Wisdom of the foremothers
Archived Articles 08 Dec 2006  EWR
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Women and their arcs of life

Kärt Summatavet. Folk Tradition and Artistic Inspiration: A Woman's Life in Traditional Estonian Jewelry and Crafts as Told by Anne and Roosi. University of Art and Design Helsinki publication series, printed by Tallinna Raamatutrükikoda, 2005. ISBN 951-558-184-2

Folk-tradition and artistic inspiration are critical components in any culture. In our fast-changing modern world it is visual communication that usually reaches us first, and imagination is no longer as central to cultures as it once was, due to rather intense demands on the attention span. Yet to this day, the less-hurried relationship between handicraft and traditional ways of thinking is one of those key components which grounds us to the degree that we can state our uniqueness, of being Estonian.

The keystone role of women in that relationship — that connection between generations — has long been acknowledged in our culture. Mothers (and by extension foremothers) are from cradle to grave our strongest bond between what has been and what will some day come. Life experiences can often be passed on during the simple ritual of teaching a child handicrafts. During those lessons the oral traditions are frequently reinforced. Many of us may recall, for example, Mari Veskoja teaching them how to braid a sukapael, or stocking-ribbon at a Metsaülikool long ago. The lessons came complete with song and reminiscence, connections with the 19th century and even earlier.

Kärt Summatavet set out on a journey trying to find answers to the question of in what way were the oral tradition and crafts connected to the life experience of a woman belonging to a traditional community. She found Anne and Roosi, (Anne Kõivo and Rosaali Karjam), two outstanding personalities who are simultaneously members of the traditional community as well as a part of contemporary Estonian cultural space. This book is a result of that journey.

The author chronicles how new meanings and interpretation opportunities arose for her — a creative, yet in many ways thoroughly modern professional. Summatavet is a fine writer, but it bears noting that she was first a jewelry designer and graphic artist with a special focus on Finno-Ugric mythology, the world of symbols and visual and oral heritage. Her book greatly advances the development of our cultural knowledge. Knowledge that is necessary for the interpretation of the visual around us, both from the past and the present. The focus of the book is first on ornaments that indeed speak, and secondly on mitten patterns.

Anne makes ornaments. Her whole life comes together in their patterns and colours. She also carries on the oral tradition as her songs pass on the observations and the wisdom of her foremothers as proudly as her ornaments do. Roosi makes mittens, and for the uninitiated, the traditions behind our kindakirjad (mitten patterns) make for fascinating study. Her Kihnu mittens convey not only the sagas of her island but, as Summatavet notes, connect us to our past in a way that allows for a form of rediscovery. The explanations (in Estonian) of Roosi's kindakirjad provide a valuable part of this process of learning about something seemingly simple, yet intricately complex.

The book is a visual treasure - quality illustrations and photographs more than complement the text that never becomes pedantic while teaching history and a way of life on every page. While certainly not for the average reader a discerning one will find much here to captivate the mind and imagination.

Summatavet's book deserves a lengthy review by a qualified ethnologist. My intention here is to let the reader know of its availability here in North America, and encourage its purchase. Written in lucid and clear English it serves as a splendid introduction to a part of our cultural heritage that is strong and significant. Sharing this wisdom, the gift of our foremothers with your friends this Christmas is highly recommended.

Folk Tradition and Artistic Inspiration is available at the estore in the Toronto Estonian House, email: . It has been brought to North America by the Estonian Ethnographic Society in Canada, a most enthusiastic champion of our unique culture and heritage.

(For our Toronto readers: do not miss out on the opportunity to visit the Spadina House on the first three December Sundays. The Estonian Ethnographic Society and EKN are co-operating in presenting a traditional Estonian Christmas program, complete with handiwork display.)
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