The Artisan of Prague

We were taken for a tour of Prague,
where I had never been.

The city passed by outside the window
of the old white Mercedes Benz.
Our guide pointed out that this quarter
had been unaffected by the war,
most of the original architecture was intact,
while this was all new.

Hexagonal towers seemed to be a theme
in the architecture of both quarters,
old and new.

We drove beneath a building
I immediately said was my favourite.

It was composed entirely of glass cylinders,
each room occupying a circular cross-section.

Its tubular structure cantilevered out
over the road, glass cylinders above
and beside us, in different sizes,
ascending twenty storeys or more.

We hit the motorway.
The old Benz hurtled out across five lanes,
under bridges, overpasses, between trucks,
rocking gently on its suspension
like a river-boat.

We were beginning to change our minds
about our guide.
He had before seemed quite congenial,
pleasant and considerate.
But he drove like a madman.

Perhaps it was a cultural difference,
he never seemed to use his indicator.
I checked the speedometer: 160 miles an hour.

The walls of the motorway restricted our view
of the city.
Soon, however, we reached the artisans’ quarter.

I explored.

I found a white well-lit arcade where a distracted
young man leant against a bench rolling a cigarette
and putting it to his mouth.

I hadn’t smoked in years but I approached,
my Zippo already having opened in my hand
with a satisfying click,
presenting its flame to light the young man’s cigarette,
just like old times.

What had caught my eye and caused me to approach
was a perfect jug.

It was about the size of a teapot but without a lid,
open, and like the buildings of Prague hexagonal,
flaring at the top.

Next to it sat another perfect item.
A solitary cup.

Its sides parallel, perfectly cylindrical,
two thin lines, also parallel, etched into the glaze,
passed around its circumference threading through
the simple handle.

It’s beautiful, I said.
The young man had nodded thanks when I lit his
Now he scowled.

I would have liked to have a lot more
but this one took two weeks, two weeks
before it was perfect.

I noticed the age of his jacket, frayed at the cuff,
the collar worn through to the interfacing,
its elbows patched, and his faded corduroys.

I had many failures before this one. Many.

It was worth it, I said.
He brightened. Slightly.

You think?

I picked it up. It was light and pleasing to hold.
I checked underneath.
Only an artisanal stamp, no number.

The young man was becoming more enthusiastic.
This I made before.

He gestured behind me.
I hadn’t noticed the gallery of naive drawings
set on miniature easels in glass boxes
that ran down the length of the narrow arcade.

Again, they were simple and beautiful.
Figures done in jet black, hard lines,
simple block-like heads and bodies,
but at the same time expressive and striking.

He had come out from behind his display counter.
Come here, he said.

We walked to the end of the arcade,
where, to the left, in a sort of storage area,
he showed me earlier work.

Some was ceramic. One piece he took from a drawer,
unwrapping it from tissue-paper,
a trompe l’oeil:
an orchestra if you held it one way,
a political message if you held it the other.

I didn’t understand it
but I appreciated the workmanship.

Some of it was on paper. Some on canvas. Some wood.

Each piece he showed me bore the same stamp of the artisan.

It was clear he did not sell very much, that he was poor
and driven to perfection, less an artisan than an artist.

A great artist, I thought.
At least, on the evidence of what he showed me,
his work did not warrant the stamp of authenticity
of a mere craftsman.

Why don’t you number your work? I asked.
What do you mean?

In limited editions.
One number to show how many of a series you have made,
another number to show its place in the series,
whether first, second, third.

His mood darkened again.
That is the whole problem! He stormed.
Every one is one of a kind!

He pulled in frustration at the hair on the back of his neck,
took a last drag on his cigarette
and ground it into the dirt floor with his heel.

I wanted to help.
I wished that I could be an impressario
and take his work into the world.
But his work was already in the world.
And I had as few resources as he.

I was under no illusion that this was art not industry,
while he…

I was almost jealous of his obstinacy.
One cup in two weeks and you call yourself an artisan?

At least he had his so-called artisanal life!
What did I have?

While this was all going on
I did wonder for a second where the rest of our group had go to.

I had, out of the corner of my eye, spotted a couple of them
as they passed by the entry to this arcade,
sparing it and its treasures the merest glance,

before they went on to other stalls,
where they would find the goods meant for tourists
which they would, no doubt, buy up
to give to friends and relations at home

from their trip to Prague’s famous
artisanal halls.