Though it looks like effortless magic when done by an expert, it’s actually complex craftsmanship that takes a lot of work, as we soon find out. Wanting those cool ceramic cups you see in every souvenir store and keen to get our hands dirty, this month, Enjoy the Algarve follows a pottery workshop near Moncarapacho.
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2017
Can’t get more traditional than pottery. The first pots were made back when people were living as hunters and gatherers – after all, you had to keep your water or bison meat somewhere. The invention of the potter’s wheel sped things up a bit, though the intention, making a vessel from clay, remained the same. Pottery is also typical of the Algarve, with shops found everywhere along the N125, their ceramic goods displayed outside, the craft passed on in the family from father to son. That’s also the case with Francisco Eugénio (58, pictured below) from Moncarapacho. He’s a fourth-generation potter who grew up in his father’s workshop and made his first creation at the age of 8.
Nowadays, he’s made millions of ceramic objects and vessels. Thousands of them can be admired in his atelier in Bias do Norte, along the N125 just west of Alfandanga. There are lamps, traditional Algarvian chimneys, bowls, plates, vases, egg holders, ashtrays, honey pots, teapots, little cups and big salad bowls, even chairs and a 15l sangria jar. Almost everything on display is handmade by Francisco. Although he also works with a machine that pressures the clay into moulds (it’s impossible to create the flat sardines on the wheel for example), he absolutely prefers the potter’s wheel. “With the machine and moulds, everyone can work, also people who don’t have a clue about pottery and don’t know what they’re doing,” he explains, while emphasising that he’s made all the moulds himself. “Working on the potter’s wheel gives me so much pleasure as it allows me to try out all kinds of new things. I love thinking out unique pieces in my head and then realising them with my hands.”
Apart from ceramics and machines, there’s also a lot of clay: packs and packs of it, the traditional red clay (which needs a bath in white before painting or else the colours won’t show) and the thicker white clay which can be painted directly. (Don’t mix the two or your creation will crack when it’s being baked). Nowadays, the clay is bought from a factory in Leiria (in the middle of Portugal), but up until the 1970s, Francisco used to go to the mountains in nearby Santa Catarina with his donkey and shovel to search for it. This would be possible nowadays as well, as there’s still clay in the Loulé area and this Algarve clay is actually of a better quality as it’s stronger, but, says Francisco: “It’d be too much of a hassle.” He explains: “After a day of gathering, I’d have about 150 to 200 kilos. However, this clay comes with a lot of impurities so I’d first have to filter it with my feet (as they’re more sensitive than my hands) to get out any stones. One stone in the clay, no matter how small, would cause cracks when the piece gets baked.”
With this advice in mind, we settle for factory clay of the traditional red kind. We start with the basics to get a feeling; creating a cup without the use of a potter’s wheel. There are two methods to do this; one where you start with a ball, dig in your thumbs to create a hole and work further from the inside, the other is called coiling: you first make a cookie-sized base and then stack sausage-like clay rolls on top to build it up. I get an orange apron and feel like I’m transported back to school, playing in arts & crafts class. Naturally, I end up covered in clay, which isn’t a problem as it’s actually really good for your skin. My sausage-coils break halfway through and my cup looks a bit like it’s been made by a pre-schooler. Francisco’s half a century of experience is immediately visible as he expertly creates two cups, adds a grip to one and a braided handle to the other, and also makes a rose (see side note), all while I’m still trying to repair the cracks in my cup. Francisco, smiling: “For me, olaria (pottery) is a world of ideas: I always get new concepts from everywhere. I also often work with designers and create their concepts.”
For our next bowl, we move onto the smaller transportable potter’s wheel, controlling the velocity with our feet and always making sure the clay is kept wet. A piece of clay, called a pela, is slapped on the wheel, covered with both hands and pressed down tight to centre it while the wheel is spinning. Then you slowly press your thumbs in the clay and work your way down to shape the bottom of the bowl or vase. After that, the outlines are built up; your left hand shaping from inside the piece, your right hand pressing against it from the outside. It’s insane how the clay changes shape when it’s guided by Francisco’s expert fingers. The shape flows; low, high, back low again, all in one fluent motion, like magic. It almost looks like the clay is alive, transforming from wide-rimmed cup to long narrow vase under his hands. Satisfied with the shape, Francisco smooths the edges with a piece of bamboo cane, using this also to decorate the outside. He makes pottery seem like the easiest thing in the world.
Which it isn’t, as I soon find out. For starters, controlling the velocity of the wheel. This speed should be higher when making smaller pieces and lower with bigger ones, but, above all, constant. Not jittery from zero to mega fast and back again. “It’s easy, like the exhilaration of a car,” comments Francisco. I’m very grateful to photographer Kyle for not saying out loud that my abrupt workings of the wheel have a lot in common with my driving style. Still, with a bit of help of Francisco, I get there. Especially after he advises me to pull the clay a bit towards me to centre it. Shaping the clay is great fun – though it should be done nice and slowly, not with clumsy brusque movements by yours truly. I almost wreck it by accidentally sticking in the bamboo cane, but after the second attempt I’m amazed at the fact that I actually end up with something that very much resembles a cup and even has smooth edges. (I’m also very proud of my creation so people coming over to visit, be warned: you will be served whatever food you’re getting in a self-made strange-looking cup and don’t you dare complaining!)
On the bigger professional wheel, Francisco demonstrates his skills and creates a jug in under three minutes. It seems like he’s more playing with the clay than focused on the end result, which is gorgeous. “In my pottery courses, I first tell my participants not to be focused on what they want to create. Instead, I want them to close their eyes and feel the clay.” While the wheel is still spinning, he cuts off the top layer and makes it into a handle, finishing by pinching the rim into a spout. Next up: an hourglass-shaped flower vase which he decorates with a small comb. It’s incredible craftsmanship at high speed. Francisco needs only one hour to create 130 little bowls – of a size slightly bigger than a shot glass. (Want to see him at work? Watch the video in the side note). Most difficult to make are the bigger pieces. He explains: “If I wanted to create something of my own size, for example, it’d have to be done in a couple of days. You can make 40, max 50cm a day; higher and the clay won’t hold. For bigger pieces, you have to let your work dry a bit and continue the next day with the next 40 cm.”
Once dried and painted, the pottery has to be baked before you’re able to use it. There are three ovens (called kiln in pottery-lingo) in the workshop; the largest one has a capacity of 400l. It’s a bit different from putting a pizza in the oven: the clay has to be baked for 15 hours on 850˚C, then cool down for the same amount of time, then it’s time to apply glaze, again in the kiln (15 hours on 985˚C this time) and then the slow cooling process starts again. Don’t open the oven door during any of the above described phases or all pieces will break. Next up for the oven are hundreds of pots to put sweets in, ordered by a hotel. In the adjacent shop the finished products can be seen, painted by Francisco’s wife Conceição in all different colours. The most sought after by the general public are little bowls to rub garlic in and mix it with olive oil. Light, inexpensive, colourful and easy to pack in your hand luggage, they make the perfect souvenir from Portugal. No wonder there are so many olarias in the Algarve.
But although pottery shops are everywhere in the south of Portugal, there aren’t that many real potteries around anymore. “About a handful,” estimates Francisco. “All the others are shops.” What about the famous Olaria de Porches? Yes, the ceramics sold there are all painted and glazed onsite, but they aren’t actually created there. “Want to know if something is a real pottery? Ask to see the potter at work!” Francisco advices, proud of his traditional skills. Skills that won’t be passed on to the fifth generation though, as the sons of Francisco and his wife Conceição aren’t keen on becoming potters in order to continue the family tradition. “It’s why I’m giving workshops and courses. It’d be a shame if these skills get lost, so I want to teach them to others and am looking for an apprentice in the meantime. Your bowl looks quite nice, fancy a change of career?” he jokes. Inspecting my creation a bit closer, I clearly see a couple of wobbles. The bowls I’ve made seem, let’s put it nicely, a bit ‘rustico’ and I decide that unfortunately Francisco will have to keep on looking for a bit longer…
When to go?
There aren’t any fixed times or dates, so best is to contact Francisco by email in advance to make an appointment. (Phone: 289 793 548 or 967 318 003)
The activity is done indoors and therefore possible all year round. It can be done in the atelier in Bias do Norte (close to Moncarapacho), but also on location, literally anywhere you like.
The minimum group size is 5 persons, whereas the maximum is 12.
This is for everyone who’s into arts & crafts and likes working with their hands. Also great if you want to make a cool Portuguese souvenir.
This activity is also suitable for children from age 6 and upwards. Don’t bring your nicest and newest clothes; although you’ll be wearing an apron, you might get covered in clay. Together, Francisco and Conceição speak Portuguese, English and French.
Baking and painting of the bowl isn’t included in the workshop, but can be arranged at an additional charge.
See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine June 2017