Black pottery revived from oblivion

  • 2004-05-20
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - People prefer to forget the blacker elements of the past, even the black treasures that once adorned their ordinary life. While centuries ago, black dishes with a metal gloss accompanied every ceremony or religious ritual in cultures around the world, now the craft remains a secret to all but a few select artists. But in spite of its current obscurity, the almost-forgotten primitive technique of black pottery is presently undergoing a renaissance among Lithuanian pottery artists.

Primitive techniques
In a small workshop in Uzupis, a central area of Vilnius that is well-known as a mecca for artists, I watch a group of people using a method of pottery that's almost as old as humanity itself. One young girl delicately shapes the surface of a tiny cup with astonishing supple movements of her fingers.
These sculptors are imitating the primitive techniques used to make black pottery in precisely the same way that people made their earthenware some 8,000 years ago in Babylon, Persia, China and Egypt. But unlike modern ceramic techniques, the production of black pottery still employs methods that were available to ancient civilizations. Moreover, as the name of the art implies, black ceramic objects always come out in one color due to the smoking process they undergo.
Molded works of clay are moved into an outdoor furnace where pieces are burned for up to 15 hours until the temperature reaches 970 degrees Celsius. When logs of pine are thrown into the sweltering furnace, the smoke produced dyes the surface of clay with a grayish black color. Sometimes grass or manure may accompany the pine to ensure this unique tone. To keep the furnace airtight, the artists cover it with dirt and keep it in the ground for a night. Just as it did thousands of years ago, the entire process takes up to 24 hours to complete.
An impressive selection of smoked pots, vases, and even sculptures of behemoths are on display on the shelves of the Uzupis workshop, which belongs to the family of Euginijus Paukste, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian black pottery community.
Standing in his deeply stained industrial-grade apron, Paukste explains that their craft is indeed rare in Europe. He recollects the surprised faces of the tourists who sometimes swing by the studio.
"Very often people are surprised to learn that this is pottery because it looks a lot like metal," Paukste says. And, bizarrely enough, if you tap one of the black dishes, it resounds with a clanging sound more typical of metal than ceramics.
"Sometimes tourists say: 'We've seen lots of things in Paris but never heard or seen anything like this,'" explains Paukste with a grin. "The rest of the world has almost forgotten about black pottery, but we are proud of this important element of Lithuanian heritage."
Black pottery is still popular among native Americans and in some areas of Africa, but in Europe it's only produced on a very small scale in Hungary, Latvia and Poland.

Black again
A small funnel dating from the Neolithic Age, which currently resides in a cabinet in the Prehistory Museum of Lithuania, proves that black pottery was known and practiced by the inhabitants of the Baltic region in the Stone Age.
Black pottery was a major discovery at that time as it was the first surface that did not leak water. When clay is glazed using smoke, a tiny amount of carbon melts into the clay and clogs the pores of a dish. The surface becomes glazed and, more importantly, watertight.
Some people used to say that black pottery served as a better vessel for water than any other form of pottery. In the Middle Ages some Hungarian workshops that specialized in making black pottery even held water-testing competitions each night to see who was the best sculptor.
According to archeologist Marija Gimbutiene, black pottery was particularly popular in Prussia where it was also used for religious purposes. After being cremated, a person's ashes were put in a special urn.
Moreover, archeological studies of the Lower Castle of Vilnius proved that in the 14th century black pottery was widespread in Vilnius. Some whole pieces and numerous fragments of religious dishes and altars have been found in historic sites around Vilnius' Old Town.
A constant stream of smoke rises up in the air from an outdoor furnace belonging to the Vilnius Academy of Arts. The department of pottery has also recently taken up the primitive form of ceramics. "The smoke may be very poisonous, it is dirty and stinky, so it seemed like an unattractive form of pottery for a long time. However, we have decided to experiment with the technique again," says Ona Petkeviciute, a teacher of pottery at the academy. Perhaps tired of chemicals and bright colors, more artists are turning toward more primitive methods. Or perhaps the process fulfills something deeper in the artist.
Paukste was accidentally introduced to black pottery while visiting a friend in a village. The technique amazed him so much that he did not hesitate to change his profession from that of an engineer to an artist. "It drew me in like a magnet. Now I realize it came from my subconscious. This kind of art was religious and very close to our ancestors, and this is what grabbed me the most," he recalls.
Paukste's newfound passion has also rubbed off on the other members of his family. "It is contagious. My wife Egle and our daughter were amazed by black pottery and started working together in the workshop," the artist says.
Black pottery has also become a new trend among Scandinavian artists, who have largely lost the tradition they once had of producing it. "Scandinavian artists were truly interested in the international symposiums of our center and wanted to reintroduce this technique to their home countries," Paukste explains.

EU project
The black pottery workshop in Uzupis, which is officially listed as a UNESCO ceramics center for its work in preserving the craft of black pottery, is currently teaching over 10 young unemployed people to learn the secrets behind it. This is now the third year that Paukste and his family have participated in the EU-funded Socrates project called Hidden Art.
Among other things, the project aims to encourage people to explore not only the technical mysteries of this primitive form of pottery, but its more spiritual aspects as well. Artists who have worked with it say that it has special benefits, such as helping to provide people with a feeling of well-being.
"One might consider it dirty work, but it's the opposite in fact. Black pottery is a chance to sense something very natural," says Ieva Paukstyte, one of the coordinators of the project.
Meanwhile Paukste is even more enthusiastic about the benefits of working with black pottery. "When people finish their piece, they celebrate it as if they were children. This art form truly gives people more self-confidence and can even help some people to overcome depression."