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The good blacksmith of Tallinn

  • 2006-05-31
  • By Joel Alas
TALLINN - HEIGO Jelle faces a daily identity crisis. As one who melds hot metal into form, is he an artist or merely a craftsman? For centuries blacksmiths were considered society's most indispensable craftsmen 's forgers of the tools of war, creators of the basic instruments of life.

Today the skill is taught at art academies alongside sculpture and design. To which world do blacksmiths belong?
Jelle, one of Estonia's leading metal workers, tries to ignore any distinction.
"Where is the border between art and craft? The line is hazy and a lot depends on the viewer's values, taste and view of the world," says Jelle, associate professor in the department of jewelry and blacksmithing at the Estonian Art Academy.
"As far as the relationship between art and craft is concerned, I do not prefer one to the other or consider one better than the other. Art and craft merely emphasize different values."

His creative output includes both the decorative and the functional. Consider his most famous piece of work 's the gates of Stenbock House, home to the nation's prime minister. The grand gates, which depict a set of runic spirals, feature as a backdrop on nightly news broadcasts as television cameras capture the prime minister emerging from his residence. The Stenbock House gates are both practical and aesthetic 's as are nearly all of Jelle's creations.
His catalog features household objects such as clocks, wine racks, fireplace grills, banisters, light fittings and picture frames. They carry a surreal lifelike quality 's their twisted limbs are almost muscular, animal.
There are also large-scale sculptures and public artworks that any resident of Tallinn would recognize, though they may not notice on a day-to-day basis.

Consider the front door handle of the Von Krahl Theatre, Tallinn's center of alternative culture. It is grasped and pulled by thousands of people each week, yet few pause to study the aesthetics of the handle, which Jelle forged to resemble a shepherd's crooked staff. Jelle's contributions to the Tallinn landscape are often seen but seldom studied. When asked to name his best-known piece, he says, "I try not to look back. I always want the next object I create to be more famous than the last."
Jelle, now 43, has been working with iron for over twenty years. He began studying jewelry but found the challenge of metalwork more appealing.

"To create something I need iron, something hard and stubborn enough. Without it the wind would blow me away…Nowadays, it's a luxury to take time off and stare into the fire for a while, but for me as a smith it is the greatest part of my work.."
Jelle considers his work therapeutic. The blacksmith must learn to become delicate and forceful at the same time, and in the process learns about his own personality, he says.
Jelle now instructs others in his craft, and finds assessing the work of a student to be the most difficult part of his job. It's hard for him to judge another's work.

"In the end, the value and meaning of work comes from the artist's own attitudes, talent and their motivation for what it is they wish to offer their audience. A work of art is created not merely through an attempt to represent something, but first and foremost it comes about by addressing not just external form but also content by providing meanings and questioning them or changing them."
"I like to see my pieces in contemporary surroundings," he says. "I don't like things to look old…To be a blacksmith is to belong to a profession with a long line of brothers in the trade…stretching back thousands of years, all watching you with expectant expressions on their faces."

This is humbling. And that can be dangerous. "It gives you a strong urge to glance back over your shoulder, and before you know it you find yourself looking into the past with your back to the future…Everything that has previously been created, all the wisdom, knowledge and skills are there for us to use 's and indeed we must make use of them, but only by seeking our own solutions and meanings, and not by creating a diluted imitation of things past."
He considers his craft serious, and its history even more so. But seriousness is to be avoided at all costs.
"One needs to be aware that being deadly serious and taking one's self too seriously spells death to creativity."