When you walk onto the property of artist
Ferenc Keresztesi, one of the first clues you
might have that this is a Hungarian household
is the dog. Ámos, a large animal covered in
thick, white fur, is a kuvasz, one of the oldest
of all dog breeds. The kuvasz is thought to have
come to Hungary when nomadic Hungarian
tribes brought the dog with them from the
Central Asian steppes to settle the Carpathian
Basin in the ninth century. Traditionally bred as work dogs, they were loyal protectors, guarding
herds of livestock, as well as the families that
owned them. Occasionally, noblemen were
given a kuvasz as a special honor.
These days, Ámos provides more companionship
than protection to Ferenc and his wife,
Éva, at their farm home located among the rolling
hills in the river town of West Coxsackie,
New York. Daily chores on the farm—tending
to the garden and looking after the numerous chickens, goats, geese, sheep, and turkeys on
the property—take up much of their time.
Lucky visitors might even catch a rare glimpse
of a Transylvanian naked-neck chicken, an old
Hungarian poultry breed that is considered to
be extremely meaty and is not often seen in
A Székely wooden gate at a Catholic church in Campul Cetatii, Romania (Vármezö). Motifs include the sun and moon (in the shaded area at the top), tulips, and birds. The three round holes under the overhang are pigeon roosts. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
These uniquely Hungarian breeds have
become a subtle expression of Hungarian
identity for Ferenc and Éva. Like the delicious
jam-filled palacsinta (Hungarian pancakes) Éva
makes for lunch or the occasional items of
traditional Hungarian embroidery that decorate
their household, such expressions are a
conscious way for them to connect with their
heritage. Ferenc’s Hungarian wood-carvings
function in a similar fashion. The traditional
graveposts and gates that he crafts allow him to
express his identity as a Hungarian and engage
with cultural history.
Ferenc in Transylvania
For Ferenc, that engagement has meant an
artistic connection with the oldest layers of
Hungarian culture. Ferenc was born in 1964 in
the northwestern Romanian town of Halmeu
(Halmi in Hungarian). The city is located in
Transylvania, a region that has always been
historically complex and culturally diverse.
Although the region is in Romania today, it was
part of the Hungarian nation from the time
of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian
Basin in the year 896 until shortly after World
War I, when the Treaty of Trianon gave the
region to Romania. The strong Hungarian cultural
presence is kept alive today by traditional
practitioners who have worked hard to maintain
Ferenc’s father worked as a furniture maker,
and it was only natural that Ferenc learned a few
things from his father about the business. He
learned how to work with wood, making furniture
and also restoring it. Yet after graduating
from school, it was difficult for him to advance
further as an ethnic Hungarian in Romania, so he went into the army. Even there, Ferenc realized
he could not advance to the highest levels.
He was transferred to an air force pilot training
center in Caracal, outside of Bucharest, where
he was employed as a carver. He mostly worked
with harder materials like marble and cement,
carving statues, monuments, models, and other
such items. He estimates that he carved sixty
three-dimensional wall sculptures that depicted
significant moments in military history.
Such work laid the foundation for his great
interest in the artistic interpretation of history.
He also began to gain a more sophisticated understanding
of the complex cultural dynamics
of his homeland during his years in the army.
He was once assigned to work on a carving of
Icarus, the mythological Greek figure who fell
to his doom after flying too close to the sun.
Ferenc eventually included a large bird with a
scepter and a sword in its claws. In Romania,
the coat of arms includes an eagle with a
scepter and sword in its claws. But for Hungarians,
a very similar looking bird, the turul, is a
mythological bird that plays an important role
in the nation’s creation myth. The turul looks
very much like a large eagle or falcon, and it is
usually translated in English to one of these
two, even though there are other words in
Hungarian that directly translate to eagle (sas)
and falcon (sólyom). The turul is also thought to
represent the Árpád clan, the first ruling clan of
the Hungarian nation, and in particular, Attila
himself, the renowned Hun leader.
Ferenc and Éva at their wedding in Troy, New York, 2005. The wooden posts surrounding them were part of a gate carved by Ferenc. Photo courtesy of Ferenc and Éva Keresztesi.
At the time, neither Ferenc nor his Romanian
superiors were fully aware of the symbolism.
But with his interest piqued after he left
the army, he met a fellow wood-carver who was
more well-versed in the wood-carving traditions
of the Transylvanian region. As Ferenc
began to study with him, he understood what a
rich legacy there was. He was particularly struck
by the cultural heritage of the Székely people,
believed to be among the earliest of the settlers
from the East to reach the Carpathian Basin.
The Székely claim to be direct descendants of
the Huns, although their origins are debated,
with some scholars claiming they are of Turkic
origin, others claiming they are of Avar ancestry,
and still others claiming that they are simply
Magyar tribes who came to the area before
the 896 conquest. Regardless of their origins,
many Székely cultural traditions reflect the
earliest beliefs of the pre-Christian Hungarian
tribes, including a cosmology focused around
worship of the sun, moon, and other elements
of nature. This cosmology was reflected in the
Székely people’s material culture, in everything
from how their houses were laid out in the village
to their use of the sun, moon, and other
natural symbols as motifs in their folk art.
A good example can be found in the beautiful
Székelykapu (Székely gates) of Transylvania.
Gates were built as additions to village homes,
largely with a functional purpose: to keep the outside world out and guard the privacy
of the domestic dwelling. In an agricultural
economy, the gates also served to keep animals
from roaming inside. Made out of local wood
such as oak, they were intricately carved with
symbols and sometimes painted, as well. Built
even into the twentieth century in some parts
of Transylvania, highly embellished gates
eventually served the secondary function of
demonstrating the household’s prosperity. The
motifs carved or painted into the gate often
included symbols like the sun and moon. Tulips
were also a popular folk-art motif. Tulips
are the national flower of Hungary, and many
consider the tulip as evidence of the eastern
origins of Hungarian tribes, since the tulip was
introduced to western Europe by the Turks.
After picking up restoration work here
and there, Ferenc continued his research into
Székely wood-carving traditions like those
found in the Székelykapu. In 1988, he moved
to Hungary, where he obtained work at the
Hungarian Office of Monument Preservation,
restoring churches and castles. He also paid
the bills by building office furniture. Ferenc
moved to the United States in 2000 to work for
Sotheby’s. At the time, Sotheby’s had a Capital
District location, and he worked there doing
carvings, restoration work, and gilding, supplied
with a letter of support from the Romanian
army attesting to the quality of his work.
When Sotheby’s closed the upstate branch, he
moved to New York City to follow the work,
but found that big city life did not appeal to
him. So he moved back to the Capital District,
settling in Troy and picking up restoration and
carving work wherever he could.
He decided to open his own studio and
gallery, where he could continue to explore
his artistic research into Transylvanian folk art.
He carved a wooden gate modeled after the
traditional Székely gates and displayed it in a
2002 exhibition of his work at the Arts Center
of the Capital Region in Troy. His carved gate
includes some of the same motifs found in
the more traditional gates, including various
flowers and sun and moon images.
future wife, Éva, came to his studio to see his
work, she immediately felt a connection with
the gate, and as she says, “Something in my
heart spoke to me.” The gate eventually found
its place at their 2005 Albany wedding.
Some other items in the 2002 exhibition
were Ferenc’s intricately carved kopjafák
(wooden graveposts). Wooden graveposts
are not unique to Hungary, but as in other
locations, they played an important role in
traditional culture. Warriors from the Székely
region often used javelins and spears in battle,
and when a warrior died, he was honored with a
javelin stuck into the ground to mark his grave.
Typically, information about the warrior was
carved into the javelin shaft by a wood-carver.
Wooden grave markers were later used for
others in the village, as well, with many local
and regional variants coming into existence.
The common element was a fairly complex
semiotic system of information about the
deceased, relayed in the post’s size, shape,
color, arrangement, and symbols. For example,
smaller posts might have represented the death
of an infant, while taller ones indicated adults.
Rounded tops, or flowers on the top, usually
indicated a female, while pointed or crown-like
tops might have indicated a male. Symbols were
also employed. For example, a carved “X”
was thought to ward off evil spirits, while the sun symbol represented the ancient object of
In his book on Hungarian folk beliefs, Tekla
Dömötör noted the importance of the system
of communication represented by the graveposts:
“The residents of a village can always
find their way about in their own cemetery, and
then know what is signified by the form and
color of the posts” (Dömötör 1982, 264). Especially
for people who may not have been able
to read or write, it was a critical way to communicate
information. But in addition to the
purely functional purpose, other scholars have
noted that this kind of expressive system allows
for remarkable individual creativity within the
communally bounded form. In a 1979 article,
Tünde Zentai claimed: “This interpretation
of grave-signs might furthermore throw light
on the way that creativity works within the
boundaries of what we call folklore. The final
shape of any product of folk art is first of
all determined by the traditional demands of
the community and its communicative values.
Personal messages of the creative imagination
could only be allowed to come through within
Ferenc and Hungarian Tradition
The wooden gate and graveposts Ferenc
carved for his 2002 exhibition are highly
creative and aesthetic examples of older traditional
forms. The graveposts are remarkable
examples of a sub-type of columned post that
is the same on all four sides. According to Ferenc
and the research he has done, the wood
itself is also a kind of symbol. Ferenc explains,
“Wood has a life cycle, just as a human being
has a life cycle. We live, we grow old, and we
die. Other materials like stone do not have such
a life cycle; they are hard and permanent.” It
is another example of the pre-Christian belief
system of the ancient Hungarians.
Kopjafák (wooden graveposts) carved by Ferenc, in a variety of shapes and sizes. Photo
courtesy of Ferenc and Éva Keresztesi.
Ferenc has a strong affinity for ancient
Hungarian culture—which is not surprising
considering that his given name was “Attila.”
Although he goes by Ferenc and not Attila in
everyday life, he is also sometimes referred to
as “Attila” by friends and family because of
his enthusiasm for these very old Hungarian
traditional expressive forms. For him, artistically
engaging with these genres serves a couple
of purposes. On one hand, it provides a more
keenly aesthetic outlet that supplements his
everyday work as a carver and restorer. Since
2005, he has worked for Ferenc Restoration, a
company that his wife and he started together.
Yet he makes a clear distinction between the
woodwork he creates for work, such as the
restoration work that pays the bills and even the
goat milking stand he made for use on his farm,
and the woodwork he creates as art. His Hungarian
wood-carvings are as much art as are the
oil paintings, three-dimensional sculptures, and
other fine works that he produces. On the other
hand, it allows him to maintain a connection
to his Hungarian cultural heritage and history.
Even among his artistic works, which include
sculptures commissioned by local churches,
the Székely gate and graveposts hold a special
meaning for him. Though not Székely himself,
he strongly identifies with these ancient cultural
expressions as a Hungarian and especially as a
Indeed, in the contemporary context, these
forms now tend to function as a kind of symbol
of Hungarian identity precisely because of
their designation as very old traditional forms
in Hungary. As such, they serve as identity
markers for those like Ferenc who wish to
maintain a connection with heritage. In some
cases, such objects can represent an entire
group of people. Both Székely gates and a gravepost were objects selected to represent
Hungarian culture in the dedication of the
Magyar Millennium Park in Wellington, New
Zealand, in 2003. Another recent trend has
been the creation of Székelykapu for gifting
in sister city celebrations.
These contemporary uses of old folk forms
demonstrate that function changes over time,
particularly with expressive forms considered
to be among the oldest. For Ferenc Keresztesi,
the traditional gates and graveposts he carves
fulfill an important function in his life. They
are an expression of cultural identity made for
himself and for others who desire to share in
the expression of that identity.
Lisa Overholser is staff folklorist at the
New York Folklore Society, where she
manages the mentoring and professional
development program and
contributes to many other projects and
initiatives. She holds a PhD in folklore
and ethnomusicology from the University
graveposts and gates that he crafts allow him to
express his identity as a Hungarian and engage
with cultural history.
Ferenc at work carving in his studio. Photo courtesy of Ferenc and Éva Keresztesi.
Dömötör, Tekla. 1982. Hungarian Folk Beliefs.
Trans. from Hungarian by Christopher M.
Hann. Budapest: Corvina Kiadó.
Zentai, Tünde. 1979. The Sign-Language of
Hungarian Graveyards. Folklore 90.2:131–40.
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 36, Fall-Winter 2010. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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