Firing up ancient traditions

  • 2000-05-11
  • By Marta Kirse
As a young boy, Peteris Uspelis watched his father, a master of Latgalian pottery, create decorative earthenware in the Silajani style. Today, he finds himself at the top of this artistic discipline, training his own son in a style that is full of traditions and cultural significance.

During the last weekend of April, over 15 ceramists from Latvia's eastern region of Latgale met for their annual pottery days. At the opening of the Rezekne District Pottery exhibit at the Preili District Hall, many of the artists were recognized by the Ministry of Culture for their artistic excellence.

Latgalian ceramics is not only famous for maintaining ancient traditions, techniques and forms, but for high quality as well. Distinguishable by their functionalism and decoration, Latgalian potters say they produce their pieces for action, for soul and for beauty.

"Clay represents characteristics of being Latgalian, such as toughness, stubbornness and independence," said Uspelis. "Working with the clay provides Latgalian ceramists with a flight of freedom because the clay demonstrates the meaning of your being."

These present-day Latgalian artists continue to live and produce their work in the eastern region of Latvia. They continue to speak Latgalian, a Baltic language that is older than Latvian, and follow the folk traditions of their ancestors.

Ceramics evolved in Latgale because of the economic situation. Industry was slow in coming to this part of the country, and hence home trade played a vital role longer than in other areas. Consequently, the development and production of household crockery had a longer time to evolve. This extended time and practical use allowed the technology, the shapes and the ornaments to be perfected.

Uspelis, along with his two younger brothers, Antons Jr. and Viktors, was trained by his father in his ceramic workshop located in the small rural district of Silajani, 17 km from the eastern town of Preili. The characteristic Silajani style involves earthenware or function oriented form (a clear and stable shape), bright polychromes and elaborate ornamentation.

Pieces are either in the shape of traditional crockery or a decorative earthenware form derived from the household crockery shape. The Silajani polychrome involves the use of several dry colored glazes on an englobed base to achieve iridescent effects. The pieces are fired for approximately 9 to 12 hours in an open pit kiln, where the fire, smoke and steam influence the resulting color. The decoration involves the drawing of patterns incorporating folklore designs and high reliefs.

At the age of 21, Uspelis was awarded the title of Traditional Applied Arts Master and in 1995 was the first Latgalian ceramist to receive the Order of Three Stars, the highest Latvian honor a citizen can be awarded, for his contributions to Latvian art.

It has been said that his work attracts you with the harmony and richness of hues, expression of outlines and precision of details, completeness of form and detail. He strives to maintain the diction of traditional shapes of earthenware along with the symbolism of the ornamental signs.

"I go to work in the studio because the work is necessary for me. The good energy and meditation I put into the clay gets passed on and multiplied when people receive my pots," said Uspelis.

Along with his work inside the studio, Uspelis also dedicates himself to promoting Latgalian ceramics. In 1990, he founded a traditional Applied Arts group called Rezekne Region Potters, many of whose members have studied under one of the Uspelis brothers, all considered masters in the discipline. The group has exhibited their work in Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, Austria, Poland and Germany. Additionally, the group participates in the annual Latgalian Potters' Days. On April 28 and 29, ceramists from the region gathered to discuss the problems of their discipline and to celebrate their achievements. One of the festivities included the firing of over 170 pieces at the Rainis Memorial Museum in Jasmuiza, near Preili. They were auctioned the following day.

In 1998, the group established the Latgale Ceramics Preservation Fund. Its objective is to sustain the Latgalian ceramics style, popularize Latgale ceramics and organize exhibitions, as well as to collect Latgalian earthenware to set up a permanent exhibit.

As new artists are trained and time elapses, variations to the traditional Silijani style have evolved. Several of the association members have resumed making black "sooted" pottery, a method that can be traced to the 5th century AD. This process involves the firing of pieces in a pit kiln that colors the pieces a grayish black.

Furthermore, each of the Uspelis family members have their own interpretation of the classical style.

Antons Jr. has developed a decorative expression to plates. In substituting englobed painting for the traditional graphic design, he aims to create a better relation between the wall plate and the room in which it hangs.

His son, Aivars, who continues to work in his grandfather's Silajani studio with a treadle wheel, has turned his attention to the natural hues of the clay and practice's "soot" blackening. Reserved in his use of brightly colored glaze, Aivars' jugs and decanters are recognizable by their drawn undulated lines, brush-painted designs and leather cork tops.

Pieces by Latgalian potters can be seen in Riga's State Museum of Fine Arts, the Ethnographic Open-Air Museum and the history museums of Rezekne, Daugavpils, Jasmuiza and Preili.