Monday, September 19, 2011

Chisels and Gouges

His hands are constantly moving. Controlled like a good mechanic or someone who has spent a lifetime serving in the military. He talks as he works, methodically trimming and preparing the meat, then sliding it onto stainless steel skewers. At intervals, as if determined in some prehistoric era, he glances back towards the fire to examine its heat. His cigarette joins in the dance and adds allure to the fluid and precise movements of the speaker. The smoke from the meat fire combines with the Winston and frames the scene. His hair is dark, dappled with grey in all the right places, he wears a manicured mustache and his skin is tan like most men in the region. Short but solidly built. Round shoulders and rough hands, hardened by 30 years of work with wooden handled tools. But unlike most men I’ve met, he carries himself like a poet, seeing radiance when the rest of us see routine. Shrouded with mystery and magic and protected from the harsh shapes and bold outlines that often define the existence of lesser men.

His name is Saladin. He has agreed to share his story with us and a meal with me. The story began centuries ago in the Middle East, when a charismatic leader won a momentous battle at Hattin that marked a turning point in a historic struggle. On a Roman road near Tiberias, in present day Israel, Saladin the first sultan of Egypt and Syria defeated the Crusaders, delivering a crippling blow that paved the way for the re-capture of Palestine in 1187 by the Ayyubid dynasty.  Saladin founded this Muslim empire centered in Egypt and of Kurdish origin. His chivalry and vision distinguished him as both a leader and adversary, a unique man then and now. Despite being the nemesis of the Crusaders, King Richard the Lionheart spoke of him with respect and even today he is a celebrated example of the principles of chivalry in both eastern and western cultures alike, a legacy of balance in an atmosphere pitching with conflict and contradictions.  Our Saladin is also a king, both in name and character. Situated in a new crucible of conflict, but also marking a turning point and acting as a catalyst for change still to come.

Commanding chisels and gouges, instead of armies, our Saladin spends his days carving doors, staircases, and moldings, for Azerbaijan’s few, but powerful elite. When he is without work, which often occurs in a changing and developing country, he shakes off the title of tradesman and turns to his relief carvings for outlet and expression.  Relief carving is a limitless form of artistic expression as old as antiquity. It is a sculptural form in which figures and scenes are carved in a flat panel of wood. The figures project only slightly from the background rather than standing freely. The process is unique because it involves removing wood from a flat panel in such a way that the object appears to rise out of the wood. My host adds that other forms of sculpture are based on adding material, clay for example, but when tasked with removing material the difficulty increases. Our Saladin sometimes spends long hours bent over a project, ripping away at layers of life built over hundreds of years, while at the same time creating a new one that will outlast the previous. Persian walnut is his material of choice, a tree native to the Caucasus region, and known for its beautiful tone, tight grain, and unequaled density, which is evidenced by the layers of callus on the bottom of our hero’s hands.

Back at the dinner table he serves us barbequed mutton. He tells me about how he got his start as an artist 20 years ago and that he feels he has never finished a piece because like the world around him it too is alive, and changes with him. He tells a story, pausing to stare with reverie at the bruise stained sky, about hanging a carving on the wall, then 10 years later taking it back down to alter a detail or add a dimension. A self-taught carpenter and artist, his art hangs on it’s own merit in the local art gallery in Ganja, and he tells a proud story of one of his pieces being displayed in a Russian Government building somewhere in St. Petersburg, a city often described as the most western of Russian cities and known for having the largest art museum in the world. It is fitting that our Saladin’s work finds residence here in Russia’s majestic former capital. With deep breaths and passionate tones he describes his pictures which are overflowing with waterfalls, shady trees, and soaring mountains. At first glance they look like utopian dreams reflecting nature on a good day. But upon inspection you see that the trees take on human qualities with the curve of gender and evolve into clouds with eyes and tears that drip into the life below. Other reliefs echo symbolic references to the number seven. The Koran’s seven heavens, creation’s seven days, and the rainbow’s seven colors. From East to West, Nile to Amazon, Abraham to OZ, his pictures illustrate for the viewer age old wonders and herculean thoughts.

After dinner he demonstrates his process by taking a blank walnut panel and quickly sketching out a scene in pencil. He escapes into his work as I wonder about the simplicity of his success and the elegance of his hand. He continues talking about the direction the picture could go, as well as commenting on the direction of art and creativity in Azerbaijan. He agrees that there is a need for more imagination in this culture struggling with its past and path. Like shaping a piece of art, he carefully encourages his children to be artists in a political and economic environment unfriendly to imaginative means. Back at the table with tea, we travel back in time with him as he lays out pictures of past projects and a life time of work. But according to our leader his work is not work at all, but rather a release. When I ask what he thinks about while he labors, he describes a flight to a new world surrounded by the scene he wants to create. Fashioning his future with each thrust of the hand and sealing his heroic fate. I’ve traveled enough to know how rare it is in both this culture and abroad to enjoy your occupation. Most men can’t see beyond the nearest supervisor or the era’s social expectation. But like a King, our Saladin rules his work and inspires, building his empire out of imagination and love of details and the ability to escape into a fantastic world swirling with regal white birds silhouetted against a purple sky.

Our Saladin’s story may not appear in the history books, but he has left his mark on me.

Saladin has artwork for sale and can be contacted at the following email address:

Dustin Windham
Peace Corps Volunteer
Ganja, Azerbaijan