ceramics and the story of my friend arzu
There are so many aspects of ceramics that are metaphoric for life's journey.
It's an art that requires use and understanding of the four elements. Water, fire, air, earth. The earth provides the substance. The water makes the earth pliable. The air dries the earth to a usable form, and fire makes the form useable, again and again, over a lifetime. The same can be said for us. We start out, substance of the earth. we are pliable, fed and formed by our mother's milk. We step out into the open air on our own, to be greeted with the fire of experience. Experience hardens us, and we become vessels, using the knowledge and talent that we have gathered, to make our way. In the end, a fired pot has the patina of age. So do we, but if we have lived our lives well, we also have the patina of wisdom.
I don't remember the actual moment when I decided to make ceramics an intregal part of my life's work. I do, however, remember, how I was brought to the craft. Living in a foreign country and not speaking the language gives a person a huge challenge and an even larger chance. That chance is called language school. It is in language school that I have met many of my most interesting friends. People who go to language school are there because they do not come from the culture in which they find themselves living. And they need to be able to function. But the secondary effect is that in language school, you can meet people from all over the world, from diverse backgrounds and from every concievable point of view. Religious, political and socioeconomic boundaries are virtually erased in the adult foreign language class. It was there, in language school in Hamburg, Germany that I met my friend Arzu.
Arzu in the Turkish language means desire, yearning. Arzu was simply one of the most beautiful women that I had ever seen. When we first made eye contact, it was like the words flew between us without being said. I want to be your friend. I need to be your friend.
Arzu was an interior designer, living in Germany for her husband's work. In a country where four percent of the population were Turkish immigrants, Arzu was unusal. She was in Germany not because of financial hardship, but instead on a company paid long term stay. She felt isolated. She had nothing in common with the Turkish immigrants she met, and felt judged by the Germans as if she were part of the rest of the immigrant population.
I knew how she felt. I was also still trying to find my way in German society. I had long before begun to feel the isolation and confusion that most people feel when they leave their home land and strike out to do something completely new. She and I both had husbands that were busy working. Both of us were slightly put off by the cool mentality of Hamburg, a city full of majestic style and elegance but short on genuine warmth and the type of friendliness that Arzu and I were both used to in our own cultures. We quickly started eating lunch together, using our limited amount of common German to express big ideas, to laugh, to cry, and to share.
I learned how to make stuffed grape leaves from Arzu using cinnamon, rice, tomato paste and pine nuts. She tasted her first roasted stuffed turkey at my house for Christmas. I learned how Turkish baklava are doused in sweet syrup and how Ataturk founded modern Turkey and how the Bosphorus glitters the color turquoise, a word with its root in the region. She learned about Italy and America from me.
One day, she approached me carefully. "Diana," she said, "We need to do something. Not just learn German and eat." I laughed. Asked her what she had in mind. "How about ceramics?" she asked, as we walked arm in arm around the large lake in the center of the city, trying to shake off the grey of the day.
I thought about it. Through my head flew the vision of two bored housewives making pinch pots. Well it can't hurt, I thought, probably won't help much, but I might learn a thing or two. I had started painting canvasses a few months earlier, and felt another creative outlet might help me explore whatever talents I had to a greater degree. "Did you have some place in mind?"
This is where Arzu differed from just about everyone I knew. She didn't just have a place in mind. She had already, with her two hundred words of German and three verb tenses, found the only ceramic Meisterschule in Hamburg... one where we could not only learn pinch pots, but also how to make clay, mix it, form it, throw it. A studio where we could learn how to mix glaze from raw chemicals, learn the meaning of flux and glassmaker and colarant and engobe, a school where if we choose, we could eventually receive our Meisterbrief, or our Master's certification. She had called, and found out that we could attend the school starting the following Tuesday evening. She looked at me, her beautiful green eyes wide open. She needed this. And she knew, intrinsically, that I did too.
This was not going to be about painting pretty flowers on a clay bowl and getting it back the next week. I wondered if I was ready for the level of committment this school required.
The following Tuesday evening, I met Arzu at the Keramik Art School on Humboldtstrasse. Christopf and Brigitte, both ceramic masters, ran the school, which was a mixture of soft lighting, functional work tables, four pottery wheels, shelving, a monstrous kiln, unfinished pots of all shapes and sizes, books, a rather questionable looking wood oven and and array of tools. We went in tentatively, and took seats at the work tables where about six other students sat, already working, chatting, drinking coffee. Christoph gave me some clay, a base piece of round press board and Brigitte showed me how to start. I looked at Arzu, who was focused on her clay cigar rolls, making the base of a cylinder, our first prerequisite form. She looked up. I like this, I communicated to her visually. She smiled. Me too. As the two hours passed, the intense German conversation clearly went over both of our heads. There was talk of Romania and the Seven Mountains with its ceramic culture, of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires (to which Arzu paid close attention), of Islam and Christianity, of the need for peace and understanding among religions.
It seemed, in a sense, that the Keramik Art School was not just a place to learn how to make coffee mugs (although it was certainly that), but also a place for hungry souls to be filled up with a good dose of history, religion and a sense of purpose. Coming and working on a piece of ceramics was not enough. You had to involve your mind and your soul in the process as well. The school was where I could center myself, talk with like-minded people, start to live again after transitioning from life in the States.
For the next two years, Arzu and I attended the Keramik Art School together. We made our first cylinders and graduated to traditional Turkish krug forms. From there we could make what we wanted. I took to the wheel, while Arzu made sculptures - with such depth of meaning that they amazed everyone in the class. The one that stood out for me was that of a tiny woman comforting a giant, exhausted man. It was a sculpture built of the knowledge of what women everywhere, but in particular of the Islamic cultures, do without even realizing it. In their smallness, in their humility, they carry the burdens of society.
When their contract was completed, Arzu and her husband and their baby son Ardan returned to their home in Istanbul where they live today. The gaping hole in my life that Arzu left was immense. I continued on at the Keramik Art School to honor her and to go deeper into an art form that had become for me a source of both joy and frustration.
She could never know the impact she had on my life. She's far too humble for that. The gifts she gave me with only a few words of common language will last my whole life long. No one can take ceramics away from me. And in the same sense, I will always have Arzu. She is here with me, every day.
I stayed on at the school for three more years, learning to glaze, perfecting the wheel, quieting my own internal monsters and unknowingly preparing myself for the next huge challenge.
A farm on a hill in Italy.