Bonhomie and Radishes: Christine Zablocki’s Humorous Earthenware

1 Vegetables Dish, 15 in. (38 cm) in diameter, earthenware, slip, ceramic stains, fired to cone 01, 2018.

A blackboard in Christine Zablocki’s studio in the French village of Montagnac-Montpézat reads, “Life has much more imagination than we do.” She likes to be playful in her work and her whimsical scenes from everyday life flirt with caricature. The recurring couples display quintessentially French traits: a radiant woman wears a red-and-white checkered dress, while her husband sports a beret and a wide moustache. Echoing the famous comic strip Bidochon’s couple in a more poetic, less caustic a manner, they could be any French person’s middle-class aunt and uncle from the late 60s, driving a 2CV down old National Road 7, which went from suburban Paris to the Mediterranean.

Her friends say Zablocki looks like her characters. She laughs, “You know, the woman with the long nose?” Her imaginary world seems a mix of the Carmen Cru comic strips by Lelong, and Belleville Rendez-vous, the animated film by Chomet. “I want something light, poetic, and amusing,” Zablocki explains, “People need to dream!” She fondly remembers the beaming faces around her booth when she and her former partner Sebastién Lopes started selling at ceramic markets and art fairs. Their work was a huge hit from the start.

2 Small coffee cups, earthenware, slip, ceramic stains, fired to cone 01, 2018.

Zablocki also has fun with captions, sometimes embedded in the decor: humorous plays on words, delightful alliterations, or made-up funky nursery rhymes. (Here is a non-translatable one for French-speakers: ‘La carotte n’a pas la patate, le navet fait le poireau, les radis sont en rade, mais c’est pas la fin des haricots’).

Nostalgia pairs with humor on her pots and sculptures. Zablocki seems to be longing for a more spontaneous time, when people would take off on a drive without booking a place to stay in advance. In the past, she hunted for objects at garage sales and open-air dumps. Her love for old items shows in her little exhibition room—a rusty sign, a vintage faded-blue wood stove with a patterned dishcloth similar to her characters’ garments hanging on its side. The pots are new and vibrant, yet you feel as if you’re stepping into an antique shop complete with the nostalgia that entails. What Zablocki gives us is a contemporary take on an old technique, using subject-matter reminiscent of the past.

3 Salad bowls, to 9 in. (23 cm) in diameter, earthenware, sgraffito, glaze, fired to cone 01, 2018.

4 Christine Zablocki at work, June 2018.

“Quelle chance, la vie est bien faite!”

Zablocki marvels at how her career has turned out, “How lucky I am!” She wasn’t academically keen except for drawing class, so at fourteen she was sent to vocational school to study ceramic decor. There she learned to copy 18th-century faience (majolica) motifs and techniques. She fell in love with the job and has worked as a ceramic decorator ever since. At seventeen, she started work as a decorator in several studios and worked as an employee for twelve years while also teaching majolica techniques in a vocational school. She had a confident hand and she gained a steady reputation.

During this time, in the La Borne/St. Amand-en-Puisaye area and at ceramic markets, she discovered potters’ pots. She recalls with joy, “My world expanded!”

Like her characters, she eventually worked her way south from the Parisian suburb of her childhood. In 2005, she and Sebastién Lopes set up shop near Moustiers Sainte-Marie, a southeastern town with a long faience heritage, and dropped faience for terre vernissée (meaning traditionally lead-glazed earthenware). He threw, and she decorated. In finding their own style, they were inspired by local potters Jean-Nicolas Gérard and Pascale Balay. An illustration of a pumpkin in a Cinderella book sparked Zablocki’s first personal motifs. Nowadays, she finds inspiration online on Pinterest. “I am a sponge,” she says, “a naughty copycat.” Over the years, she created many motifs and adds that she still repeats them with tiny variations—her signature car has gotten higher and narrower; tall grasses lean a certain way on a windy day.

5 Truck, 12 in. (30 cm) in height, paper clay, slip, ceramic stains, 2015.

6 Radishes Dish, 11½ in. (29 cm) in diameter, earthenware, 2018.

Now, three years after she and Lopes (an ex-plumber turned thrower, who Zablocki describes as one of the best in the area) separated, she still collaborates with him. He or local women come to throw forms from a finely grogged clay body. Zablocki claims that she is “a decorator, not a potter,” but she gives the pots their final shape, explaining, “I consciously deform them so they look alive, but not misshapen.” She also pulls and attaches handles, finishes off feet and lids, and makes small slab houses using homemade paper clay. In the past, Lopes would sometimes model much larger, one-off handbuilt houses. The couple loved that creative process. “Sometimes we would stall and stop for a while, it was very different work from the pots,” Zablocki recalls. “My mind would get inside the piece and I would forget the world.”

Once decorated and dry, the pots are bisque fired to cone 07 (1796°F (980°C)) and glazed with a commercial transparent glaze mix to which Zablocki adds 5% silica. The glaze firing reaches  cone 01 (2042°F (1117°C)) in an electric kiln. She explains why she favors a higher firing temperature as opposed to traditional earthenware temperature by pointing out it makes the work “darker, less shiny, less garish, and most importantly, stronger.”

Routine and Longing

Zablocki’s decorating technique is quite slow, “Six hours of throwing leaves me with a week’s worth of decorating,” she exclaims. Once firm, the pots get a lush coat of white slip. If it’s too thin, the brown clay burns through. The slip is actually so thick that she dries the pots to return them to a leather-hard state using a heat gun to keep them from getting soggy. She paints a small number of pieces at a time at the hard-leather-hard stage and uses her high-temperature powder stains like a watercolorist to achieve subtle, translucent tonal variations that show off her delicate yet determined strokes. Her scenes are painstakingly detailed. The title of a tiny newspaper is legible, hair is carefully combed and grass seeds float in the wind. Sgraffito and lines of painted colors are interwoven. What pleases the eye is the bold fresh lines made with her incising tools and marten brushes, the vivid colors and the mix of two-dimensional and three-dimensional, detailed faces paired with simplified stickmen limbs.

8 En voiture Simone teapot, 11¾ in. (30 cm) in height, earthenware, 2017. 5–8 Fired to cone 01 in an electric kiln.

7 House, 17 in. (43 cm) in height, paper clay, glaze, 2015.

Zablocki sometimes feels stuck in a well-worn decorating routine and her series have changed little since 2005. She says she works hard yet feels relaxed. “The radio is on, the wood stove is lit in winter. It’s very comfortable and familiar. I know my decors by heart so it’s almost like I was knitting.” Even though her lines are loose and flowing, she wants them to be looser and more spontaneous. She says she strives for less rigor. Recently she’s begun working with new ideas that are more minimalistic and poetic, but she’s not yet sure how to use them.

At 47, Zablocki is looking for a change. She will soon move to a smaller house and studio in the village, where she intends to keep making her sought-after utilitarian pieces. At the same time, she plans to find a working space in Marseille, the large metropolis 90 minutes away, and pictures herself being there part time, focusing creatively on handbuilding and leaving the series work behind. To achieve these goals, she works seven days a week, usually in solitude, often not seeing anyone for days on end.

Zablocki stopped selling her work at pottery markets a few years ago and now works with a handful of French galleries as well as offering work to customers by appointment from her studio. Not being on the road is less tiring. It’s also probably a relief to other potters who, when given a spot next to the Lopes-Zablocki booth, would sigh, “we do love you, but…” knowing that the customers would go for the duo’s work and hardly pay attention to anything else… Indeed who doesn’t love happy-go-lucky pots that bring such cheer?

Catherine Zablocki lives and works in Montagnac-Montpézat, a tiny village in southeastern France. She also leads decorating workshops. Look for her on Facebook at Christine Zablocki Céramique. Her page on the Don du Fel Gallery is at https://ledondufel.com/fr/fiches-artistes-la-boutique-du-don.

the author Lucie Brisson is a woodfirer who trained with Simon Levin and Micki Schloessingk. After years of stacking logs abroad she is now back home and makes pots in Toulouse, France. Look her up at www.luciebrisson.com.

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