Ivan Bobkov: Now We Are Writing the History of Pottery
He is creating in the contemporaneity, breaking the stereotypes. He knows the “backstage” of pottery and he has his own conclusions. He is a free-thinker and his clay interpretations are perfectly unique. He is in love with Ukrainian symbolism and North American ceramics.
As far as I know, in many European countries professional pottery knowledge was kept within the kin of craftsmen and was handed down from one generation to another. What about Ukraine? Are the potters here the ancestral craftsmen or anybody could manage that?
Neither the first answer, nor the second is right. The principle of heredity is already decayed. Though, it is pleasant to know that there are several families of potters. For example, Denysenko family — may God bless them. But they are more like exceptions. There is no one in Western Ukraine. There are some like myself — but we are the representatives of so called asphalt culture. I was born in Kyiv, and there were no potters in my family. Though, my mother is an artist. Now, I can add something about the reasons of it all: firstly, there was a dreadful period in the history of Ukraine. Let's not deep into that. Secondly, after that period there were so called “happy” years of 90-ies, when everything was destroyed, not to mention the ceramics. So the new history has started from there. And now we are the ones to create the history of pottery in Ukraine. I graduated from the college and then from the University, and I started working – and other potters have started there work in the same conditions. So now it depends on us if our children will continue our work or not.
One of my teachers, Myhaylo Dmytrovych Golovko, was a son of Ukrainian ceramist from Kyiv, Dmytro Fedorovych Golovko who worked at Vasylkivsk factory and was a Ukrainian Culture Minister assistant. He arranged several exhibitions of classic crockery and plates and dishes in shape of animals, so called “lembyks” in Kyiv and in Moscow. And we are grateful to Myhaylo Dmytrovich carried on the tradition of his father. His son also graduated from the same college and University that I did, but the boy doesn’t want to be a potter. But I want to be a potter. Maybe, my daughter would like to follow my footsteps, but it depends on me – how I will teach her.
What motives do you use in your work? What symbols are behind your wares, what spirit or, probably, message?
One thing I would like to say is that the most important matters in my work are opposition and protest. With all my work, with every move, with every item I want to prove that we are, we were and we will be. If not me, than somebody else. But I want somebody somewhere to know, that he or she has a friend that DOES something. That is the main symbol for me now. But speaking about symbolism, all my methods are based on the folk style of modelling. And my favorite element is “svarga” because it has millions of variations and it symbolizes the Sun.
I wouldn’t say that a color can tell one something. Colors in ceramics are part of technology. You cannot say that if a potter has made a pot blackened with smoke he is depressed. But you can “decipher” the character of the creator by the character of his work – there can be a smile, some mood, a certain move – a playful or a threatening one. In this way pots are like people.
I had a fellow who modelled all Scythian animalistic motives of Pectorals: the pectorals were flat and golden, and he made them volumetric and ceramic… The Scythian tribes had the cult of aggression, and it wasn’t bad — it was all about their lifestyle, and they were very strong and aggressive people. So, each item that my colleague was modelling was about one person catching another, gnawing, beating off etc. That man felt that he liked to work in such a style where the fight was present…
I haven’t yet decided in what style to work, but sometimes, when I am upset or just meditating, my hands are modelling what they want… Let’s say, there were such stress situations, for example, the Revolution in 2004, when there was such a universal excitement, that I even wanted to model something with the idea of protest, proclamation, to make some information hit… Each item, each move held some message behind. Even now I want to model a strong lion that would lie with his paws down and his menacing gaze saying: “I am not sleeping yet”. Well, or something like that. Actually, every craftsman can endue his creations with some ideas, ideology, mood and whatever — if he wants.
Does a Potter believe in some superstitions? For example, Swedish potters suppose that the best days for work are Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and the worst ones – Mondays and Tuesdays.
I became a paranoid patient (laughs). Yes, I would like to hide some things from people’s eyes, I would not like some things to happen. For example, I don’t like when someone is present when I open the oven. By the way, we have an interesting tradition. A glazing oven is our breadwinner. One has to walk and breathe carefully near it. And during the process of blast, especially when the glaze is blasted, when very important things are happening in the inside of oven, nobody has to be sober. That tradition originated at the time we were the students in the university. The oven can be damaged – there is nothing perfect, and people are walking back and forth. The load is heavy and it is hard to work, and there are many people’s goods in the oven. And people are under stress. You cannot see your wares for two days, so everybody is carefully listening if there are no explosions in the oven – and there could be. Everybody looks at the devices, compares the indexes walking around. And under such circumstances the best thing is to gather together, set the table and sit there for as long as possible. The better dinner you have, the better blast will be. Truth to say – it always works.
(Laughs) Grazing blasts are very rare. And the reason lies in the lack of material – there no much glaze left.
As far as I know, in many European countries the pottery was traditionally a men’s craft. Women could only help. But nowadays we can see as women become potters. Can we compare the potters in reference to their gender or say that a masculine potter is better that a feminine potter? What do you think?
I like this question very much. I know several happiest examples of women that are highly gifted potters. There were some girls in the university where I studied, and even the small percentage of them (that is two or three girls) that continued in making pottery proves that women can and should be potters.
Now I work with Nataliya Zayceva – she is a wonderful ceramist. I have no claims concerning her, and I will say even more – there are some things that she does better than I do.
Yuliya Kozyatnyk, Olga Gavrylova are highly gifted ceramists, they have a cosmic imagination that cannot be restrained by any limits: they make pottery, work with shovel, whatever… Olya Beznosyuk now works at a factory. There are many examples… Svitlana Kachan is a woman. So what? Times change, and there are only several potters left. And we have to take care of them. And Selyuchenko, Tetyana Shpak… But for them we have what we have. I support feminism in this case.
What is the percentage of feminine potters now?
Frankly speaking, if there are somewhat more men than women in pottery it is not quite a majority or some preference. Though, in 2005, we were attending the symposium in Chygyryn, and Eugene Bokusevych from Gavaretske village didn’t allow women to approach the oven. Well, there is such a superstition. There are three of them (potters) left, the village is dead. Three guys who will die, but will not let a woman to do something. His daughter could become a potter, she made some whistles, but they didn’t take her as a real potter. And now the situation is somewhat different, and women make pottery. But there is a merely physical aspect. It is actually very hard to work with a large piece of clay or to carry the full buckets of clay liquid. But the girls do not pay any attention to it. They work though it is difficult for them.
I would distinguish, I guess. Why? A man is a man, he needs a big size, power, strength, firmness, some impudence, and he needs other people or at least other men to notice that. As for me, I would make such a crock (demonstrates that it must be big). A woman would make the similar crock from three pieces, but she would make it to be very aesthetic, delicate and subtle even it is form. Not even mentioning the whistles, a woman would cherish it with her fingers. But cherishing, playing with an article is for women. They spend more time on their pieces and as for me – I cannot sit for so long making one thing. But there are some things they cannot do, and I can. So there is balance between us.
What kind of pottery is in the most popular demand among foreigners and among Ukrainians – souvenirs or items of domestic use?
We are not lucky in this case, because foreigners are afraid of ceramics – it is easily broken. If they buy something, usually it is a small item. I would do the same… And if you buy a piece of embroidery, you can fold it… Judging by the Kraina Mriy Festival (Land of Dreams – popular Ukrainian festival of folk art) before the crisis, I can say that many foreigners that work in Ukraine used to buy some ceramics.
There are people who appreciate arts; they go on some kind of hunting for antiquities or some interesting things… Ukrainians buy plenty of things, too. It is pleasant to know that there are money and supermarkets, and different kinds of plates and dishes, and that is all so… variegated. Because there is still Swarovski glass or Bohemian glass, but to buy a piece of that you need to have a batch of money. It was expensive in the past and it is expensive now. But people are full to the throat with all such stuff and the tendency to buy that expensive glass goes down. It is very pleasant to see a person that comes with the purpose to buy just Lesya’s plates (Lesya Denysenko-Yeremenko – auth.), just Lesya’s pots. And I am also pleased when people come to buy my pots, my blue and green color range… Taking into consideration the demand I can say that sales are quite good.
Of course, in winter I do not make and do not sell much. Winter is a dead season. And the fairs are arranged beginning from spring. The first one is in Pyrogovo in May. The next one, dedicated to the Kyiv Day, it is in the end of May. On June, 22 is the Potters Day. Kraina Mriy Festival is in July. Then there is time for symposiums, a lot of City Days throughout Ukraine – there are plenty of them, and whether we go there or not depends on the quantity of production we have and availability of transport. Then Sorochyntsi, of course, but I do not usually have enough production for it or I have problems with delivery. There is the Independence Day in August. On September, 1 there is the last autumn fair in Pyrogovo. Then – the Lviv Day. That’s all. There are 10 to 12 events in total.
Can pottery be profitable, if one does it professionally?
Well, the product amounts are too poor. I do not make 500 plates only to do something. I used to work in Poland at production line, instead of machine, and I don’t want to do it again. Firstly, I do not make those wild quantities, lots of items just to earn a pile of money. Secondly, people won’t buy that much production. And thirdly, there is a question of economics – a pot, a plate or a crock cannot cost more than they really cost. Even if I make a perfect pot and say that is costs 500-600 hryvnyas, for an average buyer it will not be different from one that stands next to it. Actually, I can make it more complicated, adorned, and it will cost a bit more than an ordinary one. But still, if the price is too high, nobody will buy it, all the more, if I make 500 such pots. And if I start lowering the price people would want me to lower it even more. There are different nuances like that, and there is not so much clay left.
Also I want people to take me not only as a potter, but as an artist, because I have an appropriate education. I can make an abstraction, for example, if I have such a mood and such a desire. I can’t stand watching my city being destroyed. There is no the Kyiv that I love anymore. So I made a symbolical tree – cut, torn, ragged. I wrapped it with barbed wire. Of course, any art critic would say that I have rats in the attic. But I am a person, an artist, not only a potter, and I also want to create something.
You can see the next part of the interview with Ivan Bobkov here.
By Kateryna Kachur