Meeskäsitööliste vestlusring Heimtali laadal 25. septembril 2021 / The current state of artisanal woodwork in Estonia: a roundtable
Why do we expect handicraft to occupy any place at all in our brave digital world? This was the first question asked at the woodcraftsmen’s roundtable held at the Heimtali Fair in Viljandi county on the 25th September, 2021. The purpose of the discussion was to investigate the wider background to men’s handicraft in the framework of the current year dedicated to male artisanship. Three artisan woodworkers joined the roundtable initiated by University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy in order to gain an overview of the field and to supply important background aspects. The participants were: Martin Bristol, Priit-Kalev Parts, and Meelis Kihulane. Martin Bristol has been active in starting the Puupank initiative which deals with the procurement of rare and specific wood material. He is also a founder of several platform-craft shops that have been functioning successfully in the old town of Tallinn. Priit-Kalev Parts was the initiator of the native construction study programme at the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy and is also known as a maker of dugout canoes. Meelis Kihulane is renowned for reviving native woodwork and he is an experimental instructor of artisanry. The questions were posed by a long-term associate to the University of Tartu Viljandi Culture Academy in the field of traditional technologies, Madis Rennu.
The discussion focused on the local entrepreneurial environment and the influence of wider economic space with its crises and limits to growth such as peak oil, green transition and EU structural funds, the gender of artisans, and computer addiction. Additionally, they discussed such evergreen topics as clock reading skills and the objectives of a national university. The wish was expressed to move towards a wider recognition of manual skills as indispensable part of personal development, as was the desire to add more substance to attempts to improve the image of low-tech skills. The acquisition of manual skills, including working with both hands and standing on two feet, should be a recognised part of mental development at school ages of between 15 and 25 years.
The participants unanimously agreed that manual skills, as opposed to economic activity, consumerism, wealth, peak oil etc. have gradually declined over recent decades, and that we have probably now reached the bottom of the curve. Hopefully after the decline of the economic peak, the importance given to the possession of manual skills will start to rise again.
Terminology is also a problem. The word ‘handicraft’ may sound old-fashioned or even obsolete; it is often loaded with political or ideological ballast. Answers to the question whether it is possible to earn a livelihood with handicraft were diverse: a convinced ’no’, a hyperbolically conditional ’yes’ (if one could win the olympics of handicraft), and a convinced ’yes’, albeit one which admitted that handicraft is part of lifestyle.
The participants were rather sceptical as to the long-term positive impact of EU structural funds on handicraft, but the current situation, which is characterised by an increase of raw material and energy prices, seems hopeful because there are signs that top brands are interested in bringing their production back to Europe from China and so are seeking contacts, something which may lead to new opportunities for manually skilled artisans here.
Martin Bristol summarised matters as follows: “A shop does not have to be in Viru Street. It can be in the forest, if the narrative is powerful enough – and of course it has to be top-level. If there is a grove and people who are dedicated – I really mean that we would be able to produce more out of one hectare of forest without cutting it than is produced with the help of clear cut. And if we add full production-chain logic, in the sense that forest is not only wood for building, and fleece is not only a dull by-product, we could develop quite a contemporary form of production. But all this presupposes knowledge of the specificities of native raw materials and regions, clock reading, and a bit of entrepreneurship as well.“