Judit Varga spent six weeks this past summer in Bai Ming’s studio, Shangyu Celadon Modern International Ceramic Art Center, in Shangyu, China, creating work that hardly exists. The Hungarian artist, who has found her voice in delicate slab-built, nature-inspired forms, pushed the boundaries of how thin her pieces could be and erased all color from her surfaces (except cobalt blue, to reference traditional Chinese pottery). The results are stunning, nearly transparent works formed by complex arrangements of thin porcelain slabs.
Her nature-inspired pieces do not serve as a call to action to end climate change or save the bees, as good as those causes may be. Varga’s fascination with nature comes from a more personal perspective than a collective one; there is a sense of emptiness in all of her works. “An empty pod is sadness and happiness at the same time,” Varga says. “A pod is a womb; something was in it, and now it’s not there anymore.”
Although Varga’s life is full now with family, making work, and teaching at George Washington University, this sense of emptiness and invisibility comes straight from the artist’s own life. Gender, language, and more have served as barriers on Varga’s path to working as an artist. Along the way, her creations have served as an expression of her experiences, both the struggles and the triumphs.
Perception of Pottery
Judit Varga grew up around clay, but it took her many years to view the medium as something she could work in to achieve her artistic goals.
Her father worked as an engineer at a ceramics factory in Magyarszombatfa, Hungary, a small village in the countryside where potters have lived for hundreds of years. These potters employed traditional techniques, like digging their own clay and throwing on kick wheels. Varga’s father also had a studio at their home in Szombathely, a small town near the Austrian border where she grew up. While she would play with the clay her father surrounded her with, she never felt like the medium was for her.
“My father took me out to the countryside to the factory beginning when I was 6 or so, where I saw the labor-intensive, heavy physical job of those potters,” Varga says. “I admired the ease with which they pulled up those huge water jugs on the kick wheel, but I could never imagine I would be able to do any of that even if I’d wanted to. It was a man’s job to be a potter.”
This perception may have persisted if it weren’t for Maria Geszler Garzuly. “Definitely, my father was the one who planted the seed of clay into my life; he made clay and art a natural element of my surroundings, but there was one woman in the factory I knew,” Varga says. “She was Maria Geszler Garzuly, and she was the designer and artistic director. We lived in the same neighborhood in the city, and I saw her work displayed in her studio’s window every time I passed by. And I loved what she did. Her pieces were feminine, soft, playful, and light. She used pastel colors and gold details, she made figures or objects, painted plates or tiles, always something new and exciting, developing, changing, and evolving. She was my inspiration as a female ceramic artist, a woman who worked with clay. So I knew it was possible, and several years later, I went for it.”
Varga’s interest in art began to intensify when she was 14 or 15 years old, when she started taking drawing classes. She studied art and mathematics in college before majoring in studio ceramics at the Moholy Nagy University of Arts and Design in Budapest.
But unlike many ceramic artists, Varga did not turn to clay because of a love for the material in and of itself. Instead, she learned over time that clay enabled her to achieve her artistic goals.
“It’s never been like, ‘I touched clay and fell in love with it,’” Varga says. “It was like layers, and clay started to make sense to me. Functional pottery and clay never fit me; I couldn’t even reach the kick wheel when I was sitting on it. Of course I know how to throw, but there was never the pleasure. I use the clay in a different way. It’s almost like painters: They use the same paint, but some of them do abstract work, and some of them do portraits. I’m in the abstract portion.”
Nature That Tells a Story
Before Varga was considering art as a career—or, really, thinking about a career at all—she would take walks outside with her family or by herself and collect leaves and pods from the ground. This hobby started when she was only about 6 years old, around the same time she started visiting the ceramics factory where her father worked.
At that age, she may not have been able to put words to her fascination with these objects from nature. But the fascination was always there. “I really admire [nature], and I can watch a spider build a spider web, or just sit in front of an ant hill,” she says. “Tiny animals can build such beautiful objects. For example, the beehive interests me because it’s paper thin, but the final product is extremely strong.”
Another aspect of her admiration of nature is the way organic material can illustrate remains or things left behind. “I’ve always liked that emptiness that tells you something,” Varga says. “It’s a little bit of melancholy. A dying flower is much more interesting to me than one in full bloom. I think it’s captured time, which everybody tries to do with art. It’s what’s coming and what’s behind us.”
Struggles and Triumphs
Varga married her high-school sweetheart and moved to Oxford, England, in the early 1990s for her husband’s work. She never imagined she’d leave Hungary, but she suddenly found herself thrust into a new culture and a new language. It was at this time when she realized the importance of the clay community in her life. “Art and clay allowed me to be a part of a group,” she says. “I think that was the first step, when I started to understand that what I make doesn’t need an explanation. That was the very beginning of making more sensitive work, when I started to use clay to express feelings because I couldn’t express them with words.”
It was at this time when her work became more lyrical and focused on pods and boxes that represented both loneliness and closeness. After three years living in England, Varga moved to Long Island, New York, and then ended up in Washington, DC, for her husband’s work.
After her second child was born in DC, Varga made the decision to stop making and focus on motherhood for the following eight years. “I had to decide what I wanted in life, what was really important for me,” she says. “It was not a painful loneliness, a sacrifice or despair in any way when I made a conscious decision to stop having clay around. Actually, aging clay, letting it mature, is very important for those who have a deeper understanding of the material. I gave myself time to mature, too, and became wiser with experiencing motherhood. I’m glad I did it, thinking back now. It had to happen this way because those eight years built up so much yearning in me. When I finally gave myself the green light to return to clay, I just did it full-force, and it was amazing.”
When she was ready to return to the clay world about a decade ago, Varga began working in Margaret Boozer’s Red Dirt Studio in DC, where she found a community of creative artists like herself. Six months later, she began working in her own studio, but she maintained a connection to the local community of clay artists. Today, Varga’s community has expanded to include both local artists and those from all over the world.
As a teacher at George Washington University, the mother of a 19- and 23-year-old, and a studio ceramic artist, Varga has all the elements she’s wanted in her life at once: family and art.
See more of Judit Varga’s work on her website, www.juditvarga.net.
the author Jessica Cabe is an arts journalist living in Chicago, Illinois. To learn more, visit www.jessicacabe.com.
Monthly Method: Coil Building with Clay Laces
To create her delicate, nature-inspired pieces, Judit Varga begins by making slabs by hand, compressing, rolling, and stretching the clay to the right thickness, which varies based on the final size of the work (1). For smaller pieces, her slabs are very thin—less than ¼-inch thick. For larger works, slabs can be ½ inch or thicker.
After her slabs are formed to the desired thickness, Varga applies a thick slip (2). She uses basic white engobes and prepares the slip to a very thick, but smooth consistency, almost like cake frosting. She lets the slabs sit overnight covered in plastic.
Next, Varga cuts up the colored slabs into 1- to 2-inch-thick laces of clay. She stretches them into circles or pinches and shapes them before using them further (3).
Using a basic coil building technique with the score-and-slip method between layers, Varga pinches together the laces to build her forms (4, 5).
After the form is built, Varga alters the shape. She adds shredded paper and soft tissue paper to fill up the negative spaces in the piece, adding several layers on the outside to protect the details. She covers the whole piece with soft plastic and crunches, compresses and deforms it (6).
When she is satisfied with the altered shape, Varga removes the paper and lets the piece dry to leather hard (7). If necessary, Varga lets the clay move further by opening up shapes or tearing them apart, creating enough elements to rebuild a new form again from these partially destroyed forms before reassembling and completing the work.