Monday, October 5, 2009

Folk Pottery in Romania

Last summer I had the pleasure of exploring Romania and a few of its famous folk pottery villages. How did I end up there? Well I had just finished my time at the International Ceramics Studio in Hungary as part of the Kansas City Art Institute summer study abroad program and couldn't bear to be so close to Romania without taking a peek. Based off the sound advice of Steve Mattison of the ICS I decided to head out into the "old world" to see how pottery has been done all along. Steve suggested the villages of Sacel and Marginea and told me that it was relatively safe and cheap to travel around Romania. So armed with a rucksack, map and lonely planet guide I headed out on my own and decided to hitchhike (at times literally on horse drawn carts) to these pottery villages. As I wound my way through many of Romania's beautiful sights I was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the Romanian villagers who were all eager and proud to show off their rich heritage of folk crafts still in existence to this day.

When I arrived in Sacel I asked an old woman where to find the ceramics and she led me through the narrow streets towards a workshop.
A pack of young children ran along with us and led me with excitement to the door. Steve had told me that the workshop was led by a very old man but the door was opened by a young boy who appeared to be in charge. He managed to explain that he had taken over for his passed on grandfather and was now the 17th generation to be making the same traditional pots in this space.
Sacel is known for its red clay pots that are decorated very minimally. When I explained to the boy that I also worked with clay he showed me around his work shop and had me try to throw a pot on his wheel. The wheel was a push wheel but rigged up to a motor that only went one fast speed. I managed to throw a nice pot (in a way that horrified the boy) but then lost it at the end because I couldn't slow the wheel down. A bit embarrassed, I was a source of much amusement to my audience of the old woman and pack of small children. In return I was quickly shown up by the boy who threw his bowl very rapidly with the precise hand gestures he had been taught by his grandfather so as to be able to replicate the same forms his family had been making for centuries. Humbled, I was allowed to check out the kiln and was then taken home by the old woman who served me lunch while she tried to convince me to move to the village and marry into the famous Sacel pottery family.

Next I headed back to the road and hitched north through the mountains to the town of Marginea which is famous for it's special black pottery. This village was a bit more developed than Sacel and the ceramic workshop was a much bigger operation, right on the road and appeared to be collectivised rather than run by one family. I arrived on a Sunday and found the workshop empty and most of the employees out in the parking lot playing some sort of gambling game. I was about to head on but took a rest on a bench out front of a house that happened to belong to the head of the workshop. "Ion" asked me where I was from and why I was on his bench and when I told him I was a Ceramic artist from America he got very excited and brought me back an old newspaper clipping. It was from years back when he and a group of Romanian potters were flown to America to be guest demonstrators at some ceramic universities. Due to the good time he had had as a visitor to America he took it upon himself to make me his guest of honor and show me a grand time in Marginea. This included an extensive tour of the pottery workshop as well as meeting his mother (who ran an old textile museum), touring his neighbors and friends' traditional homes (who insisted on dressing me up) and drinking lots and lots of vodka with his best friend (who turned out to be a goat) while dancing away to traditional music and Queen hits at the local bar.
So all and all good times were had by all in this cross cultural artists exchange. This trip taught me the importance of connecting to the roots of the craft that you pursue and also how the shared love of a craft can connect us across language and cultural divides. Pottery villages such as the ones I discovered in Sacel and Marginea have endured for centuries but are rapidly dieing out. It's important for the excellence and dedication of these pottery workshops to be documented and rightfully admired. It was life changing for me to be able to visit these places and I hope in the future there will be more programs that create the opportunity for students like me to connect to the strong folk craft roots of other cultures.

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