Frozen in Clay
A potter’s wheel creates a cold object. Handmade objects are warm and vibrant, claims a Ceramicist
If you walk along a narrow dirt track in Užupis, a picturesque district of Vilnius, you will soon find yourself in a totally different world. It seems that time stopped half a century ago in this small oasis of wooden houses.
Neighbours here know each other well, and never miss a chance to exchange a word or two while filling buckets at the standpipe, or while weeding a flower bed or a vegetable patch beneath their windows. And there is no way of keeping visits secret when all the front doors open into the same cobbled yard just a few metres wide.
If you live here, you will notice that one of these doors is sometimes opened when bags of clay arrive, and after some time pottery in various shapes and sizes comes out. This is the studio of Ona Grigaitë.
Inside are white walls and a long table running the length of the room like the table in an operating theatre, and various household utensils and tools hanging on the walls or in carefully worked out positions. Coloured ceramics on the shelves might provide you with a clue as to what actually happens here.
The windowsills are covered with smaller objects moulded by children’s hands. They were made by her two little daughters who also sometimes come here. When they do, they keep the artist so busy that she hardly has the time to do her own work.
The value of everyday life
Grigaitë has been working in ceramics for over 20 years. When she puts work on show in Vilnius or sends it to exhibitions in other countries she does not draw attention to herself.
Her colourful panels can be found in public buildings, and still lifes and other objects in museums and private collections.
She likes to challenge the conventions of decorative ceramics, and tries to dig up some long-forgotten archaic meanings of pottery. Besides, she is very good at expressing the subtle, intimate meaning of everyday life.
“Ceramics is a very specific branch of art,” she admits.
“I don’t feel it provides me with all the freedom I want.
How much meaning can a pot or a bowl have? This is why I feel a constant desire to transcend the boundaries of ceramics by experimenting with new materials or by giving things unusual forms and meanings.”
Maybe this is why next to a big, richly decorated bowl the artist places a wax figure of a woman lying in a naturalistic pose. Or a clay object is surrounded by the sound of splashing water or a piece of flapping yellow fabric. Or a piece of modelled kitchen-ware is decorated with such expressive strokes that it looks more like a painting than glazed pottery.
It is not unusual for Grigaitë to create a light or a sound installation from pieces of white silk on which a girl’s photograph is reproduced many times. The composition is surrounded by pieces of lace, tulle and appliquéd white roses. In this installation she also used real eggs covered with silver paint, which enhanced the atmosphere of anticipation and uncertainty.
However, strange as it may sound, Grigaitë prefers art that is built strongly and which is based on principles of logic.
“I admire artists who are sure footed,” she says.
“I think my approach to art is very similar to that of German artists. There should be no lyricism in it. Maybe that’s because there is too much already in Lithuanian art. At least, that’s what I think.”
She tries to create objects which no longer have any functional meaning or serve any practical purpose.
This becomes obvious when you take a look at her work from recent years. A hand-modelled glass the size of a human body can be squeezed through a door only by separating the upper part from the stem. A decorated bowl is as big as a small bathtub and could easily be used to bath a six-month-old baby. Blood-red ceramic beads are so big that only a three-metre-tall woman could wear them.
“I would like to make a bowl the size of a room so that people would need a ladder to get inside it. Technical limitations are the only thing that still keeps me from creating objects of this size.”
Now, almost 20 years after graduating from the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts, Grigaitë remembers the absurdities of Soviet times with a wry smile on her face. She says that students were not allowed to speak or to do what they wanted. The idea of going even to other countries of the Soviet bloc in order to learn about art was unheard of.
“In those days young people’s wings were clipped. When you are young, you want to turn everything upside-down, to shock the world, and we were forced to sit in one place and fester,” she recalls.
“Therefore, in those times some artists sought relief in secretly studying the Bible. Others started practising yoga, or exploring yet another forbidden area, modern art.”
Grigaitë’s desire to tell the world about herself first manifested itself in loud, harsh colours. Eventually, this turned out to be the beginning of a completely new genre in Lithuania. Ceramic still lifes (a realistic dish of fish with a lemon, a bottle and a glass, dazzling yellow sunflowers and a blue cup) are all images from real life that started emerging out of clay one after another and were covered in colourful glazes.
She is interested in an object as a sign of human existence. She observes, analyses and admires it. Sometimes she provides objects with human features, but usually she treats them with a light irony.
Sometimes she becomes playful, and combines clay and methods of modelling with another area of activity, cooking. Many of her still lifes are inspired by gastronomic subjects. Glazed surfaces shine like a real chocolate cake, or a piece of roast meat.
Both the objects and food have one thing in common. After a lot of preparation, rolling, smoothing and trimming, they end up in a very hot place, a kiln or an oven.
Grigaitë does not experiment with techniques, and models almost all her work with her hands, irrespective of the size.
“Hand-modelled objects are warm and vibrant,” she says.
She uses a potter’s wheel only when she wants to create a “cold” object; but there have been very few of these.
Unlike many artists, she never does sketches or makes models. All her works are born in her mind, and she believes that the process of turning an idea into a specific form is the most fascinating part.
“The birth of a new work is associated with pain and doubt. You don’t know whether you will succeed in realising your idea or not, or whether you will manage to turn the image you have in your head into an object. And this suspense disappears only after you have put the finished object where it is supposed to be.
“Sometimes I fail. But once I feel I have said what I wanted to say and the work is finished, I do not want to think about it any more. I think it’s always useful to put something new into your life.”
She admits, however, that ideas date very quickly. If an idea is not put into practice the moment it occurs, it is soon too late and there is hardly any chance of turning it into an object. Ideas need to be fresh, and freshness is what she seeks.
Unrealised ideas may also be useful. Sometimes they push her into doing something she would not have dared to do before. They give birth to a new creative thought.
Grigaitë is a woman of few words. She neither likes nor seeks attention from others for herself or for her work. But when she holds an exhibition, she becomes a very open person and is not afraid to reveal the most intimate secrets of her life.
“An exhibition is a very serious occasion. It is an opportunity to look at yourself from outside and to discover what is missing. An object may create one impression in the studio, and quite a different impression in a public place. It may harmonise with the space, or it may be ruined by it.”
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