Bob Sparham : impressions and inspirations from Tartu

Bob at his exhibition opening on 27.02.2018

When I got back to the UK from my artist in residence month at the Estonian Printing Museum in Tartu Estonia, My friend David rang me up and asked me two questions. Was it enjoyable? And did you get anything from the experience? My answer to both of those questions was yes, an emphatic yes! What is not to like about working in the Eesti Trüki- ja Paberimuuseum? To account for my enthusiasm further I perhaps need to explain a little of my background.

Bob at his exhibition opening on 27.02.2018

I am a retired Art History lecturer from England and I live in a small village near the city of Nottingham, where I used to teach in an Art Collage. I trained originally as a Graphic Designer at Southend College of Art and in the early 1980’s I was working as a Graphic Designer in a printers in Cambridge where we used much of the same equipment that you can now see (and use!) in the printing museum. Around 1981 most this equipment was declared to be obsolete and most of it was replaced by shiny new computerised technology. I was asked to move from the drawing board which I had always worked onto a computer screen and retrain. I thought long and hard about the pluses and minuses of this transfer but in the end I thought that I did not want go right back again to the beginning of my career. So I decided instead to go back to College, to University this time, as a mature student, and study Art History which had long been a passionate interest of mine. After I completed my degree I went on to do a Masters in the History of Design and then on into teaching in Art Colleges in the1990’s. I however used the occasion of the scrapping of the printers equipment in my printers in Cambridge to purchase a small printing press from what became my former employer, a proofing press (rather like some of the examples in the museum, only with a larger roller) and I became a Sunday and summer holiday printmaker. This was when I started to think about and work on the Linocut ideas, styles and techniques which are now on display in my exhibition in the museum.

If I am asked if I miss anything about my old teaching job, I always reply, I miss the students, well, some of the students, to be honest. The best type of Art students I feel, (those who I came to describe as Special students) are creative and intelligent, full of energy, enthusiasm and above all humour. These students represent the future of the visual arts and they make their parents proud.

Imagine my delight therefore when I came to the printing museum and found the place jam packed, full to the gunnels, with Special students working there (well if not exactly students but young people who have all of the positive qualities of Special students according to the Sparham student classification system). Moreover, young people who were exercising those Special student qualities on preserving that very printing house environment that I feel so nostalgic about! In Serbia, Germany, Poland and Estonia there are packets of parents whose chests swell with pride with the thoughts of just how well their children are doing at the Eesti Tüki- ja Paberimuuseum and it is a very fine thing.

David’s second set of questions related to the city of Tartu and again he asked: Was it enjoyable to visit? And did you get anything from the experience? Again I answered enthusiastically yes and I took what had happened to me on February 24th as an example to tell him about. Admittedly the 100th anniversary day of the declaration of Estonian Independence was a very special day indeed, but what happened then was very similar to what happened in Tartu on all the other days of my stay but a bit more so!

I started my celebrations at the Old Observatory listening to the Mayor of Tartu give a speech in Estonian and chatting to a group of English speaking students from the University of Tartu. Now, my Estonian vocabulary is not extensive (it consists of two words Hello and Thank you) and my new friends had also achieved similar levels of linguistic expertise. We were a little puzzled therefore to hear the Mayor say what seemed to be ‘Dennis Wheatley’ as it says on Wikipedia: “Dennis Wheatley (8 January 1897 – 10 November 1977) was an English writer whose prolific output of thrillers and occult novels made him one of the world’s best-selling authors from the 1930s through the 1960s”. Why, we wondered, as we walked down to the main square after hearing the National anthem, why would the Mayor be talking about Dennis Wheatley? Two schools of the thought emerged. Hypothesis 1 argued that Dennis Wheatley must have had some kind of heretofore unknown connection with Estonia which was now being celebrated! Whist hypothesis 2 argued that the Mayor did not actually say Dennis Wheatley at all but rather two words of Estonian which only sounded like Dennis Wheatley but actually had quite another meaning. God Bess Estonia perhaps? Debate on these positions became quite lively and lasted until we reached the entertainment in the square.

The entertainment here consisted of a folk group and a folk dance group who were fresh faced young people, emboldened by brightly coloured costumes. However the dance group did not dance during every song. In one of the ones where they stood cuddled up to each other, desperately trying to maintain some body heat, a group of about six young girls (aged any five or six) spontaneously stood forward, and ably supported by their grand fathers began to dance a kind of Gavotte, stately and serene they moved their hands and feet in complex and beautiful patterns, swirling slowly. At this point the audience of onlookers stopped being an audience of onlookers and became an audience of performers, they held hands and began a dance, a dance rather like the English Conger but a sideways dance which was faster and far, far more elegant. They formed patterns so that the whole square became a sea of happy chains of people young, old and middle aged, dancing in snakes of animated and happy forms and intertwining shapes. It was very moving and I said to my friends that a country and a society that can inspire its people to dance like that must be doing something right!

Bob’s exhibition opening on 27.02.2018

Later in the evening I meet up with my friends again who were mostly medical students from the University of Tartu in a pub called Keller and we reopened the great Dennis Wheatley debate before swinging into the joys of learning to become a doctor and the relative merits of the political systems of our home countries. I met a young American student from Cincinnati who had a different perspective to me and our debate became interesting. During this convivial evening I found myself talking to a young Estonian man who was wearing a very smart suit. We found ourselves discussing the finer points of Rugby Union when he said “Excuse me, I have enjoyed our conversation but I must go over to the other end of the bar and make a speech”. “A speech”? I said, greatly puzzled “what now? “ “Yes, he said a speech, I work in the office of the Prime Minister of Estonia and they have asked me here to make a speech on the 100th anniversary day of the declaration of Estonian Independence”. “Okay I will come and listen” I said.  So we all gather round him and he made his speech which seemed to do down very well with the Estonian members of the audience. At this point I felt inspired to make a contribution I decided to make a toast, the very toast that I had been preparing in my head ever since Lemmit asked me to make one during our staff family meal at the Printing museum the night before. I felt that what I had said then could do with a little revision and that this was the new all singing all dancing authorised version, which I had ready just in case I was asked again!

“Ladies and Gentlemen” I said, “It is now 27 years since the Russian army left Estonia, defeated by the awesome power of community singing. In that time Estonians both governments and people working together have made a society in which ordinary people can live decent lives. I feel that there is no governmental or social achievement greater or more important than this achievement. It is an achievement which is the very essence of democracy. So my toast is:

Estonians! Be proud of yourselves!”

That remains my toast even though I am now back in the UK. Thank you for inviting me to be an Artist in Residence at the Eesti Trüki- ja Paberimuuseum.

 

 

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