Bold art grew in communist clay Show of ceramics from East Europe has more guts than polish

The dining room's abuzz with ceramic art. On the table, Wladyslaw Garnik's "Clown I & II," two heads with mouths open, gabble at each other. Over on the sideboard, Jindra Vikova's man and woman put their heads together in an "Attempt to Define One Moment." Even Inna Olevskaya's tea sets, in the cupboard that used to contain the best china, have vocal names: Song" and "Discussion."

Most of the teapots, however, are where they might be expected, in the pantry. Meanwhile, upstairs in a bedroom, Yaroslava Motyka's "Angel" engages in a tete-a-tete with Nelli Fedtchun's "The Figure." Karel Pauser's "Dog Family," all four of them, have the run of the upstairs porch.


You have noticed, haven't you, that we don't seem to be in a museum or a gallery, but in a house. We are in the no-longer-inhabited St. Stanislaus Convent in Fells Point, where the exhibit "Contemporary East European Ceramics" opens today -- upstairs, downstairs, and in the sisters' former chambers.

The show is a traveling one, organized by the Clay Studio in Philadelphia and consisting of about 150 works by 73 artists from 15 Eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Russia, Ukraine and Moldova.


It's in Baltimore as a collaborative effort of three local institutions, Baltimore Clayworks, The Contemporary and the Maryland Institute, College of Art. Anyone familiar with the history of The Contemporary, Baltimore's museum without walls, will have guessed by now that it was responsible for choosing the site. It has made a practice of mounting exhibits in empty buildings -- a car dealership, a bus terminal. Until now there hasn't been a relationship between the site and the art. But there's more than one connection between East European ceramics, the neighborhood, and this building -- empty since the last of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph were reassigned more than two years ago.

"We always knew we wanted to do [the show] in East Baltimore because of the ethnic presence," says George Ciscle, director of The Contemporary. "Here in this neighborhood alone there are Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Hungarian residents. We worked through the Eastern Baltimore Area Chamber of Commerce, which found the place for us, and we have an ad hoc committee from the neighborhood which provides docents and liaison with the neighborhood, and they've also provided input on the art. One of the ceramics, for instance, is in the form of a sewing machine, and they told me I'd placed it backward -- the wheel goes on the right, not the left. So I turned it around."

The convent's domestic, multiroom setting also makes sense for this art. "There's so much figurative work," says Debbie Bedwell of the Clayworks. "Even the abstract work is based in the figure." And the Maryland Institute's Doug Baldwin adds: "The work is very personal. Over here, we all know what [other] people are doing -- we get the publications and so on. The artists there developed in more individual directions, drawing on their own resources and their own environment."

There's another reason why these ceramics look more at home in these plain, somewhat dowdy-looking rooms than they would in a gleaming gallery setting with newly painted walls and state-of-the-art lighting. These are not, by and large, finished-looking pieces exuding technical wizardry. They're not only figural, they're tough.

Mai Jarmut's "Pair of Legs" are just that -- two legs with feet, looking as if they've been separated from a body and don't know how to find it again. Lying on the convent's refectory table beneath a crucifix left over from the nuns' days, they might be praying for deliverance from their dismembered state. Gertraud Mohwald's "Head with Colored Paper" looks as if it were put together with bits and pieces left over from something else -- and it probably was.

No market economy

As Jimmy Clark, director of the Clay Studio and curator of the exhibit, notes in his catalog essay, the difficulty of getting good materials is one reason why many Eastern European artists concentrate less on technique and finish than their Western counterparts. Another is that they were, until recently, less dependent on a market economy. Before the recent upheavals, good ceramic artists made generous livings from work done for the state and allowed their creative abilities free rein in the more personal pieces seen here. Thus, what we see in this show is quite different from what we might expect to see in, say, a show of American ceramics.

"One pitfall American craft artists fall into is that of the beautiful object," says Clark. "It's easy to get into the habit of making something beautiful, perfect and salable. We're in a market economy, and if you want to make a living as an artist you have to live in the world. Instead of beautiful objects, an awful lot of the work [in this show] is grotesque, and full of dark humor. I don't think market forces had really taken hold when much of this work was made, and a good percentage of the work was made without concern for whether it was going to sell or not, and moredirectly from the heart, the soul. That strength comes through.


"There are certainly American craft artists who work from the soul, but, I think, that being said, this body of work is opposed to something you might see in an American craft museum, where it would be more about using the medium of ceramics."

Another reason for that, Clark notes, is that under communism artists who might otherwise have worked as painters or sculptors worked instead in ceramics. "The state's concern over content and style was largely restricted to painting, architecture and sculpture," he writes. "Ceramics along with other traditional craft media were considered safer. . . . Over the years this attracted creative people to the ceramic arts." As a result, much of the work in this show more closely resembles painting, sculpture and the graphic arts than one would be likely to find in a show of Western European or American ceramics.

Clark organized "Contemporary East European Ceramics" for the occasion of a national ceramics conference held in Philadelphia last year. He had lived and worked in Europe from 1978 to 1984, where he made valuable contacts. He put together a largely American committee of artists with similar contacts to select the show, wanting to avoid dependence on state-recommended choices and artists' groups in the countries from which the work was gathered.

He particularly cites the contribution made by committee

member Dennis Parks. "Dennis had been in just about every country, and I admired his eye and insight. If you take a country like Hungary, if you went to the state [to select the work], that apparatus would pick the best sellers. If you go to the artists, you get the 'in' crowd, which might leave out a better group of interesting artists who never made it in. Dennis made an effort to go out and make contact.

"One of the strongest artists [in the show] is Czeslaw Podlesny [from Poland], who wasn't known to ceramics circles. Dennis made that recommendation."


Podlesny is one of two artists coming to Baltimore to be in residence during the show. The other is Vikova, from the Czech Republic. They will live and do studio work at the Maryland Institute, and also be at the show two days a week.

Joining forces

In organizing the exhibit's visit to Baltimore, each of the institutions had a distinct role. Bedwell and Baldwin originally saw the show in Philadelphia and were determined to try to bring it here. When Ciscle heard of it, The Contemporary joined forces with them.

The institute arranged for the artists in residence, which included obtaining an $18,000 grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding in New York. The Contemporary and the Clayworks raised the balance of the total of about $32,000 the show will cost. In addition, "The Contemporary was responsible for finding the site and designing the installation," says Ciscle. "The Clayworks is responsible for the handling of the artworks and implementation of the installation. All three are active in education and outreach."

According to Clark, this exhibit is the first comprehensive exhibition in the Western Hemisphere of the ceramic art from Eastern Europe. Moreover, a show such as this may never be duplicated.

Why? Because under the communist system, leading ceramic artists made good livings from the state. "They had privileges others were denied," says Bedwell.


With the recent upheavals, says Clark, "Some people aren't able to work at all. In Poland, it's rare to have a studio yourself. All opportunities were set up through residencies in factories. With the folding of state-subsidized factories, those who can are setting up their own private studios. Others are losing the chance to make any kind of stuff."


What: "Contemporary East European Ceramics"

Where: St. Stanislaus Convent, 724 S. Ann St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; through Dec. 12

Admission: $4 adults; $2 seniors, students, children under 12


Call: (410) 333-8600