Jeanne François studying her MA Ceramics & Glass at the Royal College of Art in the UK.
Ceramic Artist Residency August 2022
A House on a Hill
Trina is the founder of Sachaqa and is a painter originally from the UK. She wears a large straw hat with flowers hanging over the brim, a pair of big white sunglasses, and a heavy metal t-shirt. ‘Sachaqa Centro de Arte’ an ecological art village, stands on a hill. There are four houses situated on the Sachaqa grounds, four rooms are shared with a communal kitchen and there is a private house, the art studio is shared by everyone including Trina. Sachaqa hosts painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, writers, ceramicists etc.
Sachaqa is a ten minute walk from the village of San Roque de Cumbaza, the River Cumbaza runs along the valley. Our house was the highest on the hill and the closest into the deeper forest. The dry compost toilet was situated in a small adobe cabin in the garden. The water, cold, comes from a tank which Trina fills once a week. The water is boiled for drinking. The living room is half tiled and part of the floor is exposed, as the ground is left bare. The outside is invited inside through all the pores of the house. Insects circulate, some reptiles, birds and we fight the red ants with coffee.
When it rains, the jungle becomes a great chaos of noise. The windows are open with large mosquito nets stretched on wooden frames. The doors are bamboo shutters and the walls are made of light wood panels or adobe pierced with colored glass. The first floor, where the bedrooms are, has a wooden floor and caña brava type bamboo sticks and boarded walls. The beds are like tents. We put on big sheets to protect ourselves from lizards and insects. It’s like sleeping outside. The roof is made of metal sheets, and when it rains, it’s noisier than sheltering under a big leaf in the forest. It is extended by gutters that make a ‘glou- glou’ sound when it rains.
In San Roque I see the same faces everyday, people are usually outside their houses, watching us pass by. Villages and towns are a colourful palette, we can see from the street, yellow, red, purple, blue, green, orange, pink, purple, everything screams. Bright colours covered with advertising posters to promote the political party of preference.
In San Roque people sit on their doorstep’s, dogs roam, children gather to play in the village. The inside of the village houses are mostly naked, grey cinder blocks. No paint, no light, the windows are screened. Often, one enters a dark corridor that leads to an inner courtyard. The living rooms are on both sides of the corridor, they look like garage, cellars. The television is shouting, the chickens are walking around. The interiors are deadly, in contrast to the colourful jungle on the outside.
We swim in the river every day, in-between making our ceramics. I go to the forest, high on the hill looking for clay. I start to dig my hole like the Kechwa potter Petrona. Petrona lives in a Kechwa village called ‘Chunchuhi’, she wears a different bright colour Kechwa traditional dress every time we meet. Petrona walks barefoot. Her house is made of earth and clay, mounted on wooden posts. The walls are thin, with a multitude of small windows from which you can see her ponies in the meadow. I ask Petrona, ‘Why are the horses so small here?’ She tells me it is just the way it is. The floor is cracked, dry earth and in the corner of the room there is a fire where Petrona cooks her food, which is constantly bubbling. There’s a workbench, a little table, chickens everywhere, and that’s it.
Petrona lives closely to the land. In the backyard, the ground must be bare to feed the chickens. It is where she fires her ceramic pots. Her auntie taught her how to make ceramics after her mother died and she had no bowl to eat in. There is one hole where Petrona goes to get her clay, which her ancestors found, somewhere in her brother’s banana plantation, and she still goes, whenever she needs clay.
As I like to make large ceramic work, I lacked sufficient material. Petrona’s hole was a two hour hike from the art center and we needed permission from the Indigenous community to go alone. I soon noticed how almost all the soils in the region were, in fact, clay, due to the high humidity and heavy rains. I went back and forth higher and higher into the hilly forest, to dig. Petrona puts ‘shaño’ (grog) in her clay, which she mixes with her bare feet. To make enough ground ‘shaño’ takes a long time, so I experimented by using sand from the River Cumbaza.
One day I was sitting on the ground digging for some clay near the river bank. An old Kechwa woman and her husband stopped by and engaged in a loud exchange, that I found hard to understand as they were speaking in Spanish. I eventually understood, that the woman was Petrona’s sister. She was telling me my clay was terrible and I shouldn’t use it because it was full of stones and would burst in the firing process. I used it anyway and started to think about naming my residency project ‘Big Bang’.
I built a series of sculpted ceramic houses, the forms were designed to hold a fire within, functioning in a similar way to a Chimney. What I wanted to do, was to play with the face of the fire. Very different to a controlled kiln setting, which I wanted to escape from. With an open fire, we can see the metamorphosis, as the rage of an open fire is shaped through-out the work.
When my first house was built, Petrona came to make a ‘Shuntu’ fire. She came early morning, and was ready for this grand experiment. She went straight into the studio and carried all my art pieces to the garden, laying them on the grass, to dry in the sun. So she set racks of wood, like a grill, on the ground. On that grill she put the tiniest pieces, and covered them with wood.
I heard, ‘Bang!’ One of my pots was damp. Petrona covered her ears and giggled. This was fun. She turned the pots around with a stick. Everything went very fast, and it got very hot. Petrona’s face was all focused and contracted. Within thirty minutes she pulled the pots out of the fire with a stick. She said, ‘it’s done’, sat down in the shadow and had a banana. The pots were all black and looked barely fired. I asked her, ‘how high does the temperature go?’ She looked at me without understanding.
While the embers were still burning the three of us carried the house I built on them. We stacked firewood, surrounding and covering the house. Placing the wood vertically, against it, like a tipi. The house started burning and soon enough all the wood was burning all together. It was scary and exciting! Petrona was still agitating her stick and poking the sculpture. She place a huge log on top of it, and then, she wanted to move the piece down onto its side, so that it would fire everywhere. I said, ‘no’ so we waited and watched the fire a little while. At one point the house took a weird angle. A log placed underneath it had just finished burning out and left an empty space beneath it. The house fell forward, slowly, as we were rushing towards it, bare hands to try catch it. Then it just fell and broke into pieces. I looked for them in the ashes with a brush afterwards, and glued the pieces back together, like a puzzle. After that day we were all exhausted.
A few days after the firing the rain fell hard on the large piece we had fired and left in the garden. When I got to the workshop a couple hours after, I saw that my ceramic sculpture had started to crumble down from the top. The bottom, close to the fire, had not melted in the rain, but the top, that had barely let smoke come out, was a strange border between raw and a barely fired clay. All the cracks were even worse now and had opened up. It kept crumbling down for the next weeks, until nothing was left, and everything was back to the earth.
House of Pots
We were often in San Roque, in the studio. Sometimes, we would go on a trip for a few days to indigenous communities.
Once we went to the village of Lamas, about two hours away from Sachaqa, in the back of a moto-taxi. We spent three days in Lamas, in the home of potter Guillermina. A house made of earth, an earth floor and earth walls, together with bamboo and metal sheets. Guillermina lives with her husband and children, some of hers and some are not. Her nephews live there, they work grinding shaño (grog) in a large wooden rice mortar, all day long. Her husband Ruben sells the finished pieces in the village market, pushing their son in a wheelbarrow.
Guillermina’s workshop is at the entrance of the house. The floor is on a slope, and the ground is full of stones. Ruben stacked dozens of wooden wedges under the tables, on which precious ceramics destined for the market are held in balance. The house is surrounded by huge Tinaja pots that Guillermina’s mother made, she is the one who taught her everything.
Guillermina works tirelessly from morning to evening and even with a headlamp when the electric current goes off in the village. She works on the ground and cross-legged, her back bent. Sometimes she lies down on her back to take a nap.
Guillermina uses the same tools as Petrona. Tools cut from a wingo shell, a small thin knife, a banana skin and a burnishing stone. Guillermina coils and when I came on the first day I said, ‘I know how to’, but then I didn’t say it anymore. She was angry with me a lot because I didn’t coil my pot in the proper way, how her mother taught her, how it is supposed to be done.
Guillermina doesn’t work in the rainy season because nothing dries. That’s how it is. The work awaits, she rests, she fusses. Sometimes, even during the dry season, the rain does not break for days, thick, noisy, unflappable.
We went back to Guillermina’s, almost a month after our first stay, to fire the pots. On that day, the sky was uncertain, blue and grey, angry. Guillermina precooked the pieces by putting incandescent embers inside. Half an hour after, the rain broke out suddenly, a big rain. We rushed to get the pots inside, and the rain lasted, and we waited, watching it fall and finally, it stopped. Guillermina built the stake as fast as she could because the sky was still black and made no promises. The fire took, and the fire lasted, twenty minutes and again the rain fell, and this time it was impossible to take the pots inside or to stop the fire. So, we looked, we waited, we hoped and the fire held. The rain was falling without a break, there was nothing to do, so we did nothing. When we pulled the pieces out of the fire, they had the drawing of the water drops.