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Ceramics from Kosiv — clay from the Carpathians warmed and shaped by human spirit
One of the legends from the Land of the Hutsuls tells the following story: When God saw that there was no dry land, only water on the earth, He decided to create some dry land. He sent Aridnyk, a devil, to the bottom of the sea to fetch some clay. Aridnyk did as he had been bidden but on the way he thought to himself, “Probably, God does not need so much clay. I’ll leave some for myself.” And he put a handful of clay into his mouth, and the rest of the clay he had picked from the bottom of the sea, he gave to God. God blessed the delivered clay and told it to grow in volume. And soon there was so much of it that the dry land appeared. But the clay went on growing in Aridnyk’s mouth as well! The devil began spitting it out, and everywhere a spat-out piece landed it grew into a mountain. It took Aridnyk quite some time to get rid of the clay swelling in his mouth. By the time he was finished, the Carpathians came into being. That’s how it came about that these mountains have so much clay around and the potters in the Carpathians have to keep the things they make out of the clay in hot ovens for so long in order to burn out any traces of the devil’s spittle.
The Hutsuls who live in the Carpathians are well protected from the world by their mountains, and their traditions, passed from generation to generation, remain largely unchanged. They wear their traditional clothes, they believe in the fairy tales and legends of old, they have their age-old superstitions. They greet strangers, saying “Glory to Jesus Christ!” and expect to hear in reply, “Glory to God for all eternity!”
Valentyna Dzhuranyuk, a ceramist from the town of Kosiv, famous for its handicrafts, invited me and the photographer Ivan Dudkin to have dinner at her place. She lives in a cosy wooden house. The dinner — potatoes, mushrooms, thick soup, sauerkraut and uzvar (drink made from dried fruit) was served in large ceramic plates and bowls, at the bottom of which I discovered tillers, shepherds, musicians, millers, taverners, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, lambs butting each other, kids and birds — all of them, in radiant colours, smiling at me, singing and dancing.
The mugs, bowls, big decorative plates, and little figurines radiate a joyful energy of the kind that you feel coming to you from the high blue skies, the branches of old trees, the greenery of leaves, the multicoloured scattering of flowers. The dominant colour of these earthenware things is honey-yellow which gives them, in the words of Ms Dzhuranyuk, “the warmth, freedom and hint at the passions.”
Making ceramics, folk style, is a difficult occupation. In Kosiv, it is mostly the men who make the pottery and ceramic wares, and it is the women who decorate them. But Ms Dzhuranyuk does everything herself, from the first step to the last — she prepares the clay, shapes it, fires the earthenware in kilns, paints and glazes.
“See these colours?” says Valentyna Dzhuranyuk. “Green, yellow and brown? These colours have been traditional for Kosiv for centuries. And I maintain this tradition. I can add but a little from myself — a bit more complicated ornament and shapes, that’s all.”
Do you have a favourite ornament?
Yes, I do — it’s the stylized “tree of life.” The tree of life symbolizes the righteous path for a Hutsul who climbs it to reach paradise. At first, the stylized tree is drawn, then the symbolical ornament is added — symbols of the good and of the temptations, of the female and male principles, of love — and others. Then the tree is decorated with stylized blossoms, and birds and other animals. I feel that this symbolical Hutsul tree has very ancient roots, much older than the Christian symbolism — it’s come to us from the primordial times.
Where do you get ideas for these wonderful things you create from?
They just come. I do home chores, I cook, I work in my vegetable garden — and at the same time I’m running all those shapes and ornaments through my mind. Then I begin kneading the clay. These days there’s a device that helps me do it, but even not so long ago it was done only by hands or feet. Then I break the clay I’ve prepared into pieces of different size. This Carpathian clay of ours is of a grey colour but after the firing it becomes pinkish-brownish. When you shape the clay, it becomes warm, it yields softly to the pressure of your hands. After I’ve given the piece I work at the shape I want, I coat it with the white clay — we don’t have the clay needed for this in the Carpathians and it has to be brought all the way from the region of Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. This coating is called “slip.” Then I incise a pattern through the slip, revealing the differently coloured body beneath, a technique called sgraffito. When it gets dry enough, I colour the raised design with natural paints. It’s just the first stage. Then I fire the piece in a kiln at 850 degrees Centigrade. And it is only after the firing that I add our local Kosiv colours — yellow and green. The next stage — glazing. The glazing gives the piece a pinkish tint and the design seems to disappear. But in the second firing, the design “develops” again, like in developing a photograph, and the colours begin to shine — like here, see? (Ms Dzhuranyuk picks a funny tiny ram and shows it to me).
I gather you sell your works. Who are the principle buyers?
Tourists, mostly. Among the locals — those who care for art of this kind. I sell my works at the Kosiv market where you can buy earthenwares of all kinds and also you can talk to those who create them. You see, those people who sell these things are not the intermediaries between the creators and customers — they are the creators themselves and they can tell most interesting stories about how these things are made — techniques, little details, how to tell the genuine pieces from the fakes — that kind of thing. Also, many of our pieces are purchased for art salons of Kyiv, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk.
How much do you charge for your works?
It depends on the piece — if it’s a medium-sized plate or a jar, then it can cost up to twenty dollars. I don’t think it’s much considering it’s hand-made — and every little or big piece is unique, no two things are identical. There are quite a lot of foreigners who buy our art — and carving, weaving, not only ceramics. Besides, they show a great interest in our style of life and in our traditions. Some time ago the Polish ambassador to Ukraine, Mr Jerzy Bar, paid me a visit. He showed a good taste and good understanding of folk art.
Since when have you been creating these wonderful things?
I’ve been doing it for thirty years now. In fact, I was not born here in Hutsulshchyna — I was born in the land of Vinnychyna, in Podillya. In my family everyone was a teacher, and probably I would have become a teacher too had it not been my penchant for drawing, painting and molding. My sister was a teacher at a place near Kosiv and I moved here to be closer to her — I went to study at the Kosiv Folk Art School.
I find what I do so exciting — I’m dealing with the three basic elements: Fire, Earth and Water. And out of the elements one can create so many amazing things. Ceramics and porcelain and faience among them. There’s an element of mystery in it too.
I know that your children are also into folk art, aren’t they?
Yes, both my daughters are artists. One works with leather and the other one is in weaving. My husband is a research fellow of the Kosiv Museum of Folk Art and is very knowledgeable about all kinds of folk art. His father used to be a weaver, well known in this area.
How many people in Kosiv work in ceramics?
I think about a dozen. Up to the mid nineteen-nineties there were about sixty ceramists but since then most of them had to find other occupations to make a living. You have to be really and fully devoted to this art to go on doing it. You have to pay so much for everything — the materials, even the gas you burn in your kilns costs so much these days. In the Soviet times we worked for a state-run company which provided the materials and all the other things we needed and we earned a decent living by the Soviet standards, but art cannot be a collective effort — art is a very individual activity, and the Soviet collectivism led to art being insipid, standardized, lacking in a personal touch. Every true artist is a personality who adds to his or her creations their own unique touch — and it’s this touch that makes art what it should be. Though now we have fewer artists in my line of folk art than we used to, I think our art is of a much better quality — because only the best and most enthusiastic continue to work.
You were not born here, as you’ve mentioned, but are there any local legends or stories that you’ve learnt since you came here that you like?
Oh there are quite a few of them! All right, I’ll tell one (Ms Dzhuranyuk begins talking with a pronounced local accent using local words and grammar forms): When God created Adam and then Eve, and the human race began to propagate, the sun began to grow smaller in size. Why? Because every time a baby was born and given a soul, a bit of the sun would tear off it and get affixed to the firmament as a new star. As long as the soul lives in the body, that star shines, so there are as many stars in the sky as there are human souls. And when a devout Christian dies, his or her star returns to the sun to become again part of it — it’s the paradise the soul joins. But when a person who has led an unworthy and sinful life dies, his or her star just goes out and disappears from the sky forever.
Yevhen Budko, International Tourism magazine Senior Editor,
talks to a potter and ceramist from a Carpathian town