Maret Sarapu recalls, “In Finland, I discovered I need trees and bushes and scrap wood,” Although she studied glass in Helsinki, Finland; Estonia, where she grew up and completed her MA at the Academy of Arts, is at the center of Sarapu’s practice. Her work may seem to relate to Northern Europe in general, but closer acquaintance reveals a specificity of geographical, historical, botanical, social and familial connections.
Sarapu, a Spring, 2007 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, identifies nature and traditional forms of decoration as her main sources. She’s not concerned with the generalized uppercase abstraction Nature but something specific and lived. Also, certain traditional decorative patterns have personal meaning for the Estonian sculptor. “I have to have something in my mind to tell me who I am and what I am,” she’ says.
The long, dark Estonian winter is evoked by two pâte de verre pieces in which Sarapu grouped individual panes of glass to suggest the view through a window. Both versions of “Déjà vu” (2002) reproduce the same photograph of linear winter trees in which the angles of branches cup small mounds of snow against the wind. The lacy pattern of branches and twigs is dark in one work and shown in relief in the other. Sarapu feels connected to snow and ice in a positive way and likes glass to have “the feeling of ice.”
Sarapu has adopted one of the most humble wild plants of Estonia almost as a personal emblem. Its name in English “hogweed,” suggests the esteem with which it’s generally regarded throughout the world. The plant was imported from Russia to Estonia as a possible source of fodder in the 1960’s; however, in Russia it grows huge Sarapu says, while in Estoniait remains quite small. The juice of the plant is poisonous, but her father used to carve whistles from the hollow stalk. She identifies the plant, which has a radiating stem and flower structure resembling fireworks exploding, with him.
Even when sere and cased in winter ice, hogweed retains a delicate charm. “If it manages to be so pretty at the time when everything else is dead and gray and there is no sun, it must be a powerful thing,” Sarapu believes.
In one work from the series “To Dare or Not to Dare,” she applied tiny pâte de verre images of hogweed so they appear to be blowing across the undulations of a slumped panel. The lace of the flower visually links to the traditional lace in a group of Elizabethan collars also part of this series made for a 2005 installation. Sarapu likes the high, head-framing collar form because she sees decoration as something soothing and self-defining. The “feminine shape is supportive; it makes you feel confident, more comfortable with yourself.”
These astonishingly fragile objects are meticulously assembled flat from Sarapu’s favorite ultra-thin pâte de verre and then slumped into an over-all shape. The glittering translucent tracery might be the first dusting of snow in a fierce storm when a lacy network of frozen particles settles into tiny protected cracks and fissures, as most are swept away by the wind.
At CGCA, Sarapu hoped to build on her mastery of the painstaking pâte de verre technique and to use it with three-dimensional molds. The “lace” in one collar in “To Dare or Not to Dare” represents tractor tire marks. Sarapu used the “Mulgi” pattern in another one. This traditional pattern is densely embroidered in black, brown, dark green and other colors on the aprons of women from her grandmother’s village. Like tire tracks, it is associated with rural, agricultural communities, not aristocratic lace collars.
Historically, a tall snowy lace collar was tedious to make, time-consuming to maintain and impossible to wear while doing manual labor. Sarapu’s decision to pair the collar form with motifs evoking a traditional rural farming environment is provocative: a contemporary joining of historic aristocratic decoration and peasant motifs. Is the finely wrought glass a metaphor for the fragility of power or of vanity — or of youth itself? Certainly, collars like these force the wearer to hold her head high and maintain a regal bearing. For Maret Sarapu that kind of confidence has been well earned.