The history of ceramics in Portugal is made from many moments, eras and fashions. Talking about its entire evolution in Portugal would be like writing a book.
To keep it short and start this series of interviews named “A craftsman's life”, we interviewed Maria José, a ceramist who started by the time at 14 years old. Here's a little bit of her story as an artisan.
Hello Maria, could you please introduce yourself?
Sure, my name is Maria José, I am 62 years old and I worked 16 years as a ceramist. Initially in a factory called “Argil” in Torres Vedras where so-called decorative tableware was made with a 17th century and Italian style, both in earthenware. Then in a second factory called “Soterracotta” which was located in Abrunheira, Ramalhal where we used to made utility crockery in stoneware. These two factories are unfortunately closed and I stayed until the end each time.
What were your studies? How did you learn to be a ceramist?
Nowadays, I believe it's the 6th grade, in my time it was called the preparatory cycle. I learned ceramics when I was 14 when I entered the "Argil" factory. We had no training before, we learned by working directly on the pieces.
I started as an apprentice pourer-finisher, then moved on to the sintering section, the painting, the filling and the glazing section. I learned everything in the field, as they say.
What was your first impression with this new job?
I liked it! I was only 14 years old “coitadinha de mim” (poor me) but in my times, it was like that, children used to help their family and to contribute. To be honest I wanted to be a nurse, but I didn't study so I went to work in ceramics. But I was happy after all.
What can you tell us about a “typical day” at the factory?
A typical day for me was getting the dishes and finished them, that mean when they come out of the molds they have small imperfections I had to scrape, cut the excess and then pass a sponge to remove these imperfections. Then once the finishing touches were made, the dishes were placed in a stove for drying before going to the oven. Once cooked at 970 degrees in the oven, it became “forma de chacota” (which means a piece of crockery only cooked one first time).
The day after, it was the painting stage. I was a decorative painter. In fact, I was doing everything except the dough and the plaster molds.
The dishes were therefore painted by hand with low-heat paint (tinta de mufla) then glazed where they are bathed in liquid glass. Once the excess glass cleaning process was complete, the pieces were baked at 1200 degrees.
If it was a piece of decal she would go into the oven three times : bake the clay, cook the glass dishes then we would put the decal on her and she would go back to the oven to bake it.
I worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The factory had about 20 employees, both men and women and that's where I met my first husband, by the way.
Then I also did some porcelain, but not that much.
And what was the process of creation and selling of the pieces?
There was a catalog with the different drawings or with photographs of the finished pieces ready to be sold. And also a showcase.
Then customers -mostly stores- placed their orders. We used to sell a lot for the Chiado district in Lisbon at the time. Then, there was the huge fire in August 1988 and we never sold for them again. It was a turning point.
Can you tell us what you liked to do the most?
Painting because it's when you give the piece a value, an identity!
Many people recognized the art behind it. It was not as easy as it might seem. In fact, one day I had an apprentice who had a Fine Arts background. She worked one day and never came back, she couldn't do it (laughs). During all my years of work, I have taught a lot of people.
And what do you miss the most about these times?
My youth ! I stayed until the two factories closed. I loved everything about it! From the clay to packaging for the customer. It had become my passion.
What do you think of the factories and ways of producing today?
Too much machines, too much automation and too little manpower. The process is no longer manual and objects lose their personality, their charm and mostly their emotion.
And finally Maria, can you tell us what's your biggest dream?
To open my own ceramics atelier for sure.
When I see the little shops in my street, I tell myself that it would be my dream to have one, the atelier would be behind and in front the shop section.
Who knows maybe one day...
Thank you Maria for letting us know about the life of a ceramist in the 70's and 80's.