People who could make some useful object from a piece of wood once were called carpenters. They painstakingly worked on pieces of wood, creating exquisite handmade items. Over time, by craft, the woodcarving has evolved into an art that manages to turn a piece of raw wood into real form of poetry. People who had the talent and patience brought the carving to perfection. Art filled with the soul of the engraver, which reflects the tradition of the nation to which he belongs and the spirit of the time when he creates.
Macedonia today is a rich treasury of monuments made in woodcarving, despite numerous plunders, destructions and ruinations over the centuries. The travel writers passing through Macedonia noticed that icons, old manuscripts, books, Royal doors in carving were extensively exported… All that is irreversible, but however, Macedonia is rich in carvings created through the centuries, and the tradition continues today. Searching the apologists of the tradition, we reached the home of Milevi woodcarving family in Kavadarci, where we heard the story from Master Marjan.
Searching for something…
Marjan was born on March 24th, 1964 in Kavadarci. On his father’s side from Kavadarci and his mother’s from Tresonche, Lazaropole.
His father was a joiner, “tischler”. From an early childhood, Marjan helped his father in manufacturing of many wooden objects – closets, cupboards, cabinets, chairs, tables and so on.
From my mother’s side, according to the older people of Lazaropole, my great-grandfather is Gjurchin Kokale (1775-1863), one of the first Macedonian revivalists. He instituted the first school in 1861, where all from Lazaropole were educated. He was a duke and protector of Christians, and his great merit was that he converted many Islamized Christians back to Christianity. Among other things, he helped painting as well. According to the older people, some of our interlocutors’ ancestors were also engaged in frescoes and woodcarving. My grandfather Gjorgji (my mother’s father) was a bricklayer, one of the best in Tresonche, who also worked on Knez Mihailova in Belgrade and worked with wood. Because of the war and the danger of the Balli, he had to move to Kavadarci. My father is one of the first joiners in Kavadarci. As a kid, I knew how to work with chisels and machines, Marjan narrates.
His first touch with woodcarving was around 1990:
Then was the restoration of monastery “St. Spas” on the Ljubash hill above Kavadarci. Opposite “Feni”, when turning towards Rosoman on the left, you can see the monastery. I didn’t know that St. Spas is actually the Ascension of Jesus… When I asked to buy an icon of health, happiness and well-being in my home, they asked for money that I did not have at that moment. Then I drew the figure of Jesus Christ and gifted it to the monastery, Marjan remembers.
He admits that he was always very good in drawing. Because, as he says, if you don’t know how to draw, you can’t carve.
The engraver who have learned the technique, but don’t know to draw are poor. Usually, we will take a ruler, put it on the oeuvre, and the whole piece is flat. So, there is no depth, the artwork does not breathe. I keep saying, if you want to be engraver, look at the nose, it’s the most prominent, then the mouth, then the other parts… That’s how we oriented and evaluate whether we are quality or not.
We go back a little bit in the conversation. Before he began carving, Marjan had some, as he had heard from older people, visions of a white-bearded saint. The saint spoke to him as he was lying down in some temple, with carved stones. At first he spoke slowly, then louder and louder, and finally shouting and waked Marjan up:
It all happened from 11 pm to 1 am, almost every day, for one to two years. According to the older ones, I would get oil, T-shirt; towel… some gift to the church. But the dream haven’t stop.
At the time, Marjan worked as a fire protection engineer and safety expert in
“Tikvesh Winery”. In those early 90s of the last century, as today, the tradition for Epiphany was throwing a cross into the swimming-pool. On January 11, while I was at work, I asked manager Panche Filipov to let me go home. He asked me: Why? I didn’t know what to answer. He let me go.
He went home and when he entered, he saw the priest of the church “St. Dimitrija” from Kavadarci holding the painted icon in his hands and wondering who made it. Marjan told priest that it was him. The priest asked him if he could make a cross that would be thrown into the pool. Marjan confirmed, but replied that he didn’t know how the cross looked like.
I was passing through the church every day, but I didn’t know exactly how the cross looked like. Some crosses are straight, others are round, and there is a difference between the Orthodox and the Catholic cross… Until then I was not a believer, I didn’t go to church. We were not even married with Mina in church. Tito’s students…
Marjan asked to see how the cross looked like, and then the priest took him to a church and showed him a cross of plaster with the figure of Jesus. The priest was thinking only of an ordinary cross.
I went back to work and asked the manager to give me days off, I didn’t tell him the reason, because I was ashamed. He gave me days off and I started preparing the cross for “St. Dimitrija”. It took me three days and three nights to finish the cross.
He didn’t sleep at all. Until today he can’t explain that inner strength. He made the cross with three chisels, and on the night it should be consecrated, he took it to church.
The dream that tormented me for a long time vanished, and I became a believer with a pure heart and full of faith, love and hope, but also with great gratitude for being alive and well.
That night Marjan slept peacefully and become conscious that God is beside him. He lost the fear of death and everything else.
There is such a strength in me that many people think I’m naive. Naivety has nothing to do with goodness. I realized that the point is not whether you are religious… Far from it, we all go to church, we cross ourselves … It is important to have faith, to believe that someone is guarding you. It’s a very nice feeling. That’s why I started woodcarving. I just dive in and while carving, I’m repeating the prayer all the time. I don’t even see what I’m doing. People don’t believe me. I just don’t see, I can’t explain to them that I don’t see at all, some force guides me.
We go back a little bit again… Marjan tried to carve the figure of Jesus Christ and succeeded, this is his first icon.
One day boxer Ace Rusevski’s grandfather came and ordered him the Last Supper. Marjan, who had hitherto done only a shallow carving of Jesus Christ, faced a great challenge, called the Last Supper.
We needed timber. We didn’t have money for the timber that we needed for other carpentry stuff. Ace’s grandfather says to me: No problem, we’ll get it for you. I made the Last Supper for two mounts, and he was very happy. We had arranged two cubic meters, and he brought us six. And so we got the timber for our carpentry stuff, and he got his icon.
Marjan told us another story… A friend of his, a mechanical engineer whose children graduated enology in Bulgaria, wanted to give the professors a gift as a token of gratitude.
We were sitting here on the terrace with him until 11 pm, and he was due to leave for Bulgaria at 7 am next morning. I promised him that by then I would make two icons with figure of Mary. Before the agreed time I was in front of his house, and I said to him: Blazho, I bring you the icons – they still smell on lacquer, but they’re ready.
Followed many other orders of icons and other carvings. The most numerous were the icons that Marjan made on in one breath. They were most often gifts to friends and close acquaintances, Christians, who believed that the icon, or saint, would be the guardian of happiness, health and well-being in their homes.
According to Marjan, giving icons to people and friends helps them to find their peace of mind and blessing, and thus he becomes mentally richer and happier because he makes new friends:
If you give something to a person and you know that it will make him/her happy, isn’t that a nice feeling? That makes me happy. Every friend is a gift from God and should be cherished. The more friends you have, you will be richer and happier in this one life given by God.
Marjan’s inspiration and desire for woodcarving deepened after his visit to the church of “St. Spas” in Skopje, where simply, as he said, he was taken by some internal force.
After I saw the interior of that temple of God, I was suddenly enlightened. The dream vision was here, the stones I lay on, all the carving I saw in my visions… everything was here. Miracle! Until then, I didn’t even know where “St. Spas” is.
Since then, he has known that his calling is woodcarving, often with religious motives. In the church he met his dear friend, already deceased, Sokole, one of the doyens for the restoration of old carvings in Macedonia.
Sokole was known as the most inaccessible person. In the church Marjan stood further him and watched. Suddenly Sokole ask Persa Bilinska, a curator at “St. Spas”, to prepare two coffees and bring rakija for the young unknown man (Marjan) and for himself.
He approached me and asked what I wanted, I replied: Nothing… He told me that so far many people have asked him to teach them to carve, and I don’t ask anything… He says: You will learn!
Marjan believes that there is some unexplained force that brings people together in that vocation:
It has not only happened to me, but to many other people, and has made them gain а faith as grain of millet… To guide them forward…
From Sokole he received three chisels that he holds as a memorial… but a great lesson as well – that all the power and carving is in the nose.
Why the nose? Because it is the most prominent and it is a beginning to deepen and go deep. That simple Sokole told me everything. If someone understood that, everything else is simple.
Deep in the wood
According to Marjan, the woodcarving is the soul of its creator and is more an art than a craft:
The craftsman only seeks to satisfy the customer and sell him what he has done. Looking at myself, I find it very difficult to separate from my pieces, because each of them has a part of my soul.
Through his 30 years of woodcarving experience, Marjan has gained both quality and speed, but as he says, in this modern day lifestyle, no one can really survive solely of carving as art.
As a craftsman I have orders and I did that… That’s a craft. The woodcarving gives me peace. While I’m carving, I’m repeating the prayer all the time and exclude myself from everything else. I put my soul into it. It relaxes me, fulfills me and gives me life. That is art. Woodcarving cannot be a craft.
Most often Marian’s carvings are in walnut wood, but there are also carvings made of beech, mountain maple, pine, pear tree, stump of old vineyards… He reveals that it’s easier to work if the wood is hard:
If is soft, it breaks and you cannot make it. Wild pear is good, mountain maple is good, but it is heavier. There are many other quality trees around the world – dabema, mahogany… Still, the walnut tree, which lasts about 2.000 years, is the best. His fiber holds, does not tear and does not break.
He prepares the wood on carpentry machines – glues and moulds the shape he wants to get. After shaping it, he starts carving with a numerous variety of chisels.
As time was passing, Marjan became dissatisfied with the manner of woodcarving and its depth, which until then was 1 to 2 centimeters. He started to go deeply:
I would carved to a depth of 1-2 centimetres, then remake the piece and go deeper to 5-6 centimetres… I started looking for plasticity in my artworks, to be as similar as possible to what I wanted to do. With greater depth I get more plasticity.
He also started with pierced woodcarving, and finally making figures of all sizes. Last year he made the Trojan horse, 1,7 meters high and 1,4 meters long. He worked on it for about 6 months, hammering it stick by stick, thin as the nail. He used 4 kg of sticks, or about 40.000 sticks.
When carving icons, Marjan presents them authentically. However, the saints’ figure enhancements are in most cases his. Most often he incorporates grapes, vine sprout, leaf, oak motifs, birds etc. In addition to carving, as we mentioned before, he also produces many other carpentry works (kitchens, tables, closets, doors, windows, stairs and stair railings, beds…), souvenirs, shelves and wine boxes for various wineries and restaurants, including “Tikvesh”, “Idadija”, “Vodenica”…
He doesn’t know how much pieces he has done so far. He didn’t write down.
Craftworks and artworks are mixed. Many times, some pieces I’ve done before, I can’t recognize and wonder if they are made of me. Strange thing! Sometimes with my wife on television we will see some of our work…
Somebody asked him why he didn’t put signatures.
I put in a specific woodcarving, and it’s worth more than the signature!
As a crown of all his work so far for Marjan is the part of the iconostasis of the church “St. Gjorgjija” in Lazaropole, respectively the Royal doors and the portal above them.
It is somehow primordial to people to be attracted by the place of their origin…
On the Ilinden holiday in 2011, the Milevi family went in Lazaropole to visit relatives. They also visited the church “St. Gjorgjija”, in which Marjan took few photos of his daughter Angela in front of the Royal doors and on some other places. Two years later, in 2013, happen great robbery and destruction of that church, as part of a series of robberies in sacred temples throughout Macedonia.
They Royal doors were stolen, the most valuable icons of Dicho Zograf… Inside they were broken thrones, chairs… Everything was broken and looted. I’m going to the church next year and what can I see – the church was empty and desolate. Dr. Blazhe Smilevski asked me if I could make the upper part of the iconostasis, whatever it is. I told him that I would make it the way it was.
Although the woodcarving was very deep, Marjan found the photography with Angela several years ago, zoomed in, printed it and reproduced the missing part of the iconostasis. In has been placed in the church since this year.
About the art piece he wants to do, and hasn’t done so far, Marjan says:
There are many such things. They say that as long as someone has desire to do something that is on his heart which haven’t still done, he will live on. I have so many things to do that I’m not sure if this life will be enough. One of them is a rocking chair, entire carved in my own design. I will sway and rest on it..
He’s been pondering for the rocking chair for a long time. He has made even a press specifically for that purpose. It will be housed in a small villa, built by himself, on the widest part of Lake Tikvesh.
In the family of Balkan Prime Tours
The woodcarving Milevi family is Marjan, his wife Mina and their two children Angela and Goran. As was mentioned in the introduction, Marjan is the master.
Mina learned to carve as well, and in the shallow carving she had already overcome the master.
She has that artistic gene from her father and uncle. Tito took pictures from her uncle Ivan Sulev at the time. He made faces from tear drop – that’s amazing! Mina has such a sense of plasticity through shallow carving that I can’t do it myself. I am very proud that she loved this craft and that we are together in all of this…
Slowly, slowly, they transmit the art skills to the children. Goran is occupied in another area of art – graphic design and he more believes in science.
Angela, who is employed in Balkan Prime Tours, is hardworking, insightful and full of love. I hope that one day she will be a worthy heiress to the woodcarving I create and what I want to leave as a legacy to my offspring.
Vlatko is nephew of spouses, a child of Mina’s first cousin. After long discussions with family and Vlatko about the development of tourism in Macedonia, the idea for opening the doors of their home for the tourists was born.
We talked about anomalies in the organization, realization and implementation of our tradition through customs, crafts with specific characteristics, lifestyle and understanding of life. A spark of hope appears, which turned into a harmony and organization of activities along with Balkan Prime Tours as the driver of all this, headed by Vlatko. If there were another hundred young people like him, Macedonia would be better place,
Marjan emphasized, adding that the nephew had conquered him with the enthusiasm for Macedonia’s development for many tourists to get acquainted with this country, some for the first time and internally, in the best possible light.
On that initiative, the upper part of the house has been adapted and has been made a space for exhibiting the oeuvres. The guests are welcomed there, and there is a separate part – a workshop.
After the guests will be announced, in Milevi’s home studio begin the excitement and the preparations for welcoming. Marjan admits that he doesn’t need time to prepare, but that’s not the case with his wife:
Ha, ha, ha. Mina needs more time because she cares about every detail about food, drinks, space… Of course, Angela is helping.
Guests are welcomed with some of the food specialties prepared by Mina. Then they look at the exhibited oeuvres. There is also a piece of wood, on which the tourists can try their woodcarving skills. Marjan first tells them how to do it and then they try with his help.
There was a Frenchman from Poland who didn’t want to give the chisel to others to try. I had to ask him…
The guests are most fascinated by the story for the preparation of the tree, how old it should be, how to be selected, choosing the motif for carving…
After I present the pieces to the guests, at the end, the happiest guest receives a modest gift from the house in which he/she brought happiness.
The tourists are mostly delighted by the Macedonian people – goodhearted, warm-hearted, dear. It is a nation with rich cultural heritage and traditional customs, activities and crafts that are disappearing.
The Macedonian people are ready to welcome everyone who wants to be part of their story. Each guest receives a small but valuable souvenir as memorial and that is the heart of every Macedonian through authentic souvenir.
The souvenir is a cherry tree medallion with a twig of vine. On the back side of the medallion is written:
This is a twig of the Kratoshia variety, one of the oldest wine grapes in the world.
That twig is fastened on a red string with a traditional knit.
That souvenir is a part of Macedonia, part of my soul that will be carried away and spread throughout the world. That will make me richer, prouder and happier because I am part of something noble and sacred.
The Milevi family has always loved guests and they were happy when the guests are coming.
Since the tourists started arriving, I began to learn English so that I could better understand them and to be able to transfer closely my soul and knowledge of what I had chosen as a way of life.
Milevi are fulfilled when they see that many of the guests, who didn’t know about Macedonia or just heard, will get acquainted from inside who the Macedonians really are: a small, hospitable and friendly nation. People with a big heart.