Just the Facts
stoneware mixed with local clay
Primary forming method
Lava Vessels series: slab construction, Discovery series: cutting, wheel throwing and altering, handbuilding
Primary firing temperature
wood firing to cone 6–7
Favorite surface treatment
slip decoration, cutting and tearing, nothing
kick wheel, self-made wooden tools, green Mudtools rib
The Beatles, world music
In April of 2009, I was looking for a place to build a wood kiln. Going down the hill, while visiting the village of Burty, Ukraine, I saw a ship’s bow-shaped deck with a blue railing in the yard of an old, rickety house. The deck (which we named The Ship) seemed to be levitating above the ground at the edge of a hill, leaning on three trees and pointed out to the skyline.
That’s how I found my home, the place of inspiration. The property intrigued me, and I asked the owner, “Please, sell this house to me!” After purchasing it, I relocated to Burty from my hometown in the city of Dnipro, Ukraine, which is about two hours away by car.
Studio and Home Combined
Today the property, Pottery Park, is inhabited by three humans (Julia Gekhman, Mikhail Tovstous, and myself), three cats, and some hens and swallows. My partner, Julia, is a photographer and also occasionally makes pottery. Mikhail is a fellow potter who travels in the winter and lives at our neighbor’s house in Burty the rest of the year. Our home and studio is located on the hillside facing south toward the wide and scenic Orel River valley. The house is a traditional Ukrainian hut made of clay with its own well providing the water supply. We have slightly adapted the house into the place where everything happens, from everyday living to studio work.
There is a small shed for the hens on one side of the house and our neighbors’ house is on the other side. We are friends with the neighbors, and as our studio is small, Mikhail’s wheel room is located in their house. We have no fences between us—no fences anywhere, in fact. Spread out in front of the house is an old, beautiful apple orchard. Beyond the orchard, the endless sea of reeds extends out, encompassing a lake. The fragrant, grassy hill cascades behind the house and meets the only road there, resting against the sky. Climbing up and down the hill, we can easily change our point of view on anything—a great privilege, I think.
Everything flows easily here, though you never know how exactly. It’s a mystery. My favorite aspect of the space is the absence of delineated studio borders. The name of the room, such as the kitchen, doesn’t mean much. Sculpting could suddenly arise on the same table where we just prepared and ate a meal. While there is not much space inside the hut, we do not feel cramped because nothing obscures the view of the horizon. Our eyes are filled with plenty of space and beauty; this influences everything, including our sense of what is and isn’t studio space. For me, the lake, the garden, and the hill with the pillar numbered 25 are just as real parts of the studio as its interior.
This boundless physical space turns into studio inspiration. My glazes contain information from phenomena like clouds in the sky—shapes, layers, and deep, delicate colors—and the way snow shows rough terrain. Everything is reflected in my pottery. It’s the earth. Sometimes it is a woman, sometimes it is a bird, sometimes it is the sea.
The wheel room is tiny—it used to be a children’s bedroom. It has one rounded window, my old kick wheel made from a city tram wheel, throwing tools, and some shelves for pots. The remaining space is just enough for working. At first, I was not satisfied with the size of the windows, but soon noticed its benefits. It works like photography; the window is a frame, harmonizing the endless world beyond its view by limiting our perceptual abilities. A small window reminds me of a thin book about the universe for beginners, or a version adapted for children.
The clay we use is a combination of raw materials we purchase from eastern Ukraine mixed with the local clay that we dig by hand.
The wood kiln that I built in the yard is not very large. It looks like one section of a noborigama, so I called it Origama. I bought wood for the first few firings but now we harvest wood on our own. At the moment we are lucky in that we are able to use dead wood from old trees on our property as well as from some abandoned houses in the area. Most of the time we fire the kiln by ourselves, but sometimes neighbors and other potters come to help.
The final and most special part of Pottery Park, The Ship, helped me recognize my future home at first sight. It has a triangular wooden deck with a table under a simple canopy of reeds mounted on the trees next to the house. Julia cooks awesome meals and this is the best place in the world to eat them. I can’t imagine my studio without The Ship. It’s the place of happiness, the place to get inspired, and the place to make decisions.
Paying Dues (and Bills)
I started working with clay 20 years ago. I was working in Sergey Gorban’s ceramic studio in Dnipro for the first seven years, studying and trying different ways of working with clay. The information was really limited here at that time; we had some pottery books and some VHS videotapes about Japanese potters to reference to learn new techniques. Occasionally, I had the opportunity to learn by watching the processes of one traditional potter from Opishne village (a famous center of Ukrainian pottery).
I met Mikhail 6 years ago in Dnipro during an autumn pottery fair. He had some experience working with clay during his studies at a Waldorf school, knew and appreciated my work, and approached me to ask if he could be my student. I invited him to Burty the next summer. He was a young and very talented potter who became my friend, my student, and my assistant in all studio adventures. He is such a wholehearted person; it shines through in his cups. In the evening we gather in the kitchen and discuss our studio day, laughing a lot, and helping each other grow. Today his works have reached a very high level, and are extraordinarily bright and unique.
Making pottery is one element in the holistic life at Pottery Park that Julia, Mikhail, and I have created for ourselves. It may seem strange for a ceramic studio, but making work takes less than 5% of our daily lives. Much more time is spent on photography, social media, updating our Etsy account, packing and shipping work to customers, studio and kiln maintenance, rescuing spinach plants in the garden from the chickens, and other routines. The only real schedule for us is the changing of the seasons. Winter is the best for solitude, contemplation, and working with clay in the studio. In the spring, summer, and fall, life is active and filled with gardening, planting trees, bird watching, various building and renovation projects on the property, and traveling. Twice a year, all studio activities focus around the kiln and the wood firing—the culmination of our creative process. Wood firing is an outdoor game with high miracle content, so when scheduling it, we pay special attention to the weather report.
We make our living from pottery alone. I consider it a great success for such a messy person like me. Marketing is something I have not paid enough attention to for a long time, but now I look forward to working with art galleries around the world, as well as maintaining our Etsy store. We sell our work internationally through Etsy, and used to ship packages to customers from a post office in the city; however we have recently found a reliable post office 5 miles from us and we are so happy that we no longer have to spend as much time traveling to send work to its new home.
The feedback we receive from customers is a source of inspiration, a treasure for us. To hear warm and sincere words of joy from people who live on the other side of the planet, somewhere in New Zealand, for example, and the fact that they drink tea from our cups, is priceless. It’s like a fairy tale, and I could not even imagine this means of sales and success some years ago—it’s all thanks to the Internet!
We do not often visit local pottery fairs. Life at home is a very strong magnet, so it is difficult to detach. However, we’ve found a natural way to show and sell ceramics straight from the kiln. We invite people for the wood-fired kiln opening days, which turns pottery making into a real celebration twice a year. Live responses from people in the moment of delight and surprise when they visit during the kiln openings is so important for us. It is a unique opportunity for the guests to feel pots at the moment of birth. People couldn’t have this experience at an exhibition. A kiln opening is perhaps the most exciting event of the year and I like to compare it with a new planet’s discovery, happening upon a place that no one else has seen or visited before. That’s the reason I make wood-fired pottery.
Most Important Lesson
My sources of inspiration are enjoying hard cheeses, Japanese ceramics, the beauty of the surrounding land, and the behavior of the material itself. I really believe wabi-sabi is an appreciation of the clay. As far as surfaces are concerned, my favorite area on the cup is the place where I never touched it. Being a geology fan, I want the clay to move like the Earth’s crust. All it has to do is act naturally, as musician and singer Ringo Starr advised. That is what my Lava Vessels series (see 1) is all about. The Discovery teabowls that both Mikhail (see 3) and I (see 2) make are also about the same topic.
Someone told me once a curious theory that throwing on a potter’s wheel works like a sound recording. It seems I believed it, looking at how carefully I compose my studio playlist. Finally, what I really want to see in my pottery is a visual rhythm and harmony; music made concrete.