It is surprising, but today, at the time of high-accuracy and high-tech equipment, the "handmade" mark often guarantees good quality and prestige. Certainly, modern craftsmen try to retain and use the technology known to our ancestors, though the current reality should be taking it in to account anyway.
The current situation of craftsmanship and an educational component in the artistic craftwork were the subjects of our conversation with Sergei Fedotov, folk master, a member of the International Designer Union and the Chamber of the Artistic Craftworks of the Republic of Tatarstan.
– Sergey, could you tell us when and how your workshop was established and how you started?
The artistic craft workshop was founded 16 years ago at the premises of School №75. I am from the North of Russia, lived in Murmansk for 40 years and got an engineering education over there, though my grandfather and great-grandfather were Vyatka’s producers of wooden spoons. There was art school in Murmansk, and I had to go to the Maritime Higher School, to become a deep sea navigator and to work in the fleet. Thanks to it, I traveled around the world, worked in 15 countries. But all the time I was training my skills in artistic craftwork. I was really interested in it.
When I had to leave the North and moved to Kazan, the following question arose – what to do now? And at the age of forty, I decided to change everything in my life and catch up on what I missed before. I was looking for the studio, and the Director of the School №75 took an interest in me. She offered me not only a workshop, but also she opened a position of additional education teacher (by that time I’ve already had pedagogical experience), and I began working with children. This school has a culture grade. Some of the first year pupils go to the nearest music school and some attend my classes. Our classes are considered to be very interesting and their parents are happy.
I prepared my author’s programs on wood processing and phytodesign at the school, also entering them in a contest where received diplomas. Then I developed the programs on wood and clay painting. The radio and television presented programs about us.
For a long time I’ve been trying to convince the Ministry of Education officials that the children’s education needs to be restructured. When children go to the school, usually they are taken care of by one teacher for the first three years, so the teacher clearly knows everything about these kids. At that time, schools have opened a position for a psychologist, but my proposal was to practice a triumvirate: a teacher, a psychologist and me. Three years afterwards we would be able to draw a conclusion on each child’s abilities and how to treat him or her in the future: as a mathematician or as a humanitarian. When the children reach the 9th grade, not all of them need to continue education and go to the 10-11 grades. It is much better to improve the education system at vocational schools, so that children would receive specific education there. Mr. Kharisov, then Minister of Education (of the Tatarstan Republic), agreed with me; many officials tried to do something. But everything ended with promises and explanations as “the education system was being restructured”. It was useless to implement something new on this level and I just kept working at my workshop.
What I offered recently has been started to be implemented: to teach kids up to the 9th grade, and then to distribute children in different directions. But they lost 10 years. And this will result in serious problems – even now there are no mid-level professionals in Kazan.
– How many children become masters?
Just 5-6 of all children attended the workshop are worth this project being launched. And only three of them took this route. The point is that art & design speciality lost its prestige and this is a serious problem for a huge city of craftsmen, which Kazan was before.
I mark some children among my pupils who are interested and they can go to an art school with my recommendation. The attendees of Fedotov’s workshop are welcomed at the art school on Ibragimov Street. Also we can recommend a child to the preparatory school of the KSUAE (Kazan State University of Architecture and Engineering) and others. We have good relations with the art college as well.
– Saying the word “interested”, do you mean the choice of a child or parents? Or is it your choice? Whose choice do you consider?
The parent's role is important – they can support or not. It is an ideal situation when the parents and the child are looking in one direction. But this happens rarely, one case per hundred, at best.
As for me, I do not need manpower. I'm trying to do an ordinary correction, which can be useful for a child. Keeping my door always open, I can give a chance to a child not to be isolated within the family or be lost on the street. Sometimes children came with problems: a dog bit someone, a coat was torn... But sometimes I met more serious problems. Now these guys have their own children. Sometimes they come to give me a hug and remember how they were looking for support here.
I believe that each child should have an adult person to come and talk to, to share something, or complain. I love Dinara Asanova’s movie “Patsany” where the main character, a true teacher, answered the question why did he allow so familiar relations with – “I think every boy should have at least one man to whom he can talk to like to a friend”.
This man can just listen to or give advice. This takes a lot of energy by the way, and I have to say that now fewer boys and girls come to my place (my door is open until late). They become unsociable or prefer being on the street. Children are divided into the poor and the rich from kindergarten. What scares me even more, parents used to be much more interested in the education process: coming here they were sitting with the children during the lectures. Now I am able to call them only in case of need.
I do not set any global problems here. If a crying child came here, and I helped him to avoid being on the street, I’d think my job was done. If a child came here and got some advice, I’d think my job was done. If I helped this child and the parents to go deeper and consulted with them if necessary, I’d think my job was done. And this is just one type of activity.
– Which other activities do you offer at your workshop?
Other fields are directly related to artistic craftworks. We refused to work with wood in great detail as we had done before. However we can take on interesting projects.
I’m interested now in bone work. Bone is not in demand in Kazan, that's why I'm working with it while making big paintings. I'm interested in working not with one material, I like to mix them, so I am moving away from traditions. When I brought my works to Salekhard the first time, they were surprised seeing wood carved the same as bone. Normally wood is used only for frames. I’m interested in joining the two types of craft. Maybe this can be explained as I don’t have a classic education.
The third activity is leather work. I used the technique called pyrography. This is drawing with fire. The pyrography has been known for a long time: in old times a piece of metal was heated and inserted into wooden products to make ornaments. I was interested in this option working with leather, and when I enriched the product with my wooden frames and bone elements, it became even more interesting.
The next activity is ethnography. When I arrived in Tatarstan, I decided if this is a place where I would be living I needed to understand it. I was exploring the city, walking around, meeting people. Being new here, I was surprised by a big gap in education. Many people who live here do not know their native language and their origins as well.
I began to read books, visit museums, and for our workshop I gradually got interested in ethnography. When I got involved in bone work, I replicated all products that were made in Bulgares and Suvar. I wondered – did the product manufactured in the 12-14 centuries have a functional purpose today. It seemed to still function. We are often asked at ethnic festivals or fantasy role-playing games if we have archer‘s stirrup-leathers. For sure it is a narrow interest, but anyway it exists.
– How do you define yourself: as a craftsman or engineer? How is handicraft technologized today?
As for technology, engineering, and others, there is certain mix. The main difference is that earlier people never hurried, they could make two or three products for the whole of life. For example, the royal table tops were made manually. They didn’t have sandpaper, so were polished with horsetail and finished by hand. The same thing with a bone. A piece of bone was cut up and the top layer was removed by hand. Now this is useless, because it’s time-consuming. We use fretsaws and dremel tools.
– Are the technology and its essence remaining?
Yes. It is important to understand what to choose in each case. Many carvers cut fossil ivory by hand with a hacksaw. Because if to do it on a circular saw, its width is five millimeters, expensive ivory would be turned to dust. So a master’s decision what to choose is vital.
I can see a product without computers, I can imagine it. This is a permanent training. Working with a customer I have just a piece of paper and a pencil. The customer does not know what he wants, or knows, but cannot express it. I'm talking to him and sketching – making a draft. A pen or pencil is my hand. A big disadvantage of modern education is that they don’t teach you to make something by hand, expressing what is in the head.
Once a customer has left, I formulate an idea, throwing out all unnecessary stuff. Then I go with the draft to a person working at the computer, I explain what I need. This is my son. While he is in the process of design, I'm sitting by his side and correcting. The computer technology helps to get more information. Then I go to my production supervisor: he makes the object I’ve imagined. I am sitting by him until he gives me a good control sample. This thing gets back to me, as a semi-finished product. I finish it by hand, cut, ornament and present that it directly to the customer. This is called a continuous cycle. During the whole process, I’m thinking over what to add. This could be a decorative element or any bone artifacts. I can make this entirely by hand. Sometimes I’m asked to make it by hand, if the product is made by hand, it is evident.
– How is such artistic craftworks now developed in Kazan and generally in the Republic of Tatarstan? Where are such skills studied today?
Many craftworks are dying. In 1996-1997, I caught the last workshops, engaged in carving craft in Kazan. Before any enterprise engaged in gelatin production there was a carving workshop in Kazan. They were reported to the Ministry of Industry, and all souvenirs and gifts for Moscow and for export were made in Kazan. I met with several masters, and they have still consulted with me. I seem to be the only specialist working with bone in the Republic. There are jewelers as well, but they work only with small items.
I have a lot of different certificates and journalists sometimes ask me which one is my favorite. I'm saying that “For the artistic craftwork retaining”.
We used to have the best professional training colleges; they trained mosaic tillers, marquetries, jewelers. Now they are turned into vocational schools for problem children: “If you do not study – you will go to a vocational school”. What do we have in result: there are no good mid-level professionals in Kazan. If we need a mosaic tiler, we invite foreign workers, for example, Qol Sharif was built by Turks.
– You said that you developed a methodology, but as I see it, we do not know how to teach. What is the basis of your methodology?
It is taught in the traditional regions of craftwork, in particular, in Pskov and Arkhangelsk regions. There was a system in the old craft, called “Shoulder Training” when a child should be present during the process. Often all the craft workshops were located at the house where people lived. The masters were carving wood spoons; a baby woke up, fell out of the cage, and was creeping around in wood shavings for the whole day. Then he started to walk, came and watched grown-ups. He looked over the shoulder what was going on. And that was a process of learning. We won’t manage to achieve something without this kind of learning system.
– Is this similar to a situation when a young professional comes to the production area and gets an assigned master?
Yes, it existed after the war – the factory training system. The institution was directly at the plant or next to it. Students and masters worked together; consequently, youngsters became good professionals. Now there are no specialists, because there is no practice. My son graduated from the KSUAE, they had a topographical practice – once during 6 years. My daughter is studying psychology at our university: they do not have practical training at all!
Yes, I do agree, the education system at universities and colleges is approaching the Western system, but we get the worse distorted version. Our education system is different. And adjust one to another is waste of money, time and people.
– How do children get into your course? Do you accept all who have applied?
I am often asked how to get in to my classes. I consult everyone, I can talk to a child, give direction, help them understand what they need. Because many adults do not understand it.
I teach children mostly from my school. If I took all kids, I should open my own school and deal with training only, leaving everything else.
But all who want something from me can come to consult, to solve some problems, the doors are always open.
What is more, I conduct master classes. For example, I’ve conducted the bone carving master classes at fantasy festival and role play “Zilantkon” for 9 years. All interested come and sit around, and I start to tell them, show them... Once I was at the Taimyr, where we conducted the UNESCO international master class. Except for me, a Finnish specialist came there. We conducted a three-day master class on antler carving for students of two Taimyr colleges.
Last year, a two-day children's festival was held before Zilantkon. 90 people visited us for three days. The system was the following: I had a desk, where there was a piece of metal, and the children were sitting around me at the table and each of them made something on an ordinary leather piece and kept it as a gift.
– Every master should have one student expected to inherit their skills and knowledge. Do you have this one?
I also used to think that it should be like this. But getting older, I changed my mind. Suppose I'll be teaching a man as myself, for example, my son. But his head works in a different way. I provided him an education, and the fact that he had worked in the studio was important. But whether he continues working in this direction, I do not know. I do not want to take a student and make master Danilo and hear him saying at 40-50 years old: “Well, Sergey Anatolievich, it is very hard”.
– Well, and at the end of our conversation – tell me what a true master is?
I believe that the master’s mission in the world is to do what he has to do. William Blake said: “Words that are not turned into action “bring the pest”. And it's terrible. I've seen plenty of people who have given up everything: artists, masters ruined themselves by drinking etc.
When I’m making a product the two next ones are already in my head. But I don’t have enough time. I’m thinking over what to do, how to fix this or that. It is a continuous process. You cannot be an artist or a master strictly from 8 to 11 o’clock.
For close people it is hard when you're constantly thinking of something, always on trips, you cannot stay in one place for long. Because you need to recharge. I rarely see books supposed to teach something at an artist's studios, and if I do, they have never been opened. Books should work; they are senseless if just standing and decaying.
And I do not understand creative crises when someone says: Later I will sit down, I will stop drinking, I will create… He will create nothing, his best works are from the student’s time – but it’s already in the past. It was described many times in classic literature.
I’m not an angel, I have many problems, but I consider that my direction is right. One of my college mates at the Maritime School told me: “Old fellow, so you are paid for it? It is an ideal variant when the hobby coincides with the work”. I consider a hobby should coincide with your work.