Arts & Tradition

A Guardian for European Fine Craftsmanship

How the Homo Faber Guide highlights some traditional gems
BY Lorraine Ferrier TIMEFebruary 9, 2022 PRINT

One of the greatest joys of travel is happenstance, and for several years now the pandemic has robbed us of such foreign joys. Many artisans reliant on tourists and in-person visits have suffered financially because of endless lockdowns.

For instance, the UK-based Heritage Crafts Association found that the stress of running a business during a pandemic has meant that some skilled craftspeople have decided to take early retirement. Of the artisans still in business, many have had to create new sources of revenue due to the lockdowns and the loss of traditional sources of income, and so online marketing (such as the number of online tutorials showing crafts) has increased.

Now that lockdown restrictions are easing throughout the world, long-haul travel may be back in our schedules or future plans, with many people eager to experience fine European arts and craftsmanship in-person once again.

There’s much available. “In Europe, the accent, the wine, and the food changes every 30 to 40 miles. And so do the skills and techniques in craftsmanship,” said Milan gallerist Jean Blanchaert, curator of the “Best of Europe” exhibition at the inaugural 2018 Homo Faber event, in a press release.

The Homo Faber Guide

For those wanting to support, appreciate, and purchase European fine craftsmanship from afar, there’s the Homo Faber Guide, an online directory run by the Michelangelo Foundation.

The Michelangelo Foundation is a Geneva-based, international, nonprofit organization set up to celebrate and preserve master craftsmanship around the world. Initially focusing its work on Europe, the organization aims to reinforce fine workmanship’s connection with design.

The Homo Faber Guide is fairly self-explanatory. For example, when you click on the “Visit” tab, the search box subject greets you with “Visit fine collections.” Any search item you enter here takes you to a selection of shops, galleries, and museums.

A useful and somewhat unique tool for tourists and locals alike is the guide’s “Ambassadors” tab, where leading curators, designers, and gallerists handpick their favorite local artisans and tell you why they’re great.

The guide’s “Itineraries” tab suggests exemplary artisans in specific areas. For example, the guide highlights nine artisans on Bornholm, an island near Denmark and Germany, renowned for its crafts.

In the Arts and Culture section of The Epoch Times, we focus on fine craftsmanship that stays true to tradition, and particularly on artisans who use hand tools and skills.

Many of the artisans listed in the Homo Faber Guide create modern art and craftworks, but there are some traditional gems to be found. For instance, type the keyword “Malta,” “Slovakia,” or “Belgium” in the “Discover” section of the guide, and you will find a Maltese weaver carrying on the family tradition, a Slovakian bellfounder who taught himself how to cast bells, and a Belgian woodcarver who, inspired by past masters, carves wood into “lace.”

Weaving Cloth in Malta

For thousands of years, weaving with cotton and sheep’s wool has been a necessity for many on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Nearly every Maltese family once owned a loom to weave clothing and bedding. Many relied on the tradition to survive. The men planted and harvested the cotton, the children helped wash it, and the women transformed the raw cotton into cloth.

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Maltese weaver Alda Bugeja with some of her cotton and sheep’s wool creations. (Inigo Taylor)

Alda Bugeja is one of the few weavers on the island who still practices Malta’s ancient weaving tradition. Walk into her workshop and she might be hand-spinning sheep’s wool, preparing her wooden loom for weaving, or working at her loom, just as her mother and older sisters did before her.

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Weaver Alda Bugeja at work in her atelier in Malta. (Inigo Taylor)

Today, Bugeja continues to make traditional rugs, bedding, and Malta’s national costume, and she has also diversified by creating homewares such as curtains, lampshades, and wall hangings. In addition, she’s skilled in macramé (textiles made by a series of knots) and kumihimo (rope made by interlacing fibers).

Casting Bells in Slovakia

Typically, bell founding—the casting of bells for clocks, churches, and public buildings—is a craft passed from father to son. Robert Sliz, having no bellfounder in his family, decided to teach himself.

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Self-taught bellfounder Robert Sliz at work in Slovakia. (Courtesy of Michelangelo Foundation)

Sliz’s grandfather maintained the bells in his local municipality, and Sliz’s love of bells grew from seeing a church belfry when he was just 12 years old. At age 15, he set about making his first bell. His father helped him build a small workshop where he set about making molds as his medieval ancestors once had, from a mixture of clay and other natural materials such as straw and horse manure. It took him three years of experimenting with the mixture to ensure that the molds wouldn’t crack.

Homo Faber Guide
A bell cast by Slovakian bellfounder Robert Sliz, who uses medieval techniques to make each bell—a process that takes months. (Courtesy of Michelangelo Foundation)

Since then, he’s studied with a master bellfounder in Spain. Now, he continues to use only medieval techniques to cast new bells (weighing up to 1,540 pounds) and to restore and repair historic bells. Using these centuries-old techniques, he takes months to create a bell.

Carving ‘Lace’ in Belgium

Wood and lace couldn’t be more different: wood being hard and solid, and lace being soft and delicate. Yet Belgian woodcarver Julien Feller successfully carves wood into “lace.”

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Belgian woodcarver Julien Feller takes thousands of hours to carve his lace designs. (Melanie Markovic)

The young artisan is inspired by past artists, particularly 17th-century woodcarver Grinling Gibbons, who stretched the imagination of how wood could be carved by making intricate, wafer-thin woodcuts. Gibbons’s carving of a lace cravat epitomizes his approach, and many of Feller’s works mirror that.

Besides woodcarvers, Feller is inspired by Italian Renaissance artists, and he endeavors to apply their disciplined approach to his own work.

Naturally, he’s also inspired by contemporary lacemakers. His 2018 masterpiece is based on Brussels lace, but recent works include a fantastical piece of lacework embellished with gold and silver leaf.

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“Brussels Lace N0. 2,” 2018, by Julien Feller. Boxwood; 16 1/2 inches by 11 3/4 inches by 1 1/8 inches. Belgian woodcarver Julien Feller imitates delicate lace designs in his intricate woodcarvings. (Melanie Markovic)

Crafts like these connect us to our heritage. Many traditional crafts have survived for centuries because they were once vital to our ancestors’ survival. Artisans were valued; they made everything by hand, from clothes to bedding to furniture and houses. Mechanization has largely converted crafts from utility products to luxury items. Heritage crafts can continue only because of our guardianship.

An online craft guide is, of course, a poor second to an in-person workshop visit, but it’s often a lifeline for lone or small artisans whose rich offerings we might never otherwise happen upon.

Discover more European artisans in the Homo Faber Guide by visiting HomoFaber.com

Lorraine Ferrier writes about fine arts and craftsmanship for The Epoch Times. She focuses on artists and artisans, primarily in North America and Europe, who imbue their works with beauty and traditional values. She's especially interested in giving a voice to the rare and lesser-known arts and crafts, in the hope that we can preserve our traditional art heritage. She lives and writes in a London suburb, in England.
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