I arrived in Tartu on Halloween. I wasn’t in costume, but I did feel a bit like I was someone else. Being in a new city, far away from what you know, can be disorienting. I had come to Tartu to work on a new film project, and to trace back my family lines, to see where they would lead me. It began with the cozy little apartment on Lutsu Street that I was lucky to be staying in for the month. Lutsu was my family name.
That branch of my family was from Saaremaa, the big island of Estonia, but another branch of my family had also lived in Tartu. For the month of November, the Tartu Artist in Residence program was giving me the chance to get to know both.
I brought multiple cameras with me, along with ideas of the kinds of images that I would capture with them. Of course, I was wrong about what I would find and experience throughout the month.
I didn’t expect to find myself at the edge of the Kaali crater on the island of Saaremaa in the early morning hours, where the only other visitor was a long orange cat walking the perimeter on the other side of the pool. I didn’t expect that a visit to the Tartu Observatory would include a km walk through total darkness from the bus stop on the main street, down a long road to the telescope, where there were no street lights to interfere with the observations, and the stars would turn on like a light-switch as soon as I rounded the corner. I didn’t expect that on a trip to Riga, Latvia, for a workshop at the Baltic Analog Lab, I would meet the host of the Experimental Film Evenings series at what had already become my favorite local spot in Tartu, and that I would end up screening a film there later in the month. I didn’t know that I would spend Thanksgiving with reunited family in Tallinn, and that we’d become such fast friends.
I traveled quite a bit during the month, and I fell in love with the bus routes across Estonia. Tartu was my home-base, and from there I took the bus to Riga, Tallinn, and over on the ferry to Muhu and Saaremaa, watching the passing landscapes of birch, wetlands, farms and castles, and practicing my language skills with Estonian sitcoms when the sun went down.
It was great to travel, to see and film so much of the country, but I always loved coming home to Tartu and that cozy little TAIR apartment.
Just around the corner, outside the original town wall, I walked the streets of my family’s old neighborhood, with the brewery my grandfather once worked in still standing tall, like a castle. Do A le Coq hops still smell the same as they used to? I had the feeling walking through Supilinn, (“Soup Town”) that certain things hadn’t changed at all – although of course, many things had.
I loved the wooden houses of Soup Town. It was an amazing thing to walk those streets, where my grandparents lived and studied, and where my father and uncle were born. I tried to wrap my mind around a similar feeling walking the island streets of Kuressaare, visiting my great grandfather’s church, and standing in the spot where he had built his house and photo studio 150 years ago.
As the month went on, the days were getting shorter, and I tried to maximize the brief but dramatic horizontal light.
I filmed in the daylight hours and then gathered myself in the Tartu Art House as the sun was going down. I used the space to re-photograph negatives, transfer film, and work on animations. Every day it seemed to get a little darker a little earlier, but the studio windows would light up with the moon at night to make up for it. Pedestrian reflectors (such a great idea) hanging from passing jackets and purses added a flicker to the streets below as nighttime fell.
Back in Soup Town, with my nose out for cardamom cakes, something I have always associated with my grandmother, I should not have been surprised to find the best ones in the Saiasahwer bakery on her own Herne (“Pea”) Street. After an early trip to the bakery where I stumbled over my words, ordering my cakes in Estonian at the end of my visit felt like a milestone achievement.
At the end of the month, I had a small open studio at the Tartu Art House with in an-progress screening. It was exciting to have something to share from my time, though the project continues to evolve.
On my last day in Tartu, just hours before my plane took off for my journey home, the main holiday lights of the city came on in the town square.
I left Tartu a bit reluctantly; with that feeling of wishing I’d had more time. There were still things on my to-do list. I didn’t get to take a second visit to the National Museum (there is so much to see, it takes more than one visit) and I only explored a fraction of the islands, cemeteries, parks, museums, castles, cathedrals, trails and crater sites that the country has to offer. I left with film still needing to be developed and ideas still forming, and future plans in the works to get back to that list.
Thank you to:
Salme, Lemmit, Agnieszka, Peter, Timo, Käty, Indrek, Markus, Ieva, Paavo, Danny, Leo and Maret, and everyone involved in the TAIR, Trükimuusueum, Tartu Art House, Baltic Analog Lab, Genialistide Klubi, and the Cassilhaus Travel Grant –
For an exciting and inspiring month in the bright city of Tartu.