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Is this the youngest Cypriot carver?

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‘I’m often asked who the sculptor is. ‘Is it your dad? Your grandad?’ ALIX NORMAN meets a young woman  defying expectations

 

For thousands of years, Cyprus was known as the ‘Green Island’ of the Mediterranean: pines and cypress as far as the eye could see.

This wooded wealth contributed largely to the island’s power and reputation. From local timber came our ploughs and yokes, our homes and weapons. Wood was needed in the production of copper, and was a mainstay of shipbuilding: everyone from the Egyptians to the Venetians to the Ottomans crafted ships from Cyprus timber.

But it all came at a price. Despite diligent reforestation over the last few decades, just 40 per cent of the island is now forested. And, rather than an exporter, Cyprus has become an importer of wood.

Used in industries such as construction and architecture, wood is a vital resource. But it also has an important role in one of the island’s most traditional professions: carving.

“Once, there were many woodcarvers on the island,” explains Christiana Stylianou. “Their work was varied and skilled: contour specialists worked intricate grooves into flat surfaces; relief experts worked on elaborate murals; fret carvers used open work techniques to create images that stood out from the background.

feature3 christiana in her workshop
Christiana in her workshop

“From the past, we can see wooden dippers used to stir palouze and trachanas; faouta that were used to pound and clean clothes. And while village bakers used locally-made kope or fournoftio to place bread in the ovens, richer homes enjoyed a wealth of intricately carved doorposts, cupboards, and linen chests.

“Then there were the religious woodcarvings,” she adds. “Churches would commission carved iconostases, lecterns, and altars. Beautifully etched with climbing vines, angels, and other Christian symbols, most were made from local linden, pine and sycamore – woods that may no longer be as readily available.”

One of the few who continue to practise this ancient art, 33-year-old Christiana is captivated by the history of woodcarving on the island.

It’s a topic that first intrigued her during the dark days of the pandemic when, as a teacher, she had more time on her hands than usual. And, over the past few years, she’s thrown herself into the hobby, fascinated by a traditional craft that gave our ancestors items both practical and beautiful; mundane and aesthetic.

But, she says, most forms of this profession have now all but died out.

“Yes, time moves on; this is inevitable; we no longer ‘need’ the ancient skills of our ancestors. But another major factor has, I believe, been the lack of appropriate wood available on the island. It has certainly had an impact on my own carving…”

Christiana specialises in sculpture carving. It’s an age-old form that was once popular in the region. But, with an increased population, the tree cover has decreased dramatically. And the right wood, she suggests, is no longer so easy to find…

“While local pine and oak were popular among traditional Cypriot carvers, it was wood from the flamouri tree that was most prized,” Christiana explains. “This flamouri is eminently workable, lacks a strong grain, and has infrequent knots. Which makes it ideal for sculptural carving…”

Known in English as the silver lime or silver linden, the tree is native to south-eastern Europe. The Ancient Greeks considered it sacred; the tree of goddesses and maternal love. Its flowers were used in calming tinctures and fragrant perfumes. And its wood was a notable favourite with painters and sculptors…

But, according to the Forestry Department, there is now no verified location where Tilia tomentosa (flamouri) is present in Cyprus. A few were planted some years ago at an altitude of 1,000 metres, but harsh climactic conditions dried them out. “So I import my flamouri from Italy,” says Christiana. “It’s the only way.”

Calling herself The Cypriot Woodcarver, Christiana has been working with silver linden for several years now, using ancient techniques to create a modern twist on traditional woodcarving.

She’s the antithesis of what one expects in a woodcarver: “When people see my work, they expect me to be about 70 years old and male,” she laughs. “And at fairs and markets where I sell my stuff, I’m often asked who the sculptor is. ‘Is it your dad?’ they enquire. ‘Your grandad?’ Everyone looks quite shocked when I tell them it’s me!”

Christiana has actually created a sculpture based on these expectations. “It’s what others imagine me to be,” she grins: “an old man, wrinkled by time, and holding a small carving of my sign!”

The sculpture is delightful, and the style is very much in keeping with her other carvings – a whimsical take on life in Cyprus…

“Although I use modern tools – Pfeil, Flexcut and Helvie carving knives, along with various chisels, drills and handsaws – the techniques I use would be familiar to my ancestors. And so would my subjects: I like to draw from what I see around me.”

feature3 this is what people think she looks like
This is what people think she looks like

Heavily inspired by Cyprus, Christiana’s carvings include an old couple in traditional dress, as well as the flora and fauna of the island. She’s currently completing a series based on local birds, and another that references life in the past – daily tasks in the home and fields.

“My sculptures may be more contemporary than the wood carvings of old,” she says. “But they reference the same elements and, hopefully, bring the same joy to customers. And of course, I like to use the same wood: flamouri

“It’s awful that you can’t really get it here now. I think, because of its scarcity, it now has protected status. That’s a good thing. But it’s also a testament to how our island has changed over the centuries, isn’t it? Cyprus is no longer the Green Island of the Mediterranean.”

 

To see more of Christiana’s carvings, visit the Instagram account @thecypriotcarver or the Etsy page TheCypriotCarverShop

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