Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Busy Potter

One of the mainstays of my years of artisan visits is the potter of Le Cailar, Véronique Ricard, a potter of exquisite yet practical pottery. She makes cups, plates, bowls, salad bowls, platters, hot plates, tians (for baking casseroles), silverware holders, kitchen tool holders, vases... all the things we like to live with.

Véronique is the daughter of Geneviève, the original potter of little village Le Cailar. In this tiny community just west of Vauvert, on the road to Aigues Mortes (or more simply Montpellier), Geneviève settled with her husband and children. With her years of fine arts studies behind her, she chose to devote her talents to pottery and soon became one of the pioneers of the diverse and active pottery movement in Southern France.

The technique she prefers and taught to her daughter is called "terre vernisée" or glazed clay. It is traditional to the region and involves a careful sequence of applying design elements on a raw piece with colored clay slips. When the piece is fully decorated and dry, it is fired once to harden it, and a second time with a clear glaze. This is different from the faïence to the east at Moustiers Ste. Marie for example, which is fired first, then painted, and then glazed.

soup (or hot chocolate) bowls freshly dipped in a white clay slip in preparation for being decorated.

Decorated and drying, these cups will be fired twice, once to harden, then with a glaze which will change their colors: red will become yellow, gray will become blue or green, etc.,

The designs of Geneviève are whimsical and often tell stories. She made pieces with couples on bicycles, men on horses, birds, ducks, wolves in lamb bonnets and more. Originally from Alsace, she brought with her the influences of Northern and Eastern Europe. However, the colors that she adopted soon after setting up shop, and that her daughter continues to work with, are those of the South: yellow, green, blue, a light pink, white, brown.

I first met Véronique and her husband Jean Claude at the pottery market in Arles, which took place every May while I lived in Arles (now I believe it is every other year). I immediately fell in love with their work, and happily noticed that they weren't far away. This was long ago now, perhaps when Leo was two? so going on ten years. I soon went to visit and just as quickly asked if I might be able to bring my guests and clients, and just maybe see a small demonstration of how they work?

My requests were granted with smiles and pleasure, and from that point, many an hour have we spent in that little shop, the tiny studio beyond, the courtyard garden, and amidst the fired pieces back by the two kilns.

Since my first visit to the shop, when Geneviève was at the wheel and Véronique was bed-ridden with her pregnancy (the fruit of which is a delightful young boy named Simon who loves to play with my two), we've grown together in our respective activities. Véronique has now completely taken over the shop from her mother who is retired but still quite present in her home behind the shop. Simon is busy with friends in the courtyard, or off playing tennis while his parents seem to work non-stop. But, I correct myself. Though Véronique and Jean Claude do work lots and lots, they adjust their hours to be free when Simon is there, and to permit slowing down mid-afternoon to share tea and cookies with passing friends.

They love what they do. They do it superbly well, and have a faithful clientele. But they also find the time and flexibility to attend to aging parents, a rambunctious little boy, and the various visits of distant relatives, and friendly Americans.

The decoration of the pieces is laborious and time-consuming, but, this is where Véronique shines. It is her favorite part of the process. Watching her you understand "flow." She bends over her piece, her little rubber projectile pears in her hands, surrounded by the colored clay slips, and inspired by the moment, she crafts her floral motifs. She has kept notes in her journal of all the designs she's done over the years. Though it is rare that she repeats herself, there are certain elements she might work into her designs again and again. Upon request she will do a series of a single design, or a theme and variations. Personally, I've always been a fan of the similar but different designs. And, it has been fun watching guests share and compare their plates during the cooking class feasts.

This is truly a matriarchy -- a rarity in the South. Véronique learned all her technique at her mother's knee. As a child, she and her siblings would have their daily chores to do, and often that included throwing pots or helping out in the studio as well as setting the table, sweeping, dishes, etc., When she met Jean Claude, he was a shoe-maker. He made the transfer from shoe-making to potting with ease, being gifted with his hands. Together now, they continue the tradition of Le Cailar... and perhaps someday so shall Simon?

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