2016 started on a sad note. Godja Pătru Pupăză, a fable like character, passed away on 3 January. He was 81 years old.
I met the artist in the summer of 2009, at his home in Valea Stejarului. Those were very happy times. He was surrounded by his family, his son-in-law was carving a Maramureș cross “troiță”, his nephew was strolling around, at times making attempts to help his father chisel the wooden cross, despite the fact that he had yet to learn to speak.
We spent together several hours on that afternoon of 27 July. I learnt about his start as a carver of miriad of wooden things small and big, how he proved his prowess as a sculptor very early on, at a young age. Everybody knew him as Pupăză (Hoopoe), even as this was only a nickname. When already an adult, his father told him about a story about the artist’s grandfather. As a child, he had stolen, for fun, together with some village friends, a type of sweet cake, known in Maramureș as pupază, from a villager that was selling them in the village. He was caught and promptly reprimanded by the artist’s great-grandfather and the villager was reimbursed the damages. But, the story remained ingrained in the village collective memory and, since then, the great-grandfather “acquired” the Pupăză nickname. The artist found the story very amusing and from that point on, he began to sign himself by adding Pupăză to his last (official) name, Godja. The nickname caught on and today his is simply known by that nickname to the extent that, when a relative sent the artist letters from abroad, destined to Godja Pătru, the letters did not arrive. When Pupăză was added, the letters started to reach their destination.
It is very hard to imagine the good nature of Artist Pupăză without meeting him in person. He talked slowly, in long, melodious streaks, as if recounting tales. Those who met him, most often saw him walking helped by a long staff, a magic staff of his own creation, that hid a narrow neck bottle of pălinca in its upper end. When I met the artist in May 2009, at a local festival, he was inviting those he met to have a sip of the strong liquor. On the wood staff, he had carved a few, funny rhymed lines, his own words of wisdom, on the merits of drinking the pălincă:
De horincă n-oi muri, / Sipping pălincă won’t kill me,
Că o beu și oi dormi. / If I drink, I can sleep it off.
Da cine be peste măsură, / But he who overdrinks,
E păcat s-o pună-n gură / Is not worthy of tasting it .
Artist Pupăză prided himself with the making of the spindle with bells (“fus cu zurgălăi”). The spindle is used by the local women who spin yarn and is essentially a wooden spindle adorned with a cube-like base, known as the devil s key (“cheia dracului”). The bells are, in fact, the devil s key. But the spindle is much more than a tool, it is a symbol of love. The artist told us what the spindle with bells means, and I confess that his symbolism took me by surprise:
“The spindle with bells is the most beautiful gift a man can make to a woman. This clench, this union, this togetherness, is the symbol of love.”
At first, I did not understand why the spindle with bells is a sign of love. Then, listening to the artist describing the intricate way in which the base of the spindle, the devil’s key, was made, I finally understood. It is a symbol of love, because the devil’s key is made of pieces of wood that are united so tightly, that they signify the uttermost union and love that a couple can ever achieve. He, as the maker of the spindle, knew it firsthand, as putting the pieces together in a perfectly geometrical shape, using nothing else but the tension in the pieces of wood, requires love and passion. I do not know if the few other local artists who can make the key would give the same interpretation but, watching the artist talk about it and assembling the wood pieces in his hand, it made perfect sense to me.
He tells us that the origins of the devil’s key are not known. He tells us that the name, with the devil part of it, drew the attention of the regional cultural centre who wanted to replace the Devil s key with the craftsman s key. The attempt failed, said the artist, as the use of the devil in the name has nothing satanic in it, it reflects how the noun is used in Maramureș, i.e in a playful, jokingly manner, without negative connotation. In this case, the name makes perfect sense, considering how hard it is to build such a key in the first place.
I remember that the artist told us, jokingly, that he had carved his own cross for two years now. It was sitting in the barn, with an open ended decease date. It did arose suspicions, as, while no name was carved on it, the artist’s year of birth (1935) was. The artist managed to mislead his family about it, telling everybody that it was for an sold friend of his generation – for some time. The artist was already sick when I and my wife visited him, and he was making fun of it. One would otherwise not have noticed: the artist was full of life, busy finishing two crosses, to be sent in two Romanian cities, and was talking about other commitments he had taken on. He only regretted that he was no longer able to work the hay, with the younger ones, as he was once able to. His passion for his work kept him alive, hopeful and full of joy.
As we left his household, at the end of a beautiful afternoon, I took one more look at one piece of his legacy, his beautifully – and playfully – carved gate.
For those who ever met him, he will be sorely missed. With him dies a living treasure of Maramureș. May he rest in peace.