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Born a thrower
At 84 one Limassol-based potter continues his craft on a daily basis. Having lived much of his life in Baghdad he is feted abroad more so than at home. NAN MACKENZIE meets him
Valentinos Charalambous has harnessed the art of using earth, air, fire and water to create some of the most powerful, delicate and potent pieces of contemporary pottery. His works are a marvel of imaginative energy, representing as they do, peace, domestication and elegance; although borne out with the beauty of pure simplicity.
Valentinos works from his Limassol studio, a large barn of place where everything has a place, and is in its place, for this is a man with a highly disciplined work ethic coupled with a pure, unadulterated passion for his craft which the passing decades have certainly not diminished. Like the man, his working environment is entirely self contained and also difficult to find. Upon finally getting there and first meeting him, one is immediately struck by his powerful presence, the piercing, unwavering eyes, a powerful upper body and, after over seven decades of ‘throwing’ pots he now wields a handshake from a pair of forearms the strength of which would impress a blacksmith.
He is also a very private person, but one who has been blessed with a confidence and intelligence that has bred a huge level of artistic courage, a courage which he has been committed to and displayed for all of his creative life, if he had a code for the way he lives and works then I would suspect it would be ‘To thine own self be true’.
Born in 1929 in Famagusta, the son of a potter, he still proudly calls himself a thrower. “I was born a thrower, working as a young child learning the skill from my father, and, I am still a thrower.” He is referring to the work carried out on his potter’s wheel, where he still works the slab and coil techniques of the traditional pottery maker, where you either roll out the clay on to the wheel in successive layers, building up a pot, or you slab by rolling out large pieces and then attach them at the seams.
This early training at the wheel worked hugely in his favour after he wrote asking to work with Bernard Leach, probably the greatest British potter of the 20th century, at his studio in St Ives. Leach replied “Come down. You are a potter’s son, and one cannot be a potter without having the taste of clay as a young man.” In Cornwall he continued to ‘throw’ domestic pots to Leach’s design. He has kept one of pots he made during his ‘Leach years’ and it’s a classic example of both the Leach influence and Valentinos’s strength of form and balance
Later, he returned to Cyprus primarily to help pay back the money his family had borrowed to send him to England. Valentinos at this point gets up and goes into a cupboard where he picks out a pair of hand-painted Classical Greek urn type designs. “These,” he says, “are what I made every day to help pay back my parents, I sold them for fifteen shillings each to British servicemen and their families, I still keep them as a reminder of how one has to sometimes compromise one’s talent in order to get past a difficult point, and in my family’s case it was financial poverty that had to be addressed. I also applied for a teaching post here ,but that proved impossible as a tight structure was in place which, in spite of my experience working with the father of modern pottery there was for me ‘no room at the inn’”.
Artistic salvation arrived in the form of an invitation from the Department of Ceramics at the Institute if Fine Arts in Baghdad. Valentinos then left Cyprus to start a journey which allowed him to develop and hone his formidable talent in a country that he still loves and which gave him so much in return. “I loved my time there and made many friends, the culture and ethos of the people and the country is still with me and in many of my works you can see the Arabic influence. I learnt to speak fluent Arabic, and my senses have not dimmed when it comes to recalling the sights, smells and sounds of the country. Of course I would dearly like to go back and see old friends, that is if any are still alive. To say I had a marvellous life there would be an understatement, it was full and filled with great creativity, the imagery and feel of the country and its culture has never left me, it’s there in my work, the use inside my bowls of Arabic calligraphy as decoration, yes it’s still there, its like I carry this additional piece of DNA with me always”.
Valentinos is not a man who doggedly follows the mainstream, he is a hugely talented stand alone artist, one who is not prepared to go down the road of mendacity, an artist still pushing the boundaries of his art. He is still creating exquisitely decorated bowls and pots, as well as fulfilling commissions to deliver hand created wall friezes, along with huge ceramic sculptures to corporate clients and discerning private collectors. The day I visited a large packing crate was ready to be uplifted to make its long journey to Paris, inside was a piece of pottery art which will no doubt now be sitting pride of place in an apartment in the 7th arrondissement.
Many of Valentino’s commissions come from foreign-based collectors, and I was once again reminded of the problem many creative men and women have here in Cyprus and that is the perceived lack of support for their home grown talent. Valentinos has been internationally recognised as the grand master of pottery, has been honoured and celebrated in many countries and he still reflects that epitome of creativity in a form where art meets craft and the useful meets the very beautiful.
Now in his 84th year he continues to relish getting up every morning to “work his art”, for him it’s an absolute necessity of the soul to keep creating, for this is someone who is still passionate and importantly he is also still hugely curious and adventurous.
To the rear of the studio, close to the potter’s wheel, a large shelving unit holds a massed array of bottles, jars and plastic boxes, each labelled with the chemical content plus, what looks like a series of hand written numbers and letters or as Valentinos puts it “these are my recipe cards”. It’s a reminder that the creation of perfect glazes also requires strong technological knowledge coupled with an acute insight into “essential chemistry” and the mineralogy of clay. Then there is also in this art form the potential for disaster when the potter comes to the different firing processes as the characteristics of various clays and minerals vary and have to be carefully considered or there lies disaster. In layman’s terms this can be described as having a pot meltdown. And yes, even after all these years, Valentinos readily admits to the occasional ‘melt down’ when trying out his alchemist skills. “I do like to experiment and that in itself results in both positive and negatives, once I fired a very large pot and just as you would try out a new recipe at home, the oven was far too hot and it effectively melted and removed the design completely”.
Opening up a large plastic container, Valentinos asks me to sift through the fine, pale jade coloured granules, telling me “this is the mineral Celadonite, which has a high concentrate of magnesium and you have just run your fingers through one of the oldest pigments known to man. It’s something that artists used since ancient times and medieval painters were also keen to get hold of it for it allowed them to create fleshy undertones as it managed to neutralise the effect of all the pinks and reds that show up in the painting of human flesh tones”.
This ‘green earth’ was also used in Roman wall paintings, the Chinese called it Mi Se meaning mysterious colour but in ancient China only royalty were ever allowed to use or even set eyes on this secret green glaze. “Cyprus is one of the few places in the world where you can find this mineral, I call it Kapedes after my village and I am indeed fortunate enough to know where to go to find it and then I extract it myself using it to get that fabulous watery blue grey colour effect the Chinese, Syrians, ancient Greeks and Romans all loved so much”.
When asked what he would love to create most if he no longer had to concern himself with money, he instantly leaps to his feet and with an amazing surge of enthusiasm again rushes to the cupboard, taking out and placing in my hands the most flawlessly created piece of porcelain that felt as light as a leaf, a small, perfectly formed and as yet undecorated vessel. “This,” he says “is what I would spend my days doing, making and decorating fine porcelain and loving every second of the time spent”.
For Valentinos Charalambous being a potter is the notion that it is a truly meaningful and rounded way of life, and one that is still hugely relevant to the contemporary world. The privilege of using handmade pottery is that the work contains the idea of human endeavour, a link with other people and not with factories, and the great sadness of our time is we seem to have entirely lost touch with this concept when we go out and purchase only the useful and the fashionable, and as an art form pottery has slowly but surely been marginalised.
Long gone are the days of Valentinos’ father, when the village potter was as essential as the baker or blacksmith with handmade pots performing a spiritual function. Gone also are the days when handmade pieces were a potent symbol of the link between artist and community, the importance of a skill that takes time to learn, but pottery is always going to be a calm, individual voice amid the mass produced. We are indeed deeply fortunate to still have living and working in our country a master potter with the talent and courage to fulfil that ethos.