Craft is the Family Tradition

The Stankai family is one of the most famous Lithuanian families of blacksmiths. More than 5 generations of the best Eastern European blacksmiths, who were probably the first to revive Damask technology in this region, have this surname. However, the range of activities passed from generation to generation was not restricted to just gunsmithing. Huge works of artistic ironwork were also created, adorning a number of luxurious homes (staircases, railings, chandeliers, parts of furniture, etc.) were also crafted. The Stankai have also revived the heritage of historic buildings by, for example, restoring or reproducing locks, keys, hinges and other architectural details. Over many years of operation, the Stankai family has shown the importance, relevance and necessity of this traditional craft for today’s society. Let’s meet them!

The Father of the Family – Algirdas Stankus

Algirdas Stankus says of himself: “Blacksmith Domininkas forged me with smooth movements of her body and I first saw light of day in the Spring of 1948 in the town of Viekšniai. I finished high school in Kaunas,  and then I learnt order and discipline in the Navy,  the arts in Telšiai Applied Arts School, and worked as a restorer in Vilnius. It was a wonderful opportunity to study the secrets of the ancient Art of the Blacksmith. I got new ideas and courage from Professor Giunter Laufer in Eisenach and from architect-blacksmith Achil Kiuhn in Berlin. I was sent the Czeck Metal-forging and Art News by Alfred Haberman. I taught the ancient metal process methods of the Baltic tribes with the help of archaeologists Jonas Stankus and Marija Gimbutienė (both Lithuanians), and Aleksis Anteinas (a Latvian). I have been a member of the Lithuanian Artists’ Association since 1988. I am a full and active member of the Estonian Blacksmiths’ Association (ticket No. 2) and have been a associate member of the Finnish Blacksmiths’ Association since 1991. I exhibited the first Damask items at the Vilnius Decorative Arts Exhibition in 1987. My first exhibition and lecture cycle “The Traditions and Future of Artistic Metal Forging in the Countries of the Baltic Sea Region” were held in Miunemaki city at the Finland Institute of Applied Arts and Design, and later at the Stockholm Academy of Arts. I came back to my homeland at the start of Lithuania’s independence. I have passed on my experience of the art and craft of the blacksmith to young blacksmiths. We participate in exhibitions whenever possible. In conjunction with my students, we exhibited blacksmith items in Turku city, Finland in June 1998. We have also participated in worldwide exhibitions of artistic ironwork. We have had exhibitions in the Czeck Republic, Poland, Germany, and Russia. You can find my work at St. John’s Church, the Presidential Palace, Kaunas Priests Seminary, Birštonas, and the Lithuanian Embassy in Moscow. I have made lots of gravestone monuments…”

The Sons – Mindaugas and Martynas Stankus

“I never dreamt of becoming an astronaut or soldier. To be a blacksmith was already encoded in my genes at a young age” – tells Algirdas Stankus’s son Martynas. The brothers’ first home was in the buildings of the present-day Lithuanian presidential palace in the centre of Vilnius where their parents had a small mould room. And of course, their second home was their father’s forge. So the children of the family spent all day there learning the skills to be artisan-blacksmiths. That is why their journey to becoming blackmiths was so short – from the start of their conscious childhood, perhaps even from the age of three when they could first hold a hammer. So it is not at all surprising that from an early age they were able to contribute directly to the rejuvenation of Vilnius’ blacksmith heritage. After all, their father Algirdas Stankus was the blacksmith-restorer at the heart of the restoration of Vilnius’ monuments. Mindaugas Stankus became interested, due to his Lithuanian language teacher Stasys Urniežius (Great Knight Vilkdaugas), in the archaeological digs taking place at Vilnius’ Lower Castle, so much so that he actually spent several teenage summers there.

Blacksmithwork – Science versus Art

Today, the Stankai blacksmith family try to copy the techniques of ancient forging traditions in every single work but at the same time they do not completely avoid modern technology. At first sight it might look as though these two methods are incompatible, but this synthesis allows the craft of of the blacksmith to adapt to modern needs and desires. The techniques used by blacksmiths are very wide ranging. The latest knowledge about technological stuff comes to blacksmiths not only from personal experimentation and lots of experience, but also by attending symposiums and festivals and especially by communicating with other artisans.

The Most Important Thing is Continuity

One of the best methods of transmitting knowledge is through the next generation of students. The Stankai family have signed a contract with the Telšiai Art Faculty of the Vilnius Art Academy relating to students’ practical experience. As a result, they had to educate themselves and then teach students for several summers in a row. Another way of spreading knowledge is by taking part in the activities of the “Pajauta”archaeological club. This club brings together artisans who replicate ancient crafts and demonstrate these processes during various events for the public. But according to Algirdas Stankus the most important thing for the transmission and continuation of the craft of  the blacksmith is his family and his two adorable sons.

There is always plenty of work

Algirdas Stankus taught his art Finnish, he has made copies of weapons for one of the famous museums in the world, the Hermitage Museum, and has forged the most sophisticated items for churches and Vilnius University. As a blacksmith and gunsmith, his creations decorate the houses of well-known businessmen. “The blacksmith and the miller have always had lots of work no matter what the prevailing conditions, ie. war or plague” – says Algirdas Stankus.

Algirdas himself, his bearded son Mindaugas and his other son Martynas who lives in Kaunas, can all three confirm by their appearance, that blacksmiths are strong and stocky, although the men mentioned several times that nowadays there are slim blacksmiths, too. “A woman and a gun should not be put together, she is needed to give birth to children and look after the home, and not behave like a Scandinavian woman” – thinks Martynas, a strong man, who is 186 cm in height and 110 kg in weight. Then he remembers a funny story and smiles: “Once in Sweden, I saw a woman carrying very heavy firewood, so I offered her my help, and I just about got hit over the head with the firewood.”

What are the most important characteristics for a blacksmith Algirdas Stankus has no doubts: “Talent, diligence, and a sense of size, shape and distance”. Algirdas Stankus is not a religious man but maybe it is not a cooincidence that it is said that blacksmiths are the closest ones to hell, and that the closest way to the Devil is through smithwork. “Hephaestus, the son of Zeus and Hera, god of fire and guardian of blacksmithwork, had a limp and I have lost an eye” – the famous blacksmith points to his left eye. He does not talk much about this painful incident. The irony of fate is this happened not in the forge, not close to hell, but whilst restoring Vilnius’ Church of the Apostles Philip and James, when he climbed high up a tower and a workman wrapping metal wire accidentally poked him straight in the eye.

Cleaner than in an Operating Theatre

“However, the fact is that the forge is a very clean place. You can ask a surgeon. In the old days, giving birth took place in forges. I took part in my son’s birth, so if needed I could always deliver a baby” – laughs Martynas. “Once a famous journalist visited with a girl wearing white shoes. I blew away the soot and offered her a seat but she said: ’’it’s not clean’’, – laughs Algirdas. – ’’Lady, I said to her, it is cleaner in here than in an operating theatre. Needles are sterilised at 100 degrees Celsius there, and at 1000 degrees Celsius here, so it’s 10 times cleaner.”

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