DESTINATION: ROMANIA/Corund pottery - an epitome of traditional craftsmanship. The local aragonite museum, a world rarity

 •  Destination: Romania
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Master potter Jozsa Laszlo takes the ball of clay, hits it a few times against the working bench, "to press the air out", starts spinning the wheel, moistens his hands and ... the miracle occurs.

Photo credit (c): GINA STEFAN/AGERPRES ARCHIVES

I look in awe how his toughened hands call into shape within minutes a vase, an ashtray, a candlestick. He has been doing this for almost 40 years now, together with his wife, and lately he co-opted their twin girls Ildiko and Eniko into the family business.

Jozsa Laszlo is one of the nearly 200 potters from the Harghita County commune of Corund, one of Romania's major pottery centers, where traditional ceramic ware is being produced.

The process by which the piece of clay in Jozsa Laszlo's hands turns into stunning glazed dishes embellished with floral or zoomorphic motifs takes a few days. First, the objects taken off the potter's wheel are left to dry, then they are immersed in kaolin to get their crisp white colour, then they are dried again, and only then do they come into the hands of the ladies of the Jozsa family, who trace the contours and the drawings on the greenware. Subsequently, the objects are fired twice in the kiln "to get their glazy, beautiful" appearance, and only then do they take the way to the thousands of homes in Romania and abroad.

Photo credit (c): GINA STEFAN/AGERPRES ARCHIVES

In the long and cold evenings of Harghita winters, Jozsa Laszlo relaxes, how else, but by modelling pottery. These are miniatures, just a few millimetres high, which he claims to make just with the help of matchsticks. Also in his spare time he makes ornamental plates that are unique in Romania, which he trims and decorates using a needle.

In a room transformed into a small museum, Jozsa Laszlo has several such painstakingly decorated plates on display. He shows me one with an intricate pattern, with approximately one thousand flowers and a festoon featuring one hundred dancers entitled "Dancers in the middle of nature." He worked on it a whole week, just to relax, and doesn't sell it unless someone offers him enough money to reward his effort. Otherwise, he would rather have these plates hanging on the wall in his little makeshift museum.

Photo credit (c): EUGEN ENACHESCU/AGERPRES ARCHIVES

"The plates are more expensive because they require a lot of work. I make them in my free time, mostly in winter. I don't have time in summer because I must work to make money. The price depends on how long I worked on it. The smallest is 100 lei. (...) You see, I am a naive artist, I did't learn to do this anywhere. It all comes from my imagination, from attempts and out of my talent," says Jozsa Laszlo.

The man with toughened hands and face furrowed with age tells me proudly that he will soon feature on the National Geographic channel in a documentary about Corund pottery.

From the Jozsa family I move on to another well-known potter of Corund, Mathe K. Istvan, who has been practicing this craft for nearly 20 years now. Having barely stepped inside the gate, I remain surprised by the stately house with wooden balcony decorated with traditional motifs and the large and beautiful homestead. Working silently in the studio are his wife and several female neighbors who help with the decoration of the pots. Istvan K. Mathe has a boy and a girl, both in their teens, but he wants them to finish their studies before he introduces them to the tricks of the trade.

Photo credit (c): GINA STEFAN/AGERPRES ARCHIVES

The pots made by the Corund craftsmen are fired in the traditional kiln where temperatures can reach as high as one thousand degrees. Thus rendered shiny and properly hardened, the ceramic objects are fit for being put up for sale. Many of the Corund potters sell their items at the wholesale storehouses in the locality and some have their own stores at the side of the national road that passes through the commune.

Yet the skilled local craftsmen have also a serious reason for dissatisfaction, namely that their craftwork is being counterfeited and sold as traditional ware for much lower prices. However, they hope that those interested in traditional art will know how to duly appreciate the efforts of the dedicated craftsmen who work from morning till night.

Photo credit (c): GINA STEFAN/AGERPRES ARCHIVES

The trademark of Corund pottery are its floral and zoomorphic designs adjusted to the local style, like the tulip, the wood grouse or the edelweiss. The best known products are those with a cobalt blue or green background, as well as the white, brown or colored ceramic. Tourists can buy decorative pots and cups, bowls, dishes, salt shakers, minced meat cookware, plant pots or spice jars.

The life and reputation of the Corund village are tightly connected to the local potter artists, wood carvers or dry tinder processors.

Commune mayor Katona Mihaly, himself a well-known potter, is currently serving his fourth term, but is perfectly aware that this position is only temporary, which is why his potter's studio is ready and waiting for him to start anytime. The mayor says that locals took to pottery out of the need to earn a living, given that the land is not suitable for agriculture.

"The earliest documentary mentions, dating from 1332, already show that Corund locals were working the clay. Because the land around the village is very slithery, they didn't go very much into agriculture because it didn't yield a proper output, so they changed their mentality and started working the clay for a living. It's important to know that here in Corund we have over 760 artisans, of whom potters are about 200, while the rest are traders, tinder or wood processors, so there's a wide range of popular crafts. Basically, about 13 percent of the Corund village residents are in the pottery industry," says the mayor.

Photo credit (c): PAUL BUCIUTA/AGERPRES ARCHIVES

Moreover, the Corund commune is one of the most beautiful and wealthy in Harghita and the people's artistic sensibility is easily noticeable on the beautifully decorated homes and fences. In addition, with financing from European projects, 80 percent of the village streets were paved, and the sanitation and drinking water networks were laid in the village.

The potters of Corund also think about the future of their craft, so that they plan to set up a vocational school to teach the young people the art of pottery.

The mayor reveals that in the age of communism, Corund was facing the risk of having no one to carry this activity further, but now young people have returned to the craft preserved since the times of their ancestors.

"The Corund Potters Association was established, and together with the town of Horezu and other centers where pottery is practiced, we are founding members of the Romanian Potters Association. (...) Another initiative refers to a pottery workshop, where tourists can try their hand on making a pot, or paint clayware. We need to get deeper involved in this activity and not let for one minute the people think it is not worth it. Because that's where the worldwide reputation of our village stems from," says the mayor.
  
The Corund aragonite museum, the only of its kind in Romania
In addition to the art of pottery and other crafts practiced here, Corund can also boast Romania's only aragonite museum, a rarity even in Europe, as its initiators say.

"Aragonite is a mineral, a crystal form of calcium carbonate deposited by salty mineral waters that are rich in this chemical compound. This water fills underground holes and deposits calcium carbonate in cracks, and as the sedimentary carbonate layers are under pressure, they crystallize," explains the guide of the Corund aragonite museum Ildiko Papp.

The Corund aragonite ore is unique in the world, because unlike in other parts of Europe, including the Czech Republic, northern Italy or Slovakia, it occurs at the surface, in massive deposits, and can be exploited in open pit. Those interested can go visit the place where aragonite was once exploited on the "Snails Hill," declared a geological reserve in 1980. It is a carbonate deposit spreading on one and a half hectares, considered unique in the world.

The exploitation of aragonite is linked to the name of Czech geologist Knop Vencel who discovered the resources in 1908 and opened a processing plant in 1914. The pieces of aragonite were carefully processed, as they were fragile and only the well-off could afford to buy aragonite stone items. The plant operated until 1948, run by the Knop family, and was reopened by the communists in 1950, but their using dynamite to speed up the operation destroyed the resources of the area.

Photo credit (c): GINA STEFAN/AGERPRES ARCHIVES

Now, the exhibits of the Corund Aragonite Museum like writing sets, clocks, vases and jewellery boxes, or other objects chiseled here and scattered all over the world like at the Louvre in Paris or held by collectors in Europe and the United States, bear witness to the glory of the old times.

Looking at the chart that shows the remote places where the aragonite objects from Corund have reached, one cannot but acknowledge the truth of a local anecdote that says that when Columbus discovered America, Corund folks were already returning from there and when spaceman Gagarin flew to the Cosmos, he crossed ways with Corund potters. AGERPRES

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