Crafting a More Human Future

By Erla Zwingle
By Erla Zwingle

Exhibition “HOMO FABER”

The intriguing title of this monster exhibition of European craftsmen and women, shown in Venice, Italy, during the final weeks of September, 2018, is not only clever, it’s also extremely efficient; faber translates variously as smith, carpenter, architect, workman, and artisan. It also means “ingenious,” “skillful,” and “workmanlike.” These terms do only the slightest justice to the astonishing array of talent, fantasy, and often brilliance of the works that were on display — and, of course, to the people who have imagined and created them.

Here are some examples of what some 2,000 people each day came to see:

Cecilia Levy, a Swedish woman who makes delicate paper flowers by cutting up old books (but only after she reads the book to make sure it’s got the right attitude).

Levy has worked with some colored papers — a Tarzan comic book was one example — but she never paints or colors the paper herself. “For me,  there’s life in the paper, that’s why I don’t use new sheets of paper because it would be a waste. I feel I’m collaborating with the book, giving it a second life.”

Stefano Conticelli, an Italian wood and leather artisan who was launched into the world of luxury goods, thanks to a whimsical little wooden truck he made overnight as a birthday present for a friend’s little boy.

The ball that looks like a soccer ball is actually a seat. Stefano used waxed cotton thread on a spool to stitch the leather covering onto the boathook.

Eleni Anemomylou, a Cypriot woman who learned to make traditional baskets from her father, whose name is tattooed inside her left wrist.

“It’s very hard on the muscles of your forearms because of how much force you have to apply to pulling the reeds and holding them firmly as you work with them.”

Sam Elgar, a young English stone-carver who got tired of working for a company that specialized in architectural replacement, even if it did mean working at Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, and decided to strike out on his own.

The piece on the left was also part of Elgar’s graduation project. “French limestone is really beautiful to work with. It’s soft, it responds well to the chisels. You get beautiful lines out of it.” Meanwhile, he continues working on creating a clay model of a roaring lion with wings, hoping to be able to carve it in stone eventually.

These were just a few of the 80 craftsmen and women who were invited to come to Venice to give demonstrations of their handiwork and answer questions from the fascinated public. Also on display were elegant commissioned works in many media. There were videos of artisans at work who weren’t present (for example, two Norwegian women who make rope the traditional way; a young Greek man who makes saddles to measure for donkeys and mules, “the way a tailor makes a suit”). There were experts in restoration working on materials from textiles to latex to an entire wooden yacht (albeit a small one). All told, Homo Faber presented around 900 objects by 400 artisans and designers.

A textile restorer working on a tapestry. In the case of the restorers, many work for studios or businesses. This doesn’t make them any less craftsmen, simply that not all the craftspeople featured at the exhibit are independent.

A camera captures close-ups of the textile restorer at work.

Organized over the course of two and a half years, Homo Faber is what its sponsor, the Michelangelo Foundation, called “the first major cultural exhibition dedicated to the best of European craftsmanship.” Some of the participants are already international stars, some are just starting out, but the preponderance of them has been working, sometimes for decades, without any fanfare whatsoever. And they were found because two men, Milanese gallerist Jean Blanchaert and architect Stefano Boeri, “drove all around Europe” — as one of the many young docents told me — “looking for artisans who don’t have internet, who don’t answer their phones, who don’t even have phones.”

According to the Homo Faber catalog, the purpose of presenting this orgy of expertise and talent — which is planned to become a biennial event — is, “to put fine craftsmanship on the global map and increase recognition and visibility for master artisans… bringing together a vast range of materials and disciplines… from the rarest artisanal techniques to some of the most iconic examples of the finest European workmanship.”

Emiliana Bianchi is restoring an early 15th century Florentine wedding chest. Bianchi works with Open Care, an Italian art restoration company. At this stage, she is injecting material into the wood using what seemed like traditional syringes. This is extremely delicate work.

After having wandered the rooms and corridors looking at virtuoso creations of many sizes and media till my eyes and brain rebelled, what made the deepest impression on me wasn’t the insane perfection of the objects, but the phenomenal imaginations of their makers. To make something beautiful one first has to conceive it; then comes the skill, time, effort, even struggle involved in creating it.

A view of the large room called “Best of Europe,” in which individual craftspeople were set up around the walls, while the center was given the larger, more ambitious works whose makers were not present.

This is a full-size room screen made of resin and three layers of pressed flowers, showing the four seasons (right to left, spring to winter) by Irish craftswoman Sasha Sykes.

I don’t usually think of crafts as inspiring the feelings we associate with art, but several visits to the exhibition inspired unexpectedly deep emotions. I don’t know if it was the innate loveliness of the materials or the seductive way in which the craftsmen’s skill brought it forth—probably both. Whatever it was, each time I left the exhibition I felt like I’d just immersed myself in a thermal pool of beauty. I realize that sounds extreme, but I’ll be honest—I’m almost afraid of going back another time because I’m not sure I can take any more marvels.

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