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Voices Fall-Winter 2010:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Artist Profile, “Ferene Keresztesi: Traditional Hungarian Wood-Carving” by Lisa Overholser.
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Voices Fall Winter 2010


Volume 36

Ferenc Keresztesi - Traditional Hungarian Wood-Carving by Lisa Overholser

Artist Profile 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 North America.

A Szekely wooden gate at a Catholic church in Campul Cetatil, Romania
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 their identity.

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 Eva at their wedding in Troy, NY, 2005
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.

When his 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 worship.

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 this framework.”

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.

Kopjatak (wooden graveposts) carved by Ferenc Keresztesi
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 Transylvanian.

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 NYSCA Mentoring and Professional Development for the Traditional Arts – A Partnership with the New York Folklore Society and contributes to many other projects and initiatives. She holds a PhD in folklore and ethnomusicology from the University of Indiana.

The traditional 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
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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