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Anton Shtepa  a jack-of-all-trades, turns 100 and dances at his birthday party

 

I was enthralled to see a centenarian blow out a hundred candles on his birthday cake in one mighty puff! There were many guests but not one of them made any attempt to help him  everybody knew he was quite capable of doing it all by himself. He did look impressive holding a mace, the symbol of hetmans authority, in his hand.

 

Among the guests were people from his native land of Ichnyan, people who appreciate his works, and representatives of the local authorities. The venue of the birthday celebration was the Museum of Folk and Decorative Arts. After the best wishes were expressed, Happy Birthday to You, and Many Happy Returns were sung, and a poem written by his daughter Olha in his honour recited, the centenarian joined the lively hopak dance, encoura-

 

ging the musicians to play faster. It was a sort of tradition with him to dance hopak at his birthday party.

The celebrator was Anton Shtepa who, as is always the case with him, was full of energy and plans for the future to spend this energy on. I wish everybody well-being and happiness. As long as I live, Ill continue doing what Ive been doing all my life and what I love best. And if I have any enemies, let it be known to them that Im planning to live at least until Im 120. Ill mark my birthday the way I do it now. I give you my word for it.

And given the spirited vigour and vitality the man has, I did not doubt a single second hell be true to his word.

 

Anton Shtepas life has been far from tranquil and not always happy. But in all of his ups and downs, there was one thing that remained stable  his search for ways of self-expression through his art. During his lifetime which spans practically the whole of the twentieth century and has continued into the twenty-first, there happened a great many events of global significance  two devastating world wars, ruinous local conflicts that changed the shape of nations, revolutions that brought tyrants, the bloodiest the history has ever known, to power, and revolutions that brought freedom, technological and scientific advances that made this world a place totally different from what it had been before (incidentally, Shtepas hundred-year birthday almost coincided with the centennial of the first controlled and powered flight in a machine heavier than air). Despite the revolutionary changes in all the spheres of life, Shtepas talents and art have always remained useful and in demand.

Anton Shtepa can be called jack-of-all-trades though completely without implicit negative hint, but master of none. He is a master of many trades indeed. His formal education was limited to three classes of a village school, but there seems to be hardly anything that he does not know how to do. Rural life in Ukraine entails a lot of work in the garden by the house and Shtepa does give much of his time to it. But it does not prevent him from exercising his many talents. Wood carving; creative writing  he has written several plays, and his book of memoirs, Neshchasny myslyvets, or An Unhappy Hunter, is soon to be published; incidentally, the book was written in the Polisky dialect of the Ukrainian language and the publisher has decided to publish the book the way it is, without editing it to comply with the standards of the literary Ukrainian language; playing and making musical instruments  he can play the violin and the lira, a Ukrainian stringed instrument, and he makes these instruments as well; among other musical instruments he makes are violas, drums and banduras, many-stringed Ukrainian instruments, and painting, just to name the most important of his talents. Shtepas cherished dream is to make a device of perpetual motion, and so far it is probably the only thing in his life that he has failed to make.

His co-villagers know that Shtepa can mend practically any device or a machine, from photo cameras and watches to tractors and seeders. People in his village know that they dont have to take their radios and televisions to town to be repaired if anything goes wrong  they take them to Didus (Old Man) Shtepa who fixes them in no time. Once he made a small-sized steam engine not because it was needed for a particular purpose but simply because he felt like making it  and to test his own abilities. The engine worked all right, but a plane he built did not want to fly. A trip to the Caucasus he once made with his wife gave him a lot of impressions and inspirations. For some reason the awesome sight of the snow-capped lofty mountains gave him a desire to make a flying machine to soar into the sky above the peaks, and upon his return home he got down to work, and using parts of a dismantled bicycle and of a motorcycle, and aluminium rods and lengths of tarpaulin, he constructed a machine that could move at a great speed on the ground but obstinately refused to take off.

Shtepas daughter Olha says that their family has long learnt to take Shtepas crazy projects for granted  and with a grain of salt, always encouraging him to go ahead with whatever he thought would be fun to do. His wife Mariya who, in her young years was considered to be the best looking girl in the village (whom Shtepa married after a long and difficult courtship), was always supportive of her husbands untiring search for new things to do and to create and to learn. Her patience must have been tried to the limit more than once but never did she even try to discourage Shtepa from having crazy ideas or realising them in practice. When Shtepa went into wood carving everybody thought it was going to be just another hobby, but gradually wood carving became Shtepas main occupation. His works were shown at exhibitions and some even made it to museums and private collections in Ukraine and abroad. Exhibitions of Shtepas works were shown in Moscow, Prague and Lisbon.

Like any art, wood carving is much more than a mere skill  creativity and imagination work miracles transforming dead matter into images that begin to live their own life, and Shtepas images radiate warm energy and are spiritually uplifting. Among Shtepas creations are narrative compositions based on poems and stories by Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Kotlyarevsky and Mykola Gogol; figurines inspired by folk songs and fairy tales, and traditional pieces  wooden spoons, wooden combs and other similar things.

When I asked Shtepas granddaughter to what extent her Grandpa gets inspired by the spirit and traditions of Ukraine, she said, I think he wants to show through his art the most significant impressions and experiences of his long life, the pain of injustice he saw, the destiny of Ukraine in a symbolic way. Ukraine, its history, its literature, its traditions are his main inspirations. He would not be able to create the way he does anywhere else. And I know for sure that even if he were offered a lot of money and excellent conditions of work somewhere beyond Ukraines boundaries, he would never agree to leave his native land. For me, he is an epitome of the true Ukrainian charter, with industriousness and search of perfection being its focal points.

 

By Olha Andrushchakevych

 

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