Free Wheeling

By Mara Coson
December 17, 2011
Philippine Daily Inquirer

[First published in my weekly column, Mama Says Mercy. Find original article here.]

Photographed by Sarie Cruz

Photographed by Sarie Cruz

An older ceramicist sits in front of a pottery wheel, slams down a small block of clay, and starts to mold it. As the wheel spins he pokes his finger through the top, effortlessly hollowing out the beginnings of a vase.

With his hands on the yielding clay, it almost appears like a human body is being shaped for the first time. His grown son watches carefully. He is meant to follow, but his turn at the wheel acknowledges the gap between craftsman and beginner. It is gauche.

Each new slap of the mold on the wheel presents the possibility of getting it right, but his son’s clumsy fingers seem to insist that imperfection precede it. The shelf begins to collect these accidents—and before he runs out of space on the wall, after one month and 35 tries, his son finally gets it.

“It’s an important moment when a ceramicist learns how to work with the wheel,” says ceramicist Xavier Mañosa, seated, setting down a small jar of Ritual coffee and rolling tobacco. It is a Sunday afternoon and his second day in Manila from Barcelona, and we are at the socially orientated art (dis)order that is the Office of Culture and Design (OCD).

Xavier—“Xavi,” he introduces himself, reaching his hand out. I don’t dare repeat his name, less from a fear of catastrophe than from being unsure of how to tell this amiable artist that I have trouble telling clay from plaster.

Xavier, the man behind Apparatu, is in Manila to hold a five-day lecture and workshop cycle for fine arts students at the University of the Philippines, in collaboration with OCD, the Embassy of Spain/AECID, and Pettyjohn Pottery.

Picasso Museum

After his workshop just the week before at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, this time around, Xavier is adapting his ceramic food workshop in Manila for the recreation of the Noche Buena.

There is actual food by former Nobu chef Tom Bascon, in collaboration with OCD’s local organic retailer Ritual (yes, Xavier’s coffee), but if you don’t stop to notice artistic slants, it’ll crack your teeth.

I wonder aloud if he had so far observed anything in our MMDA Guapo roads, with neon Jesus jeepneys, to take as inspiration. Everyday objects aren’t exempt from Apparatu’s body of work. “We are obliged to live with the presence of fire extinguishers,” he notes, describing a glazed bright red ceramic fire extinguisher installed on a wall. “We propose to rediscover its relative beauty, whilst connecting to our surroundings at peace with life’s uncertainties. Not recommended for pessimists.”

So I’m not surprised when he tells me that it has so far been the cemetery. Maybe a little. “I love how they use plastic colors to paint everything. Many figures—many sepulturas.” He turns to Clara for a translation while I think of the heavy metal band.

“Graves,” OCD boss-tour-guide Clara Balaguer nods. She had taken him to a cemetery near Parañaque inside a garbage dump for a sunset walk. Rows and rows of graves beside the entrance of the trucks were painted (some finger-painted) recently for All Soul’s Day.

Clara’s alternate local touring has proven the ingenuity of Philippine patchwork to be more inspiring than tourist standards. “Bright plastic colors, like acrylic,” he adds, expectedly amused, like he’s transferring the concept of fire extinguishers to extinguished life. Clara adds, “This is really the dump of human waste—our trash and our bodies—and it was all festively painted.”

Beyond our celebrated local ceramicist Jon Pettyjohn (who Xavier is to meet), knowing his way around the Holland-led European ceramics and design scene isn’t Xavier’s safe place. After studying industrial design, he admits, he’s closer to the design world than to the art world.

But even there he finds himself an outsider. “As a designer you have rules and conditions—condiciona…” He looks at Clara. This time she’s unsure. “You have rules,” he takes it back. “You have to follow rules. But with ceramics, it’s more flexible. You are the decoration.  Decoration, it’s an illegal word, you can’t say you are ‘working with decoration’—but it’s fine because you don’t have the pressure of art. You don’t have the rules of design. So you can do whatever you want.”

“So you’re sort of at that middle ground?”

“Yeah, I’m lost. I’m lost.” He laughs.

It surprises me that Xavier never formally studied ceramics, but with a ceramicist father, passing down the artisanal know-how was only a matter of design. As a child, he spent a lot of time at his parents’ studio. “That’s where I grew up. I just learned by being there every day after school when I was a child, weekends, Christmas time, summertime. I hated ceramics when I was younger.”

He went off to study industrial design in Berlin, but because he needed more tools for a growing fondness for ceramics, three years later he ultimately found himself moving back home to share a studio with his father. That was three years ago. “Now I can say I’m a ceramicist, and that I’ve been a ceramicist for the last three years.”

Photographed by Sarie Cruz

Photographed by Sarie Cruz

Builder as artisan

His first project, Arquitecturas, resulted from a deep interest in construction materials and the modern builder as “artisan.” From observing an oddly installed plank on his terrace to creating a plaster vase adapted from his terracotta floor and ceramic wall—and the fake marble tile between them–he makes his first vase.

He then tops it off with not a cherry, but a roof tile made of stucco. “Normally with ceramics you are doing vases. It’s a rule to make vases. I never get that rule.”

He then asks his father if he can make a ceramic vase with a pottery wheel. “What I was interested in was the—esperanza de vida?” he asks Clara for the word. “Life expectancy,” Clara fills in. “Life expectancy of the mold,” he stutters, and explains that a mold’s life expectancy is 80 vases, depending on the detail.

His father functioned as the artisan and he the imaginative artist who numbered each vase until the mold fully “died,” that is, until the vases almost become completely distorted from the receding layers of plaster. Xavier ended up with 300.

Encouraged by the son’s imaginativeness, the craftsman shows his son a vase made deliberately “wrong.”  At the time, Xavier thought, “That’s cool, the person who can work with a wheel is trying to do it wrong. I like idea.” His father, too, made hundreds of these ‘accidents’. “It’s simple. The concept is, I don’t want to work,” he says with a laugh.

Reversing back to the romanticized father and son moment in the beginning, Xavier, still intrigued by the contradiction of the fine craftsman creating purposely  “wrong” vases, receives a lesson from his father: to teach Xavier how to properly get behind the wheel. “I always see my father working with it but I didn’t really pay any attention to it.

“I know ceramics but I really don’t know what I’m doing. I marinate in a natural way,” he emphasizes, revealing his slight fear at facing the pottery wheel stigma, but still winging it with a “know by doing” approach. “Tell them that,” he says in jest.

When Xavier Mañosa knows what he is talking about, he doesn’t need to turn to Clara for a translation. When Xavier Mañosa doesn’t, he reinvents the wheel.