„PODBRDSKÁ KERAMIKA“ POTTERY IN SEARCH OF THE ROOTS AND HOPE by Mischa Lavers

Just a few minutes ride south-west from Prague takes you to Klínec, a little village in the middle of the hilly landscape called Brdy, a picturesque wilderness within easy reach. The story of the Podbrdská keramika pottery is an equally picturesque story of Klínec pottery workshop and it shows that hope never dies – on the contrary, it is still present, with us, in every moment.

Artist Ivana Švarcová (Šimůnková) noticed her little thread of hope, captured it and will not let it go. Ivana and her potter colleague Magda Brožová picked up the threads of hope and tradition of the grand-grand-grandfathers and their offspring.
Ivana: Grandpa had two brothers – one was making the pottery, the other was selling it, and grandpa was helping them with the paperwork… I remember, how sad he was when he was talking about the end of the workshop, repeating what a pity it is. That it would never come back, so sad and bitter…
Mischa: And why was he saying that? Because there was no-one who would follow on what they did?
Ivana: Because he felt so. One thing was that the children were not interested… although the potter had a daughter who studied pottery, who is now about 80, but who never really followed up…
The main thing was that the spirit of the workshop would not go on. The workshop had this energy, it was bringing life into Klínec, everyone was remembering the potters as amazing people. That I think is the point that he regretted the most, that the community split up, the it tore the bonds. All that was gone with the end of the workshop.
The grand-uncle died right after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and they say that when he was in the hospital and heard the news about the end of the communist era, he sat up on the bed and looked like he was about to just walk away. So powerful was the hope and freedom he had the opportunity to feel and witness, for a moment.
The story of the pottery workshop in Klínec starts somewhere around 1871, where the workshop followed on the 300 years old local pottery tradition. Ivana’s grand-grand-grandfather Antonín Šimůnek bought the workshop and his son Antonín (1877-1952) continued in the tradition, then Ivana’s grand-uncle Josef (1908-1989) and his brothers Antonín and František (Ivana’s grandpa) kept the tradition.
At first the workshop produced utility pottery like pans and pots. The customers were coming to shop to Klínec and part of the pottery went out into shops:
Ivana: And now Magda and her ancestors enter the story. Because Magda’s family made their living as coachmen who carried the goods from the workshop to the train station, or carried in the clay etc. It is said that the  workshop bought a truck, but was unable to finance it so they sold it to the coachmen family. So there surely was a contact too.
Mischa: So the pottery workshop was kind of a local landmark?
Ivana: That is hard to say, there were many crafts at that time… But the most important was that the craftsmen were supporting each other and that the spirit of solidarity and communality was alive.
In 1930s the workshops got mechanized, it had a number of employees, they started to use moulds so the pottery was not only hand made on turning wheel anymore, the production got faster and competition sharper. Those who wanted to be seen had to do something to be seen. So at the end of the 1930s the Klínec workshop invited a painter:
Ivana: Then the professional painter Zdislav Hercík comes into play. He was painting oil paintings too, but he was this small independent pilgrim coming from workshop to another. He prepared a typical pattern for every workshop. He always passed some time in one sharing his ideas, and then moved on to another.
Mischa: Here on this jug there is even an octopus! Was that Hercík’s idea as well? How did they choose the themes?
Ivana: Yes, that is the “world under the sea”, they were making these quite often – all these fish. I think that it is his theme as well, he was pretty free to choose a theme. Then he taught to paint a very talented Mr. Hrubý from Klínec and in about a year or two Hrubý painted exactly like Hercík! It became really hard to tell which of the painting is whose  – you tell only from the signature.
Mr Hrubý painted in the workshop until the 1950s. And then the end creeped in. Communist era wanted the workshop nationalized and made it into a cooperative.
Ivana: We don’t know much details about this period, but knowing my grand-uncle, hot-headed as he was, I would say that he just didn’t want to work under anyone else so they quit and shut down the workshop. He went to work as a carpenter to a nearby quarry.
Mischa: And how did you meet Magda?
Ivana: We have always had this pottery at home, at my grandma’s.. I remembered it from my childhood, those painted jugs that usually ended up in a storage room or in the attic as they were not “modern” enough. And then, after the Velvet Revolution, I stepped into this junk and antique shop in Prague and found this little pot with a little bird design and recognized that it is the same kind of pottery I’ve known from home! So I bought it and realized that this might be interesting. I knew nothing and I have never been in Klínec before! So I found this pot and got interested and found more pieces with the same signature. And later on, in 2010, I heard about Magda as about a “girl from Klínec who documents painted pottery.” I read her article on her website and it deeply touched me. I wrote her how happy I am to see it, and that we have some pieces at home too. That she can come and take pictures of. Then we agreed to use some of the pottery at an exhibition in the occasion of Klínec anniversary, I started to be there more and more often, we became friends and eventually I got the idea to paint some of the pottery too. At first it was very “here-and-there” and shy, but Magda is great that she always makes you really get things done and stick to them -  forever, if possible. So I kept coming to Klínec regularly and we started to make the wood-fired pottery.
The original kilns were made for wood-firing. But the aim of the potters was to have the pottery “clean” so they fired it in special  containers to keep it from the smoke and flames. Because when you fire pottery in wood-fire, it is in the middle of flames and smoke.
Ivana: …the ash may land on the glaze and leave trace, which we like. Our ancestors would have used electric kilns, if they could, to have the utility pottery clean, but we prefer the “old-look”, the patina, when the pottery is “alive”, when there’s this depth to it.
Mischa: And how about the shapes? Do you follow up on what was done before?
Ivana: Some are copies of the original shapes, some are Magda’s ideas, but some were  really thoroughly copied from the originals, like for example the the vases.
(…)
The stories told by the grandpas and old men are the best, one can only regret not having listened to them better while they were still here. They said how they used to go to this big pottery market at Prague’s Kampa park. They say that Jan Werich (famous Czech writer, actor and playwright living at Kampa) used to come and steal their ashtrays! They said: “He was coming home, a bit drunk, and he used to take our ashtrays! The other day he just humbly came and asked: ‘How much?’ and paid back.” They also said that one of their customers was also the wife of the president Eduard Beneš, and that many other notables of that time like to shop with them. Or that they used to throw their cups to the river for the water-goblins, as it was said to bring luck to the potters…
Revival of the Podbrdská keramika pottery came after all the former potters were gone, but Ivana and Magda revived the tradition after about 60 years, which isn’t such a long time…
Mischa: It is quite a luck that you came to take over the tradition this “soon”…
Ivana: Some members of the generation who still remember the workshop open are still alive! Like the aunt or my father, who were still kids by that time.
Mischa:  And what do they say? What does your Dad say when he sees your work there?
Ivana: You know my Dad: tears glitter in his eyes and I think that he’s glad. That’s it.
(…)
But what I feel is that these potters are actually still with us, keeping their fingers crossed for us. We move on without any problem. We have overcome few technical problems in the first year or two, not even. And now everything just works and moves on. Magda contributes a lot in the process as she has all the experience with the stoneware, clay and firing…
(…)
And I have to say that the fact that it is actually my own roots that I get to discover and expand on is really a great joy for me. On one hand, it is easier as I am taking over, but on the other it is not just copying, I expand on the tradition, the things we do are not copies but originals inspired by the tradition. And the tradition should never disappear or move somewhere else. The patterns are so powerful and beautiful that it would be a great pity to let it be. And yet the patterns seem to be very universal – when we come to a market, people stop by and say that it reminds them of what they’d seen in India, South America or Spain…
For me it is not just work but a very deep experience. I cannot imagine not be making these anymore.
Podbrdská keramika is still alive, in 2012 Míša Novotná joined Magda and Ivana and helps them with the painting. The pottery can be seen on markets in Prague and throughout the Czech Republic and is going to participate on the Ceramic Arts Trail festival in France in 2014. The more popular it gets, the more people get to “discover” the original pieces hidden in their homes and country houses
The roots of the potters from Klínec are well grounded and continue to grow.