Located in the Slovak Folk Crafts Shoppe in Gove City, Pennsylvania is true cultural masterpiece. Carved from basswood, this unique work-of-art is 17 feet wide; eight feet tall; six feet deep and has 82 moving figures. Hand carved by three men in Slovakia and then shipped to Pennsylvania, it is the largest animated wood carving in the USA, said Slovak Folk Crafts Shoppe co-owner Dave Dayton.
The story of how the carving came to be located in Pennsylvania is almost as dramatic as the carving itself. After a 2000 business trip to Slovakia, an associate asked Dayton if he had time to see something “more beautiful than the Tatra Mountains.” This query caught Dayton’s interest, since the majestic range is beloved by those of Slovak heritage.
The two men drove to the little village of Rajecká Lesná. There they found a hidden treasure, the "Slovensky Bethlehem," a sculptural panorama with moving wooden figures representing the trades and culture of Slovakia.
This monumental work was designed and carved by one man, Master Jozef Pekara. After 15 years of work, he donated it to his local parish saying “This is for my Lord." The Slovensky Bethlehem is eight and one-half meters wide; two and one-half deep and three meters high.
Determined to learn more about this fascinating work-of-art, Dayton tracked Pekara down and the artist generously agreed to an interview. When asked if he would be interested in creating another diorama to be showcased in the USA, Pekara smiled with delight, but declined due to his advanced age. He did agree to design a similar feature. Dayton then set out to find younger artists with the advanced skills needed to complete Pekara’s vision. Eventually, Dayton found Vladimir Tomko, and Miloš Karabin.
In September 2002, the three woodcarvers started work. The nativity scene is made from basswood, a species of tree also referred to as linden or lime in English. The linden is the national tree of Slovakia.
Basswood, a hardwood, is prized by woodcarvers, said Dayton. It is common, relatively soft, with very little grain. This makes it almost as easy to carve across as with the grain. The wood takes a water based stain easily, which gives carvers the opportunity to highlight their work. One of Dayton’s favorite details is the way the artists used wood stain to highlight the west side of Tatras, just as they can be seen in real life. This attention to detail in evident throughout the piece.
The panorama is highly symbolic. The carving is twice as wide as it is tall, mimicking the dimensions of Slovakia. The artists took the care to place scenes from village life in their appropriate geographic locations. Crafts and trades found in Eastern Slovakia can be located on the Eastern part of the display. Three Cathedrals are located near to top of the carving, their crosses representing the Roman Catholic, Byzantine Catholic, and Greek Orthodox faiths.
A nativity scene forms the focal point, reminding viewers that Christ should be the center of our lives. The fanciful, animated figures surrounding the nativity depict everyday village life. They show wine making, ceramics production; blacksmithing, dancing, cutting and raking hay, farming, and butter churning. Dayton challenges visitors, particularly children, to locate the one fish, one cat and five dogs, although he admits he doesn’t know if any of the dogs are the Slovak Cuvac.
The diorama was built in five pieces, each with its own drive system. The animation is done by an ingenious arrangement of pulleys, leather belts, gears and levers powered by six Volvo truck windshield wiper motors.
Admission to the wood carving at the Slovak Folk Crafts Shoppe is free and the owners have provided chairs in front of the display. The back of the display is open so visitors can see how the animation works.
Slovak Folk Crafts, a unique mission project, creates jobs for Slovak producers by importing beautiful, high-quality, handmade home decorating and gift items. All profit is donated to charitable religious, educational and cultural projects in Slovakia.
Slovak Folk Crafts is located in Grove City, PA at 1605 S. Center St. on Route 208, near the Grove City factory outlets.
For more information, visit SlovakFolkCrafts.com.