Introduction – The Playing Cards Walking Stick – Part 1

Part 1 – The Playing Cards Walking Stick – Introduction

If I were to tell you all the stories and anecdotes about the life of the blacksmith of Komi Kebir, you wouldn’t be sure whether anything I had said was true. The first time I recited these stories as a single collection was to a tutor while at art school and although it evoked an attentive listening, she wasn’t sure whether I’d just spent half an hour making stories up. Literally expressing her disbelief once I had finished, but with a smile which left me feeling quite pleased. In my mind only stories that bordered on myth deemed a healthy response like doubt, and often doubting invites a search for more profound understanding. It must have also seemed high improbable that I was related to this person.   The earliest account goes back five generations and begins with the circumstances of his apprenticeship; where his mother, Eleni, as a young widow, fought and drew blood to ensure her son could be sent to the capital to receive the training of a blacksmith. Education at those times were not always guaranteed. But selling the xorafi, an agricultural field belonging to her late husband made it possible for one of her children to receive an education.   For many years I believed she stabbed a man just above his knee, as he knelt for the third time to propose marriage to her. This seemed excessive, but the context was single parenthood, and Eleni a shrewd individual suspected this boast of romance, hid intensions to exploit her vulnerable situation.   Her mistrust was warranted as this fella eventually stole her savings. But it was only in my late teens, when the blacksmiths daughter, my grandmother Ekaterina, revealed the actual events regarding the knee stabbing incident. That Eleni was the victim of an attempted rape, and the stabbing was in self-defence.   The blacksmith embarked on a life filled with unusual, tragically humours and sometimes poetic moments. His first wife was said to have had hair so long that wherever she walked, it would sway and sweep up dirt from behind her. She too passed away quite young, childless, and had no siblings, but when the blacksmith later remarried – my grandmother grew up with three sets of grandparents.   His mother, the belligerent Eleni died from eating poisoned mushroom, after ignoring the warnings from a villager that pesticide has leached into the earth where they grew. Her last words were, “I’ve never died eating these mushrooms before” and “quickly get the priest, I think I’m dying.”   I grew up listening to these stories, from my grandmother, one bizarre, captivating account at a time and never all in one go. It took many years and many visits to piece them all together and I can only imagine that if she had recited them to me in their entirety, I would have felt as my tutor had, the uncertainty of a story full of coincidences, fortuities, and one-liners. Instead, the peculiarity of their messages seeped deeply into my consciousness, and I obsessively documented stories of things that happened, and other things which were made.   In 2010 I proposed an exhibition, at the doorsteps of the British Museum, well not quite the doorsteps but a road close enough. And in that exhibition, I focused on a single artefact; that of a walking stick made from play cards purportedly built by the blacksmith. After the invasion of 1974, Kyriacos left his village of Komi Kebir in what is now north-Cyprus, moving south as a refugee. He took his walking stick which travelled with him to England where his eldest daughter, my grandmother had been since 1954. He was later reacquainted at a wedding, to an old apprentice called Demetri, who as a young child would cycle several miles on dirt-track roads to learn his secrets. By this time and despite having once had formidable strength, he found the playing card walking stick too heavy and difficult to use. Demetri took the opportunity to propose a swap, giving a lighter wooden alternative for the one his old master currently used, and the blacksmith, a seemingly practical man obliged.   By this point in his life, having put his tongs and hammers to rest, his priorities were to watch wrestling on TV with his grandchildren.   Now without an original or any pictures revealing its detail, and because the family lost contact with his apprentice, my grandmothers’ descriptions were the best reference and starting point to rebuilding. She describes seeing rings of red and blue with a lustrous finish. The original may have had a light brown patina, seeing as the playing cards were borrowed from multiple visits to the cafeina. He also cut the soles of shoes into wedges and interspersed them along the curvature of the handle. The ends were finished with rings of copper, a material traditionally mined on the island. While Kyriacos would have used equipment normally found in his workshop, in 2010, I decided to adapt and build new tools such as a card folding jig, a hole-punching press, and a walking stick vice. It felt rewarding to develop methods with which to rebuild this unusual object, and to experience the material through the haptic process of making. But to also recreate an artefact which somehow missed being part of the permanent collection of the British Museum, or any museum in Cyprus for that matter.   In the next video I will begin to make the playing card walking stick, sharing a newer approach to it construction, my thought while making, and some other stories along the way.