Posted: 26.01.2023 17:03:00

From ceramic tiles to ‘heraldic’ whistles

How pottery masters continue the traditions of pottery in Kopys

8 craftsmen out of 12 are engaged in pottery in the Centre for Folk Art and Crafts in the urban-type settlement of Kopys, Orsha District. And it is not surprising that the cultural institution was awarded a special prize of the President of the Republic of Belarus to cultural and art workers for their active work in preserving the technologies for making traditional ceramic ware. The Director of the Centre Anastasia Korban spoke about the features of the local pottery, modern trends in ceramics and the new ‘bubble’ glaze, which may be the future of this type of applied art.

The team of the Centre for Folk Art and Crafts in the urban-type settlement of Kopys was awarded a special prize of the President of the Republic of Belarus for their active work in preserving the technologies for making traditional ceramic ware in the Orsha District

Two dozen factories for the manufacture of clay products operated in Kopys in the second half of the 19th century. The most famous were ceramic tiles — bricks that were used to decorate fireplaces, stoves and walls. Kopys samples dispersed around the world, conquering both the Russian landowner and the European bourgeois — from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Paris. Anastasia Korban said that some of the old houses in the settlement still have stoves decorated with similar ceramic tiles. From time to time, broken or intact tiles are found in Kopys, and sometimes fishermen catch them even from the Dnieper River.
In the old days, such elements added heat resistance to stoves and, of course, aesthetics. They were varied. Some had geometric symmetrical designs, and most often such plates had the natural terracotta colour of the clay. Others were inscribed with heraldic symbols. Also, tiles covered with plain or coloured glaze have become quite popular.
There were holes for a thick wire that held the plates together and created a dense ring in the rump — the back ‘layer’ along the edges of the ceramic tile. Furthermore, there was an empty cavity under each ceramic tile, which was heated by the oven and then kept warm for a long time. The main difficulty in assembling such a decorated heating ‘device’ was that it was necessary to make brickwork and immediately ‘insulate’ its ceramic tiles row by row. This required great skill from the stove-maker, who had to do his work with extreme precision so as not to damage expensive plates.
Today, ceramists of the Centre for Folk Art and Crafts make imitation ceramic tiles — clay tablets — only as a souvenir or exhibition piece. Masters of this folk art continue the traditions of potters from the past centuries, pass on their skills to the younger generation and try to modernise clay products that differ from factory-made analogues in their individuality, unique design, and most importantly, they carry the spiritual message and mood of each creator of pottery jars, plates, panels or whistles.
Figuratively speaking, mass production of cast clay products has been established in the centre. For them, special plaster moulds are used, some of which went to the cultural institution from the former ceramic factories, as well as reserves of clay, especially white clay.
Habitual red clay is purchased in Obol, and it is stored in powder form in bags.
Before manufacturing, such raw materials are soaked in water, then impurities of sand, glass, and other fractions are removed. Workable clay looks like a thick chocolate paste.
As soon as the natural material falls into the hands of the master, it begins to come to life. Some specialists of the centre work on modelling stands, others sculpt original handicrafts as if from plasticine.
Craftswoman Nadezhda Siranidi came to Belarus from Kazakhstan. From childhood, she loved to sculpt from plasticine, but few people heard about pottery in the southern country where she lived for many years. It was only in a Belarusian urban-type settlement that she got acquainted with this material and found her creative embodiment in it.
“I like to sculpt everything — panels, garden sculptures, and decorative crafts. I always say that our work is a kind of release. In the process of creating a product, I literally escape from the outside world. It happens that something doesn’t work out the first time, then I redo it, but not on the sample that I consider unsuccessful, I sculpt the same thing from scratch, with new amendments. I like clay more than plasticine, it is more pliable and gives more opportunities for the realisation of bold ideas,” craftswoman explained. 

The Centre for Folk Art and Crafts has its own shop, and there is no room to swing a cat on excursion days. Clay products never leave children and adults indifferent. Guests from abroad or from Belarus invariably try to get a souvenir. Pottery craftsmen from Kopys are almost constantly engaged in the manufacture of fair assortment in their spare time from numerous orders. More than 30 times a year, ceramists from the Centre for Folk Art and Crafts go to exhibitions and sales. They work almost around the clock and seven days a week on the eve of the holidays.
Among the non-trivial requests of the customers were the Mermaid with the Cat-scientist that walks around the chain, a reduced copy of the building of the regional branch of the Investigative Committee and the Belarus tractor (also an exact copy of one of the modern models that the Minsk Tractor Works produces), figurines for the draw for the competition for young performers at Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk.
Bunny whistles from Kopys are very popular at almost all fairs. Such products sold like hotcakes on the eve of the New Year. In addition to being a symbol of 2023, the black rabbit flaunts on the coat of arms of Kopys, where it is placed on a green grassy background. In the old days, these wild animals were a dime a dozen here, and even now they boldly roam the surrounding forests, so this year the singing bunny should double as a talisman for the craftsmen from Kopys.

Master of folk crafts Irina Kravchuk

The head of the cultural institution herself masters the ‘bubble’ technique with great interest — applying glaze, which is inflated with a bubble through a straw and the craft is dipped into it. Such a coating falls on the product with a marble pattern and can be made in several colours.
In addition to pottery, the masters of the Centre for Folk Art and Crafts are engaged in wicker and straw weaving, woodworking, embroidery and other folk crafts. However, it is clay that is the trump ace that the craftsmen from Kopys take out of their sleeves in any game. 

By Olga Korneeva
Photos by Anton Stepanishchev, BELTA