Ceramics from the village of Opishnia is known not only in Ukraine. However, despite the fact that pottery is a traditional craft for Ukrainians, it is experiencing hard times now. Opishnia, which is in the Poltava region, is considered to be the centre of pottery craft in Ukraine. It has recently hosted a national pottery festival. One of the families which carry on the old tradition is Shkurpela family. Opinion talked to the head of the family and learnt secrets of the pottery process and how to use brown ware pottery properly.
There are the most of people near the stand of Oleksandr and Anatolii Shkurpela. They have already carried out a master-class and taken part in a competition for potters, now they are selling their goods. The men have no free time. They need to consult people about their products: about a proper usage, a temperature to make food or drinks more delicious. Brown ware pottery from Opishnia really seems to give food a special taste.
Local potters are mostly those, who continue this craft since their grandparents.
Shkurpela dynasty is relatively young. Only two men are potters, however, the whole family is involved in the business.
“I am the first, my son is the second. There are potters whose grandparents or great-grandparents were also potters. As for us, some members of our family were de-kulakized, others were executed… We are unlikely to have had potters in our family. I have been doing it since 1983. At school, I liked painting, carving, working with clay. I didn’t enter a university after school and started to work at the Opishnia factory, in the first workshop. I had a teacher there – Trohym Demchenko. This workshop is now a museum named after Krychevskyi. Since that, I’ve been into it,” Oleksandr Shkurpela, a senior potter says.
Then, he finished the Myrhorod Ceramics College and became a specialist in ceramics.
By the way, Opishnia is known for its clay mines. People have learnt to work with it and make useful and decorative things.
“So, I studied to be a potter. As for clay, we have mines here as well as glazes. To be honest, we order some dyes, which we can’t produce by ourselves, except for that, we have everything we need. For example, there are naturally black, green and red colors,” the man says.
For Oleksandr Shkurpela and his eldest out of five sons Anatolii, pottery is the only business, which could feed their family. However, it is also art and craft, which bring pleasure and let them create, but it is not enough to feed them.
“It is hard to earn for living with this business only. We have a market garden because we can’t do without it. It doesn’t need any proofs: our local art college has been existing for long, we have plenty of graduates, but only few are working as potters,” Oleksandr Shkurpela adds.
According to Mr. Shkurpela, the country doesn’t need potters, that’s why young people graduate from the college but can’t find their way in this field.
“I stay here because I am more than fifty now, it’s too late to change something. It is easier for my son because he follows me. However, only Anatolii, one son out of five, is a potter,” he adds.
Hand-made is expensive
When people want to buy brown ware pottery at fairs or festivals, they react differently: someone bargain, claiming it is expensive, however artists believe it is cheap.
“For example, there is a stand with goods from Sloviansk nearby. I know, what it is like there. I have been to this town and worked there. An unskilled man comes to the workshop and has to make 8 000 of pans on a working day (8 hours). They made it by stamping. I can’t catch up with them, my products are hand-made. That’s why their production is cheaper,” the man explains.
The Shkurpelas sell their goods via the Internet, some people come to their home. Most of all, of course, local people wait for the pottery festival – it is a real harvest time for potters.
“It is hard to go somewhere, roads are awful. They have just started to repair them. We have many goods, but they are fragile, they can break. Petrol is expensive, so going somewhere won’t pay off,” Oleksandr Shkurpela says.
Sometimes dealers buy our goods and sell them much more expensive.
Local ceramics is also bought as presents abroad. For example, one vase has recently been sent to Canada.
From clay to a masterpiece in 6 months
When we hold brown ware pottery in our hands with “Opishnia” written on it (by the way, all the goods have a family sign), we don’t think about how much time it takes from clay mining and what stages it must go through to turn into a candlestick, a bow or a kumanets.
“At first, we mine clay, it lies at a depth of 2,5-3 meters. We mine it and bring home. It must lie under the sun, snow, rain and wind for about a year – it swells and dries out again and again. The more it lies, the better it is. We moisten it and grind it with rollers – it is an old-fashioned method. It resembles the process of twisting clothes when it was put between two rollers. Then we keep clay in a basement so it won’t dry out, and moisten it from time to time. Then we take as much as we need to do something,” the potter says.
According to Oleksandr, finished goods need from 4-5 weeks to 6 months to dry out.
“Goods dry out in a special place, every day we need to spin them so they would dry out properly, otherwise, they could break or their form could be destroyed. There must be no sunlight, no wind. It is always wet in the room because goods give their wetness. There is a window for fresh air. As for candlesticks, especially those, which are higher than a meter, they need a special care because they have a complicated construction. We need to cover it with a wet cloth, then with a film – it is a difficult process. After goods have dried out, we warm the oven to about 400 C. Our oven is more than four cubic meters. On the second day, we put pottery into the oven, the temperature must reach about 100 C,” the master explains.
Then they put firewood and increase the temperature.
“If we increase the temperature sharply, goods will spoil. We must be near the oven about 36 hours to take care of the temperature, add firewood. We must be there virtually always,” Oleksandr Shkurpela says.
Glazed and unglazed crockery is burnt at once.
There are red, white and grey kinds of clay in Opishnia. As for dyes, potters produce them from natural ingredients: copper oxide gives green color, brown and black colors are produced from manganese oxide and iron.
“A perfect dyer can be produced from corrosion!” the head of the family reveals the secret.
Each kind of clay needs a special temperature in the oven: red – from 920 C, white and grey – from 1000-1300 C.
Although Mr. Shkurpela said that only he and his sons were potters, it turned out that his wife Svitlana was also involved into it – she paints ceramics. In fact, the whole family is involved: someone splits firewood, someone mines clay, someone stocks the fire etc. Even old grandparents, who live with Oleksandr and Svitlana, help. All the five children can also work with clay, however, not all of them want to do it: it is a hard work, only a 27-year-old Anatolii decided to become a potter.
Interesting names and usage of goods
Brown ware pottery, apart from its ecological properties, is also very temperature-proof: it can be put in an oven and microwave. Drinks kept in clay crockery stay cool.
Most people think that ceramics is in the first place, cups, bowls, plates, jugs and makitras.
Shkurpelas make many decorative crockery – in the form of sheep, lions, goats, horses. They serve as decoration, however, drinks can also be put there. These goods are more expensive – up to several thousand hryvnias. Others are much cheaper – for example, breadbins cost 350 hryvnias. Such goods were popular among the buyers at the festival: it is nice, and won’t take much space on a table – it stands on a slim leg but is quite commodious.
Local potters create many goods, which are absolutely unknown for Ukrainians: kovbasnyk (“kovbasa” is “sausage” in Ukrainian) – a pot for baking and keeping sausages. It is of flat and raised up form with a short lid.
Zamynachka (“zamynaty” is “to grind” in Ukrainian) – raised up, without handles and lid. It is used for grinding: poppy, garlic, lard, grains, condiments.
Pleskanets (“pleskaty” is “splash” in Ukrainian) – for alcohol drinks.
Baryltse (means “small barrel” in Ukrainian) – crockery for drinks. It resembles a barrel, which lies horizontally on legs. It is very commodious and complicated to make.
Except for Ukrainian traditional crockery, Opishnian potters produce Georgian one, which is called kvevri. It is essential for producing Georgian wine.
At the festival, there were master-classes for everybody who wanted to make something from clay. Guests could take the goods they’d made for 10 hryvnias.
By Nina Korol