskirts of Prague.  It was nearly evening by the time Petr and I arrived at his village, after a bottle of top-notch local lager (which I spilled in my nervousness), and we proceeded to his house where I was introduced to my free quarters for the next two weeks. 

There is a cobblestone street in his town where a small stone barn and a smaller stone house huddle next to each other among newer houses, separated only by a humble swathe of grass leading into a shady yard.  The house belongs to Petr, Baška, and their two children.  The barn is his shop.  As we walked between them, I marveled at the dark, weathered wooden beams between the stones, sturdy but looking like moss would not have been out of place on the old timbers.  I was delighted to see that the round backyard was surrounded on all sides by impressive stone slopes--twenty feet high!  In the middle of the quiet, breezy, protected clearing stood a table, chairs, and a spacious linen tent: my bedroom for the next two weeks.

An avid Viking-age reenactor, Petr is outfitted with highly functional and comfortable Viking belongings.  I can barely describe how deliciously cozy it is to sleep outside on a wooden bed under a linen roof swathed in rabbit fur for two weeks, many nights in the driving rain, sometimes in the gentle whispering of trees. 

That night I sat under the stars at the table by my tent with Petr, Baška, and two bottles of good wine, exercising our cross-cultural conversational skills while discussing politics and spirituality, a habit that did not lessen throughout my stay (though the tension around it did, considerably).  In the wee hours we retired, all of us working the following day, but it was the beginning of a friendship that I was both excited to pursue and eager to see what fruits it would bear.  Baška, Petr, and their incredible children gave me their full selves, open and unabashed, and I can't put into words my gratitude for the time and spirit they showed me.  I can only contribute to the growth of our friendship which will last for many years to come, hopefully in many forms and adventures!

Needless to say, the majority of my time was spent sharing Petr's shop with him, and often using it alone when he spent time with his family.   Somehow, we managed to fit lots of conversation and adventures into the times between making, and that's what this blog post is for--the work can wait.

The first weekend of my stay, Petr took me out into the majestic Slavic pines, where he and his Viking group own some idyllic land surrounded by fields, forests and the great dome of the sky.  The weekend's work was to build the frame of a small Viking house, spearheaded by his hardworking friend Mira, whose progress can be found here.  We spent long days chopping down and cutting up trees (all with axes), carrying them a distance, stripping them of bark with draw knives, charring the ends of vertical beams, planting them with rocks--by the end I was sore and tired and not much help anymore.  But we were well rewarded with a bright fire, good bread (everywhere in the Czech Republic), meat, cheese, beer, and strong, clean air. 

Petr, Mira, me, and Ráďa (left to right), definitely exhausted.

The next weekend, the family Floriánek/Floriánkova took me to a town called Kutná Hora, which houses the grotesque and fascinating Sedlec Ossuary: a church that houses the artfully arranged skulls of some 40,000 victims of the bubonic plague and the Hussite Wars.  Today it is an unassuming museum, cool, damp, and dusty.

It was almost difficult to comprehend where I was and what I was seeing: the gravity and implications of 40,000 skulls is not something grasped easily within my own cranium.  I felt like just another skull, honestly.  On every wall, bundles of bones hung like dried flowers, and muted light from the windows cast everything in a sort of gray.  The ornamentation hovered somewhere on the border of  morbid and ironic.  Such a dichotomy may have been symbolically alluded to in the intersecting circles playing across the vaulted ceilings (there's an architectural vesica for you, Peter Johnsson!).  Lately I have been reading about the proliferation of witch-hunts in Europe in the 17th century, and the driving force seems to have been a combination of severe repression and crushing boredom among the religious and illiterate, which encompassed practically everyone.  I can only assume that such a situation could be what drove priests to exhume tens of thousands of skeletons and arrange them like so many Lego bricks. 

This is just one of the ancient and alien places we visited, and I don't if I'll ever comprehend the nature of places so long built upon by humans.  The film of civilization seems transparent by comparison in most parts of America, but often more vulgar.   I think I feel it most in churches: those in Europe know more of the struggle and secrets of the spiritualism of a people.  I am not a religious person but there's something to feel in those stones, as with so many other things so intertwined with the past.

St. Barbara's church and Prague Castle were awesome to behold, filling your body with the presence and ideas of countless people of the past, slipped between the stones and hovering in the shadowed corners waiting to be found.  As breathtaking as grand scale is, I usually find most joy in the smaller or more out-of-the-way things, details, or coincidences.  One of my favorite adornments of St. Barbara's was this fresco in a window alcove.  Though huge (possibly 20 feet tall), it could not compete with the majesty of the whole church, and enjoyed its muted sunlight in quiet contemplation.  It portrayed a raggedly-dressed man, bearded and barefoot striding across a stream with a great walking stick.  There was no explanation, but my mind went instantly to a Wanderer archetype, an Odin or Berggeist or Grímnir forever seeking, like Petr's grim visage at the top of my post.

But that is not the image that stands with me when I look back on my trip, particularly of Petr.  I think mostly of crouching over my work at the jewelry bench, with him behind me at the grinder, in our own worlds of creation and handwork, or else on the way to a place I could not imagine, blissful in the surety of seeing something incredible.  But I think the most rewarding and hopeful experience was being part of a rich and full life, with equal parts maturity and childishness, intellect and intuition, seriousness and play, embodied by Petr and his family, and responsible for the quality of his work and his life, to which I am honored to have borne witness. 

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