If you ask people what Vilnius is to them, many would tell you that it’s a treasure chest of endless secrets. No matter how many times you visit, you’re bound to discover something new and be pleasantly surprised.
As you pass a crowd of pilgrims from across Europe heading towards Aušros vartai (Eng. Gates of Dawn) and duck into one of the inner courtyards of the Old Town, you’ll find the property of an eccentric folk master and wood sculptor, Jonas Bugailiškis.
With an array of wooden religious sculptures, carved saints, devils, collections of folk music instruments and ancient toys characteristic only to Lithuania – it’s hard to believe that all these things are in the centre of a modern city increasingly known for making bold statements in art and fashion
“I started carving while working in building development here in Vilnius,” says folk art master Jonas with a most serious face. “I worked as a tower crane operator for many years, building blocks of flats in various districts of Vilnius – Šeškinė, Fabijoniškės. I watched the growing city from above and – whenever I had a free minute – I carved in the style I learned as a child. I left the crane a skilful carver”.
“And I – you may say – was born in this workshop; spending my days here laying on the windowsill as a seven-month-old. From that time forward, I started to absorb everything that happened here. When you spend your childhood watching all of these carved devils and saints come to life, you have to learn to make them as well,” laughs the son of the folk master, Domantas Bugailiškis.
As the owner of such a renowned workshop and one of the most famous Lithuanian folk masters, Jonas is in full swing now with Baltic States’ biggest folk art and handicrafts fair, Kaziukas, fast approaching.
Jonas and his son are preparing special handicrafts – nesting boxes – for the annual fair, which marks the beginning of spring. “For over fifteen years now, making these nesting boxes has been our spring ritual,” says the master. His nesting boxes are real works of art, too. Some of them are adorned with pictures while others feature ornaments or even sculptural motifs of animals or saints. Following Kaziukas, these nesting boxes will no doubt lead to some competition among birds looking to take up residence in the more beautiful of housing options in the abundant green spaces of Vilnius.
“By this time of year, residents of Vilnius and city guests miss spring,” says Bugailiškis. You may be easily convinced of this if you visit our fair. Twisting through the main arteries of the Old Town, the Kaziukas fair attracts more than half a million visitors each year. Missing the fair is like missing spring.
But why Kaziukas? The fair takes its name from the softened, domestic version of the name Kazimieras (Eng. Casimir). The history of Kaziukas is dated to the beginning of the seventeenth century when the former Prince of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Poland, Kazimieras was canonised as a saint. Since then, an annual celebration has been held on the day of his death, 4 March. In addition to the religious ceremonies that have taken place in remembrance of Saint Kazimieras, crowds of craftspeople, traders and fair-goers have also been coming to Vilnius to mark the date. This unique assembly of people has since been tenderly named Kaziukas fair.
The spring uproar of Kaziukas has taken place for more than four hundred years. “Traditionally, Kaziukas brings spring to Vilnius, and spring returns birds. This is why we create nesting boxes for residents of Vilnius and city guests,” says the folk art master Bugailiškis.
Close connection to nature is very important to Bugailiškis and his son, as it is to all Vilnians. Maybe it’s because Vilnius is a very green city? The city is distinguished from other European capitals not only by its abundance of green spaces, but also its rich and almost wild forests.
“That is why you will see nesting boxes everywhere in Vilnius if you’re attentive. People take care of birds in the heart of the city, raise nesting boxes, and decorate Vilnius with them. Even in the park by the Presidential Palace, the President of the Republic of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė, with the help of local children, raised many houses for birds several years ago,” remembers Domantas. “So our spring Kaziukas ritual is well understood and recognised by those who feel the spirit of Vilnius”.
Master Jonas, who resembles one of his carved saints, offers some details about his handicraft: “Our clients try to attract typical bird species; starling or titmouse. But sometimes less common breeds appear, like the Barn Owl. Giant spacious nesting boxes with big hollows are meant for them. And we may even offer owl lovers these types of nesting boxes during Kaziukas fair!”
Kaziukas will definitely delight and surprise you. As an event, it reminds us that even the strangest of ideas come true – if not in the hands of the first, then in the hands of the hundredth craftsperson. Just let yourself flow in the river of people lining the main streets of Vilnius as spring prepares to bloom.