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Can old-world Horezu pottery survive modern tastes?

Sorin Giubega’s grandfather was a potter. So was his father. And at age 8, Mr Giubega said, he also started playing on a potter’s wheel.

Mr. Giubega, now 63, and his wife, Marieta Giubega, 48, are potters in Horezu, Romania, a town at the foot of the Capatanii Mountains about three hours away by car. from Bucharest.

Horezu is home to a community of around 50 artisans who make a traditional style of ceramics with methods that have been practiced for over 300 years. In 2012, Horezu pottery was recognized as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Most potters in Horezu, including the Giubegas, live on Olari Street (“olari” means potters in Romanian), where they work in home studios. Artisans advertise their craft by hanging ceramic plates outside their homes, some of which have yards where they keep roosters and pigs.

On a Monday afternoon in early May, Mr Giubega, who was wearing a clay apron, showed a shelf of ceramic honey and jam jars his grandfather had made in the 1920s.

“It’s the story of my life!” said Mr. Giubega, who was named a Living Human Treasure by the Romanian Ministry of Culture in 2021.

Horezu craftsmen work all year round and the ceramics are made by two potters with distinct roles. Modellers, who are usually men, shape the clay into pieces. Decorators, who are usually women, paint the rooms using time-honoured designs that include spirals, waves, cobwebs, roosters, snakes, fish and an arboreal design known as a tree. of life, which is sprinkled with apples.

“We all do the same thing, but we each have our own style,” said Aida Frigura, 44, a potter in Horezu who specializes in decoration. “It’s like handwriting.”

Many model makers and decorators, like the Giubegas, are married couples. Constantin Biscu, 49, and his wife, Mihaela Biscu, 42, make pottery in their home on Olari Street, where Mr Biscu works on a walking wheel on which he can make up to 300 pieces a day , did he declare.

“It’s hard, it’s dirty,” Mr Biscu said of the clammy gray clay he and others use, which usually comes from earth quarried from a hill in Horezu. Many potter families have owned plots of the hill for generations.

Decorators also work on wheels and with specialized tools, such as an instrument that looks like a fountain pen. It is made with ox horn and goose or duck feathers, and it is used to draw certain designs and to apply paints, which are usually soft shades of green, blue, ivory, red and brown. Potters formulate their own paints using copper and cobalt powders, as well as minerals found in the region.

To create intricate designs such as the spider’s web, decorators use two other tools: a brush with bristles made of cat’s whiskers or boar’s bristles and a twig with a metal pin at one end.

After the pieces are decorated and completely dried, they are loaded into a kiln and fired for hours. After that, they are glazed and baked again.

This month, many potters from Horezu will display and sell their wares at two folk art fairs in Romania.

The first, the Cocoșul de Hurez, or Rooster of Horezu, is a local ceramics fair named after the bird that the townspeople consider symbolic of the house. The second, Cucuteni 5000, is a national ceramics fair held in Iasi, about eight hours by car from Horezu. It is named after the Cucuteni people, who around 5000 BC began making decorated pottery in present-day Romania.

In recent years, as interest in ceramics has grown, pottery from Horezu has begun to appear at trendier, design-oriented retailers around the world, including Lost & Found, Los Angeles; FindersKeepers, in Copenhagen; International Wardrobe, in Berlin; Cabana, in Milan; and Casa De Folklore, London.

“The demand is really high right now,” Alice Munteanu, the Romanian-born owner of Casa De Folklore, said in a video call. She recently sold tableware made in Horezu to the owners of Clover, a restaurant in Paris. Ms Munteanu said the decor industry loves craftsmanship at the moment, adding that if it was “obscure” – she used quotes – it was even better.

Herle Jarlgaard, owner of FindersKeepers, first encountered the pottery in 2021 at a flea market in Italy, where she found a plate painted with trippy mottled rings and dots along the edge. Underneath was the word “Horezu”.

“Wow! Ms Jarlgaard, 35, remembers thinking after seeing the plaque.

When trying to contact potters in Horezu, Ms. Jarlgaard struggled at first. She ended up getting in touch with Maria Stefanescu, a decorator, through the Instagram account that Mrs. Stefanescu’s son, a policeman in Bucharest, had created to promote his mother’s work.

FindersKeepers has since started buying wholesale ceramics from Ms. Stefanescu, a decorator who works with a modeler she is not related to. The retailer, which buys hundreds of pieces at a time, has paid her about $50,000 for her orders to date, Ms. Jarlgaard said.

At FindersKeepers, small ceramics are around $25 and larger pieces are around $75. The pottery is sent to Copenhagen by truck. “I get very anxious when orders travel,” Ms. Stefanescu said. “I do not sleep !”

Ms. Stefanescu, who said she can decorate up to 50 pieces a day, could not estimate her overhead for making individual ceramics. She said her biggest expenses include electricity for her two ovens and the hourly wage she pays the modeler she works with. Like other potters, Ms. Stefanescu offsets household expenses by growing vegetables and raising animals to eat.

UNESCO’s designation of Horezu pottery as intangible cultural heritage was a proud moment for Romania, said Virgil Nitulescu, director of the Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest. Corina Mihaescu, an anthropologist at the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore in Bucharest, said UNESCO recognition has led to more young people entering the profession.

To maintain the designation, a state-of-the-art report must be submitted every six years to UNESCO. The report explains, among other things, what measures have been taken to keep the Horezu pottery tradition alive and what tools and techniques the potters use.

Dr. Mihaescu produced the latest state-of-the-art report, which was submitted last year by the Romanian Ministry of Culture. She said there were still concerns about how to retain the UNESCO designation – and maintain the integrity of the pottery tradition – in the face of modern influences.

To comply with European regulations limiting the use of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium in glazes for ceramics that may come into contact with food, many potters now use electric kilns instead of wood-fired kilns. Electric ovens can more reliably reach the higher temperatures — around 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit — needed to bake food-safe glazes.

Other potters in Horezu started using ready-made clay instead of preparing their own. And some decorators have started painting pottery with unconventional patterns and colors; Ms. Stefanescu, for example, used bright red as well as yellow and pink. Some of the newer designs are in demand from sellers outside of Romania, many of whom tend to eschew ancestral animal designs and prefer bolder, monochromatic palettes.

“We say, ‘Our client, our master’, but I have the final say,” Ms Stefanescu said. Incorporating atypical colors into her pieces, she added, “I like trying new things.”

Constantin Popa, 62, who makes pottery in Horezu with his wife, Georgeta Popa, 57, said they try as much as possible to accommodate customers’ wishes. But according to him, painting rooms with saturated colors has “nothing to do with Horezu”.

Tim Curtis, the head of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage programme, said in an email that the designation had only been withdrawn twice in the 20 years since the agency began issuing it. , and that neither time was for factors related to the modernization of procedures or design. He added that the designation takes into account the changes that communities can make to practices.

It is planned to open the Olari Cultural Center, a new institution on Olari Street, in September. It will showcase Horezu ceramics, host lectures and feature pottery demonstrations.

The cultural center was funded by the city of Horezu and the Romanian government. Daniela Ogrezeanu, spokeswoman for Mayor Nicolae Sardarescu of Horezu, described it in an email as a way to bring more attention to pottery and its makers by driving tourists to the street where many live and work. .

But some Horezu residents are worried that visitors will go to the center. Olari Street is about a 10-minute drive from the city entrance, which is full of souvenir shops. Many Bulgarian falcon ceramics that tourists mistake for local pottery, said Laurentiu Pietraru, 52, a potter and owner of a store in Horezu that sells ceramics made in the city for around $2 to $54.

“That’s why I label everything,” said Mr Pietraru, whose wife, Nicoleta Pietraru, 47, is a fifth-generation potter.

nytimes Eur

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