- Nation: Komi
By Tamara Kula
Cultures inevitably influence each other, both positively and negatively. They clash, collide, meld, share, cooperate, betray, borrow, assimilate. Serving as illustration, the Komi, Saami, Nenets, and Russian cultures of the far northeastern reaches of Russia have overlapping cultural traditions owing to their shared history. At times, ancient traditions are all but swept away in the tide of these changes. Then again, there are decisive moments in which members of society choose to hold tightly to their roots, refusing to allow them to slip away. Vladimir Chuprov practices wood and bone carving in both the Komi and Saami traditions, persevering at an art form in which much has already been lost. Undaunted, he learns from respected masters, going beyond simply preserving a lost art. “I'm even, somehow, restoring it,” he says. His dedication brings the promise of revival to the art forms and the cultures that create them.
Vladimir was born in Naryan-Mar, in the Arkhangelsk Oblast within the Nenets Autonomous District. At age five, his family moved to Lovozero, a small city in the very center of the Murmansk Oblast which is known as Saami capital of Russia. Now, at age 39, he considers himself a local. As a child, he loved to create things with his hands, whittling and inventing. The thought of being a professional artist didn't occur to him until later, when it became clear that the field of art was the best fit for him. Chuprov's grandparents were also artisans, so perhaps he was following an ancient calling. They had their own reindeer near the Komi village Ust-Tsilma along the Izhma River.
Education and Training
In 1992, he entered the Lovozero school to study painting and carving of bone and antler. After two years of training, he stopped to serve two years in the army and complete two years of college, but he returned to Lovozero in 1998. “Times were very hard. I saw that national art was in demand – I began to remember what I had learned and attended lessons of the masters,” Chuprov said. He is grateful for the experience he gained under Saami master Yon Ule Andersen, from Norway, and Komi master Valeriy Lavrentevich Toropov.
Studying under Saami and Komi masters has given Vladimir a deep appreciation of both cultures. Climate plays a major role in the differences between the two. The Saami people with their boat-like sleds and their small humble homes lived in the barren tundra. In contrast, the Komi had access to birch trees growing along the Izhma and Pechora rivers, which they used for their large homes in addition to a multitude of other items. Differences in lifestyles are necessarily reflected in their art. Detailed geometric engraving on antlers is widespread throughout the Saami culture, but not in Komi. Animals play a key role in both cultures; Saami artwork tends to portray ptarmigan and deer, while Komi traditionally focus on ducks, elk and bears.
Materials and Themes
Chuprov draws on his extensive artistic background for his creations. Saami and Komi designs radiate from each of his items, whether dishes, knives, pendants, flasks, keychains, brooches or bolo ties. He works with bone and antler from reindeer and elk, as well as leather. He is also a passionate woodworker, especially of birch burl with its beautiful marbled pattern resulting from abnormal growth. Just a sampling of his work will reveal a birch ladle inlaid with delicate bone, brooches both carved and geometrically engraved, and an oblong bowl of the telltale swirled birch burl – with an oversized footprint at the bottom. This bowl comes with a story: “When the work was almost ready, it looked very much like a footprint, and I decided to make depressions for the toes and heel to emphasize the idea.” He named the work “Sled Afoni” - Footprint of Afonya – in honor of Big Foot, rumored to be seen near the Lovozero tundra in the 90s.
Life as an Artist
Two years ago, Vladimir became a self-employed artist, a decision he doesn’t regret. Previously, he worked at the Lovozero national center as a specialist in handicrafts, but his workload of teaching, designing, and participating in festivals left little time to pursue his own work. Now, he has the freedom to focus on his art. He has a small studio in his heated shed where he does his rough work, and, inside his house, a corner dedicated to completing the fine details. No doubt his family appreciates having a master around – Chuprov made almost all of the furniture – and decorations – in their house himself. He and his wife have two small children who love to “help” him with his projects. Though planning for the future is not an easy task, Vladimir has dreams of upgrading his studio and starting a souvenir business. And even if that goal proves elusive, “I can always develop myself as an artist.”