Ceramics Revived as an Art Form

Ceramics Revived as an Art Form

Karolina Tima Szabo

The potter’s craft is one of the oldest trades.  It goes back to 4000 B.C., but might even be dated to 8000 B.C.  Clay craft was very advanced in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, while in Greece it was an art form.

When the Hungarian people started the craft is unknown; what we know is that around the 1100s, towns were established by people who worked the clay.  Their basic material is clay, so where they started to work depended on where clay was found in the ground.

In the 16th century, when the serfs were freed, the potters formed guilds.  They set up their own rules and prices.

In the 17th century, the trade split up.  It depended on what they were specializing in.  Some made pots, hence the name potter – fazekas. The ones who made pitchers were the korsós; others made bowls – the tálas. The pipe makers were the pipás; and finally those who made the tiles for the ceramic fireplaces were the kályhás.

In the town of Gömör, the whole town made their living from making pottery.  Their dishes were known far and wide.  They filled up the oxen or horse drawn carts with their goods and traveled as much as 100 km to fairs and town markets to sell them.  In the towns where people grew wheat, they bartered; the price of the dish was as much as the wheat that filled the dish.

The hardest part of the craft was digging up the clay.  Once this was done, it had to be cleaned, cut, poked and trampled barefoot to remove the grass and other objects.  Finally, they kneaded it on a table by hand just as women knead the dough.

The tools the potters use are few: water bowls, knives, chamois or leather, needles, wires, brushes, calipers.  But the most important is the potter’s wheel, where they form the pieces, which is the second hardest work.

Before the clay goes on the wheel, it has to be prepared even more.  It is ground and sprinkled with water many times over; when still wet, kaolin is added, and again kneaded smooth.  Depending on the size of the piece they are making, they shape the clay into balls, and they form the pieces on the wheel.  After forming the piece, it is put aside for drying.  When it has reached a certain hardness, but is not too dry, corrections are made, if needed, and handles are added.

This is followed by firing, glazing and firing again.

The firing is done in a kiln at 1000° C.  The temperature has to be raised slowly, and may take 6-8 hours.  It is the same with cooling the pieces; they have to cool with the oven.  The process may take many days.  This is why the potter fills up the oven.  He puts the small pieces in the larger ones, so they won’t crack.

Kilns can be wood fired, electric or gas.  Of course, the latter kind just came in the last century.

The decoration of the pieces is usually done by females.  There are different decorations – carving, scratching – done while the piece is still damp; glazing is done after the first firing.  It can be done with one solid color, or more colors can be used over the solid glaze.  Next comes the second firing, when the piece gets its final form.  

Ceramics developed from fazekasság (pottery making). 

At the turn of the 18th-19th century, new techniques were developed, different materials were used and stoneware came about, then porcelain.  The Herend porcelain factory started in 1839, the Zsolna factory in 1850.  They pushed ceramics into the background.  The potters could not compete with factories, and the potter could no longer make a living.

Just recently, the craft has been revived.  Decorative and useful dishes are made again.  The younger generation – such as Ángyán Csilla – have rediscovered pottery and are embracing traditional crafts.

Karolina Tima Szabo is a retired Systems Analyst of the Connecticut Post newspaper and is Webmaster of Magyar News Online. She is the proud grandmother of two.