By Françoise Melville


Potters living and working in Eastern Andalucía


Juan van der Mije & Sophie Cuendet, (Pozo Capitán)


                                                                                   Sophie Cuendet's Castles in Spain


Juan and Sophie have been living in the province of Almería for some 27 years. Their house is an old whitewashed cortijo with black iron window grilles, situated just within the limits of the 'Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata'. This is not far from the little town of Níjar in the Andalusian province of Almería. Both Juan and Sophie speak Spanish, as well as French. Juan is also fluent in Dutch of course, and English. Sophie comes from French-speaking Switzerland where she studied ceramics. Her father was a sculptor who supported his family entirely with his creative work, as do Juan and Sophie today. They are the parents of two sons: Gaël 15, Yannick 13, and daughter Chloë who is 9. The children go to Spanish state schools in nearby Campohermoso and speak Spanish, French and Dutch fluently. They are also learning English. They participate in their parents’ work and make small pots and sculptures that often get sold along with Sophie’s ware in her store.


The cortijo at Pozo Capitán                                                                                       Sophie Cuendet

Sophie no longer has to formulate and mix her own glazes because Juan does that for her, as well as looking after the whole firing process and building the kilns. At present they use a propane-fueled downdraft and Juan has built a small test kiln, also fired with propane. Both kilns are fiber-lined and easily reach Cone 10. Sophie's functional ware is mostly wheel-thrown with some altering and handbuilt additions, often in the form of insects.


Detail of insect on large vessel                                                                  Sophie at work

For this work she uses a porcelainous white stoneware body or a light pinkish buff coloured stoneware one, both imported from Limoges, France. She has both an electric and a kickwheel, but seems to prefer the kickwheel. I remember that when she was expecting her last child, Chloë, she used the kickwheel until she could no longer fit comfortably on the wooden seat and had to change over to the electric one. For her interlocking sculptural pieces she uses a refractory body from Manises, Spain. Its fired colour is that of the land itself. Most of her sculptures are architectural in form and can be assembled in different ways. They are reminiscent of Spanish arched doorways and castles. Very often, small human figures are placed in front of these pieces, giving an impression of the scale of the work in relation to the almost insignificant people.


Doorway with human figure                                                                                   Castle with arch and swinging figure

Some sculptures are partially glazed or burnished, others remain unglazed so that the texture and natural colors of the surrounding Spanish landscape can be appreciated. Average height is about 50cm. The 'doors' now have openings, but Sophie told be that when she first started making them years ago, they were completely closed in. She claims that there is nothing intellectual about these doorways; they are the product of an instinctive feeling from the gut. She herself finds it hard to explain their true significance. All of Sophie's work is fired in reduction and Juan has his own special technique for formulating and firing lusters, for which southern Spain has always had a great tradition. Sophie's pots and sculptures are bisque-fired to 950Cº and glazed to 1280Cº. Lusters are fired to 870Cº in heavy reduction.


Sophie in her store                                                                                                                 Large stoneware bottle

Sophie and Juan used to sell their work directly from their home as well as at fairs and marketplaces, but fairly recently they have acquired a store in the old part of the village of Níjar. This store is dedicated exclusively to their own production, and has two storeys and a basement which Sophie uses as a school for children who wish to pursue art and craft in general. She has about 20 students aged from four to fourteen in three separate classes and teaches them to use different media including papier maché, fabrics and found objects such as shells, natural cactus fibers and driftwood. When Sophie is attending to the store, she finds time to produce beautifully hand-painted T-shirts and pleated fans that adorn the walls along with the pot-filled shelves and pedestals supporting the sculptural pieces. Sophie finds herself influenced and inspired in her own work by the use of mixed media with the children although her greatest inspiration appears to the Spanish region she lives in; a land of light and sharp contrasts, eroded ocher sierras, cloudless skies and stunted trees. These small classes help to increase income in the off-season when tourists are scarce and the store itself is closed to the public except for on weekends and holidays.



Rosemary Capes (Cerámica La Romera,Vera)

Like Juan and Sophie, Rosemary Capes, originally from England, lives in semi-desert surroundings in the province of Almería. Her property, too, is like a little oasis.


Rosemary in her store                                                                 The new gas kiln

Bougainvillea, hybiscus and succulent plants abound. Multicolored mesembrianthemums creep over eroded limestone rocks whose colour, form and texture are mirrored in both Sophie's and Rosemary's work.

I first met Rosemary over twenty years ago. She was selling her pots from a table set up on Almería city's main avenue. I was struck by the obvious Leach influence present in her functional ware at the time, having lived in St. Ives myself as a teenager, so I stopped and talked to Rosie. We were both young then, especially Rosie, and her long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail. I never saw her again until the spring of 1998. We are now both in our fifties and somewhat changed in looks! Rosemary's wears her hair short now, and it is an overall gray, but she still retains her slim youthful figure and is as physically active as ever with cement and clay mixing, kiln-building, etc. In the main part of her house there is a trap-door in the floor which leads to a large dank storage area for her clay. This can be a problem in Southern Spain. Clay can dry out very quickly which is probably one of the reasons that Rosie prefers to glaze bone-dry rather than at the leatherhard stage.

Rosemary has lived near Vera for 25 years. The name of her house and studio is 'La Romera' which means rosemary in Spanish. She spent four years studying ceramics in her native England and then apprenticed for 5 months with Michael Leach. "He was a little hard to get along with as a person," she says, "but I did learn a lot from him". Simplicity is the key to her working habits. She uses very basic materials for her glazes such as potash feldspar, quartz, whiting, borax, lithium carbonate, kaolin, dolomite, zirconium silicate and bentonite. For colorants she uses a little cobalt oxide and a lot of red iron oxide; "Blue always sells," she smiles, and that seems to be true all over the world. Her latest kiln stands in the middle of the workshop. It is commercially built in Valencia with about 18 cu.ft. stacking space, and runs from a fairly large tank of propane. Rosemary built her first two kilns, a catenary arch and a sprung arch, single-handed. The kiln from Valencia was acquired through a grant Rosemary received quite recently from the province. Like Sophie Cuendet, she has two wheels, electric and Leach style treadle. The Spanish electric wheels owned by both Sophie and Rosie are not what I would ever use. They have large built-in splashpans that cannot be removed, the wheelheads are small, maybe 10" diameter, and there is no way one can use a large batt and throw a decent platter. Sophie doesn't even try to make large plates and Rosie slab-builds hers and then throws the sides on the treadle wheel. Well, I really appreciate my Pacifica!

Rosemary uses wax-resist and dips her functional ware in variations of the following basic glaze leaving quite an expanse of unglazed foot:

Potash Feldspar 30

Quartz 15

Dolomite 25

Kaolin 10

Bentonite 10

"Sorry, it doesn't add up to a hundred," she laughs. To this basic glaze she adds varying amounts of iron oxide and/or zirconium silicate. No Zircopax or Ultrox here! The 10% bentonite provides enough plasticity to make this glaze fit her particular clay body which is a highly-grogged buff-colored stoneware. She once-fires to 1260Cº in about 14 hours, going into light reduction from 1100Cº up. She does do quite a lot of experimental glaze work, making line-blends of different chemicals and firing test pieces along with her normal load. She does not have a test kiln and feels she doesn't need one. Like me, she prefers to test her glazes on small to medium-sized pots rather than tiles. One result of experimentation is a slip to which she adds salt in varying quantities. She fires a few of these small, salt-slipped pieces along with the rest, and has had some most attractive results.

  Small salted pots

Rosemary also handbuilds a wide selection of birds and animals such as hoopoe birds, goats and tortoises. These are mostly unglazed and coloured with slips and oxides. These creatures make excellent garden ornaments and after many years out in the Spanish sun,


Hoopoe bird                                                                                                             Genet cat


they become weathered and seem to really form part of the landscape as do Sophie's gateways and castles. Both of these potters have lived and potted in Andalucía so long that the common thread is the land that surrounds them; ocher tones, warm eroded surfaces, limestone, cave-dwellings, desert, sky and sea. All are present in their work.


Two stoneware birds merge into the landscape

The Alhabia Potters

Many years ago, when I lived and made pots in Níjar , I decided to no longer mix and use the local clay because of lime blowouts and lack of equipment. I used to go regularly to the village of Alhabia in the Alpujarra foothills, and buy clay from Juan Castellón and his son-in-law, Manuel González , who had their workshops at the top of the town, at the end of a tortuously narrow street aptly named 'Calle Alfarerías' roughly translated as 'The Street of Potteries'. A neighboring street was called 'Calle Horno' which means 'Kiln Street'. Alhabia is, and always has been, a village of folk potters. Right next to the workshops was an artisanal brick factory with thousands of bricks neatly piled up to dry in the sun before being fired, and smaller piles of toasty red finished bricks were in another part of the yard. Sometimes a brick or two would get too much heat in the kilns, and melt into deliciously abstract yet architectural forms, self-glazed to a discreet matte green. However, I do not wish to discuss bricks here, but rather the work of the Alhabia potters over the past few generations.

Some thirty years ago, these potters still dug their clay and kneaded it with their bare feet. They would then single fire in wood-fueled kilns, producing simple functional ware, glazed with raw lead. The wood kilns were replaced with propane-fired car kilns in 1985. A relatively smooth red earthenware body from La Bisbal in Girona Province and a fine white one from Córdoba are now used instead of the rough local clay. A modern pugmill has replaced human feet and the wheels are motorized. What has not changed is the style of the pottery and the care that is put into its production.

One of Oñi's plates made about 15 years ago

When I first went to Alhabia to buy some of the clay from La Bisbal some fifteen years ago, the González Castellón family still sold their work out of the 'taller' or workshop. I would watch Oñi, old Juan's young granddaughter, as she spontaneously decorated the many plates thrown by her father and grandfather. These plates were first dipped in a kaolin slip and then Oñi would engrave a design of geometrical flowers, fish, peacocks, or whatever else might come into her head. Iron, cobalt, copper and manganese washes would then be used to highlight the designs before glazing and firing the ware. Other articles were decorated in the same way, but I liked Oñi's plates best of all. They were all signed on the front, the three letters of her name, short for Antonia, merging into the rest of the design.

Unfired slip-decorated platter


This past spring, I decided to return to Alhabia and see if Juan or his son-in-law and grand-daughter were still working. Juan Castellón had been a 'cantarero', one who could throw very large water vessels in one piece, and was actually able to throw as many dozens of them at one sitting. He would even travel to Níjar, several miles away, and throw cántaros for local potters there, so that they could decorate and glaze them and fire them as their own.

I could not remember exactly where the Alhabia potteries were situated although I knew they were at one of the highest points of the village. Whenever my son, who was driving, asked the way we were told with a gesture to go 'up, up'. Juan, I learned, now in his late seventies, no longer worked, but could most likely be seen on the street. His granddaughter Oñi had been married years ago, and now had a thirteen-year-old son. She no longer decorated plates. But there were still many family members carrying on the craft; both son-in-law Manuel and grandsons continued in the old tradition. We drove up and up through the narrow streets of Alhabia until we came to the potteries and the neighboring brick factory. A door was open, it was not old Juan´s workshop but the one just above. I could see a young man inside with a small child in his arms.

After the brightness of the whitewashed walls and houses of the village, it took a moment for my eyes to become accustomed to the somewhat dark interior, but soon I could clearly see pots everywhere in various stages of fabrication. Piled one on top of the other, on a shaky table near the door, were two terracotta pieces, expressive sculptured scenes of men and half-wild Andalusian dogs.

  Gaby’s terracotta sculpture

"Who made these?" I asked, after introducing myself.

"I did," said the young man, shyly, as if ashamed of himself for indulging in such things.

  Gaby and María Elena

His name was Gabriel, Gaby for short and he was Juan Castellón's grandson. In his arms was his baby daughter, one-year-old María Elena, a future Oñi, maybe. And then I remembered Gaby. He had been there in his grandfather´s workshop when I went there to buy clay. A mere boy of fifteen or so. Now he was a married man of twenty-eight.


View of the Alhabia brick factory                                                                        Unfired slipware

All around me I could see pots and plates, pitchers, bowls and in one corner on the floor were dozens of mould-made white earthenware trays, already slip-decorated but not yet glazed.

"Do you fire twice now?" I asked, looking at the fairly large propane-fueled car kiln in the center of the workshop.

"Yes," said Gaby, "much easier that way, and we fire almost every day."

"Do you get crazing like the Níjar potters? I suppose you're using the same fritted lead glaze."

"We do, but there's no crazing. They bisque too low. I bisque at 1000Cº and glaze at the same temperature."


I picked up a glaze-fired plate, the only one I could see lying around. There was indeed no trace of crazing. And then I looked more closely at the design; engraved fish, filled in with coloured slip, leaving the natural red clay outlines showing throw the kaolin base slip; geometrical borders, triangles, a stylized flower petal design in the center of the plate. The whole design was very similar to what I myself used to do in Níjar as was the technique. Not copied, just a natural evolution from the old kaolin-coated clay with brushed-on oxides and raw-lead glazes, wood-fired and primitive. Geometrical designs that were reminiscent of ancient Iberian pottery of which so much has been excavated in South Eastern Andalucía and Valencia. Many small pitchers and bowls had not been dipped in kaolin slip at all. It was a different claybody; white earthenware.

"Is that clay from Manises?" I asked.

"No, it's from the Rambla de Córdoba, but it's a very similar body," said Gaby, "much easier to decorate, quicker too. We have to make so much stuff now to supply the retailers."

"Well, I still prefer the red clay myself."

"Yes, we use it a lot, for plates and for those little sculptures too. Can't use the white stuff for those. And apart from those rectangular trays, we still do everything on the wheel."

Yes, I thought, and like production and folk potters all over the world, they work long hours for little money, but the craft or trade or maybe one should even call it art, is still in their blood. They love their work and are not out to make a fortune. I hope that one day I shall return to Alhabia and see little María Elena slip-decorating plates and signing them just as her Aunt Oñi used to do, while her father throws pots at the wheel and continues making cántaros like his grandfather Juan and father Manuel.

When I got back to Almería where I was staying with my son, I realized that I had not stayed in Alhabia long enough, so the following Saturday we decided to return and find out more about the Castellón family.

This time, we knew where to go. Nicolás, my son, drove up and up and we arrived at the workshops and brickyard with no difficulty other than that of scraping the sides of our tiny car on the houses which bordered the narrow streets. But the doors of both workshops were locked and there was no sign of life anywhere.

"It's not like it used to be," said Nico, "those potters don't have to work seven days a week any more. They earn good money and have cars and go to the beach with their families on weekends."

"Well, just lets drive to the bottom of the town and look at that ceramics giftstore we saw on the way up. It may be open now and had some of Gaby's work in the window."

So we parked right opposite the store on the corner and I got out. The store was indeed open, and there were several people inside. I went in and looked at the plates hanging on the wall, the pitchers, mugs and bowls on the shelves. I even saw cántaros on one shelf.

I went up to the counter, behind which stood a middle-aged man with a friendly, vaguely familiar face.

  Manuel in his store

"Please may I take some photos of Gaby's plates," I asked politely.

The man's face broke into a wide grin: "Don't you remember me?" he asked.

"Well, not really," I have a terrible memory for faces, even though I can remember details of other people's pots.

"I'm Manuel González, I used to sell you clay years ago. When you lived in Níjar, remember?"

"Yes, yes, of course! Am I ever dumb!"

His sons Manolo and Gaby were there, and their wives, or maybe sisters, maybe the friendly young woman who greeted me was Oñi herself. If only I had a better memory for faces!

"You must remember Juan, my father-in-law, too," said Manuel, "he's retired now and very sick. He has prostate cancer, but probably won't actually die of that. He has trouble with his dentures, they don't fit well and he doesn't eat. He's getting thinner and thinner and it really seems that he can't last very long."

"How old is he now? In his eighties?"

"No, no. He's not that old. Only in his late seventies, but you'd never guess it. Está muy estropeado, looks really old and ravaged now."

I showed Manuel and the rest of his family the April 98 edition of CM with my article about the Níjar potters and their photos.

We talked about Baldomero junior in Níjar, and how he had taken to making moulded pots exclusively and had totally mechanized his once artisanal business. His stuff sells, of course, and cheaper than the Alhabia pots. "But," said Manuel, "People all over recognize quality when they see it, and my pots have clean finished feet without drips, and they don't craze. We make a good living here without going to Baldomero's extremes."

He was right. In Alhabia they no longer wood-fire; they have pugmills and car kilns. They make lots of pots and fill lots of orders. They no longer sell pots direct from the workshop and have owned the downtown store for the past eight years. They live comfortably without slaving at their trade. Their pots and plates are still individually decorated by various family members, each of whom signs his work right on the glazed surface where it is visible to all who care to look without being obtrusive. After taking several photos, I chose one of the smaller plates, determined to fly it back to Canada in my tiny suitcase. Manuel swathed it carefully in bubble-wrap and insisted on giving me a discount: "We don't need the money. It's only money and we make enough."

We said our adioses and I promised to return one day, and I really hope to do so, even if another fifteen years pass by, and I will be a really old woman; a really old potter, I hope, still producing typical Almeriense functional ware in some part of the world....

Castles in Spain? Wishful thinking?

Who knows?

Background music is Tárrega's "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" arranged by Carlos Tchiang

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