Storied ceramicists struggle to stay solvent

The ancient tradition of ceramics-making in Greece has its modern incarnation at the Union of Ceramicists and Potters on Kifissias Avenue in Maroussi, where objects from over 150 workshops around the country are on display. Famous for its annual Panhellenic Ceramics Exhibition, Maroussi is synonymous with high-quality works created by skilled artisans, many of whose families have perfected the craft over generations. But the art of ceramics is in danger of disappearing from the now-tony Athenian suburb, where land prices are skyrocketing along with the monthly rent workshop owners pay for the land on which their workshops sit. Only three ceramics exhibition areas are left in Maroussi. Last year, 10 spaces closed. The few potters and ceramicists left see longtime municipal plans for a ceramics center in Maroussi going nowhere. «In policy plans to upgrade Maroussi museums there is also supposed to be room for a ceramics museum,» says Costas Kleftoyiannis, the director of the municipality’s cultural department. «But I don’t know what their priorities are.» The ceramicists had tried to turn their workshops at the union, which has operated since 1970, into learning centers «so schoolchildren could come in to watch how we work on the pottery wheel,» says Nikos Vallatos, the union’s president. But the union also doesn’t have a contract to lease the space, which means its fate is uncertain. Made from earth, water and fire, and passed from generation to generation, ceramics in Greece have lasted for 8,000 years. The traditional ceramics artists of Maroussi make their money through daily wages, though they often work much longer than the traditional eight-hour workday. Ceramicists have an affinity for creating both art and objects at the wheel, shaping their materials into old-style jugs and vases, modern piggy-banks and saucers. Yiannoulis Mamidas, the son of ceramicist Angelos, runs the Sifnos workshop on Kifissias. It’s not an easy job, he says. He relies on a solid clientele built up over the years and the land’s low rent – about 1,500 euros per month in an area where a space that size normally leases for about 3,600 euros. «It’s not worth it to make a living selling vases on this street,» he says. How can Mamidas make ends meet when the rent is rising and his income is decreasing steadily? Cheap ceramics imported from the East have already penetrated the local market. Mamidas’s nephews – brothers Giorgos and Nikos, aged 22 and 26, respectively – learned the art from their father, who has been running his workshop since 1967 nearby. The family owns the workshop and lot, which makes running the business easier. If they were leasing the plot, the landowner may have already sold it at a high price – which would have meant yet another closure. The two sons decided to go into the business because they wanted to carry on the family tradition. But the work is hard – «There’s no such thing as an eight-hour workday here,» the father says – and that’s what turns off many younger people to the trade, the sons say. In the same area, the son of the legendary ceramicist Kalogeros runs his potters clay factory. Kalogeros taught many generations of potters and ceramicists who opened their own workshops later. A little further down, in an elegant workshop, the son and daughter of Giorgos Atsoniou offer tableware objects procured from their island, Sifnos. Their father puts his soul into an art which he learned from his grandfather. But he is not optimistic. «We can’t survive the imports coming in today from low-wage areas,» Atsoniou says. Rise and fall of an art The art of modern ceramics in Maroussi was born in the last decades of the 19th century, thanks to the economic and social forces working in Athens at the time. The 200,000 residents of the capital suffered from lack of water, since the network that had its start in Hadrian’s famous Roman-era aqueduct could not cover the needs of the population. The water shortage continued until 1931, when construction was completed on the tunnel that transported water from the lake of Marathon to the capital. During that time, hundreds of skilled ceramists and artisans, most from Sifnos, left their island over the summer for Maroussi, where they worked in mass production pottery. The potters resold their jugs to water sellers, who filled the jugs from nearby wells to sell in the then-lightly developed area of Maroussi. The first potter to open a workshop in the area was probably Michalis Pantolios, who opened his space in 1890. He taught the great artisans Kardiakos and Kalogeros, who then went on to apprentice more signature artists. The number of potters rose in the 1950s. Fewer people worked on Sifnos and soon most of those working in ceramics on the island had relocated to Maroussi. Meanwhile, another group of ceramists, refugees from Asia Minor, set up a string of workshops in and around Piraeus in 1922. From the 1970s, Maroussi developed quickly due to town planning directives that allowed the construction of multistory buildings. In 1993, in accordance with land use codes, the creation of new workshops was banned in residential areas. The lots in Maroussi have now grown so valuable that landowners sell their plots for astronomical prices. Ceramics workshops and exhibition areas cannot survive on leases for long in such areas. Development fears In the 20th century social needs prompted ceramists to develop and create. But in the 21st, ceramics are mainly considered tourist trinkets or decorations, not objects for everyday needs. Still, the ceramicists who have been perfecting their craftsmanship for years continue to insist that what they make is of the highest quality. «Why should the worth of land determine the course of culture?» asks Kostas Galanis, president of the Panhellenic Union of Ceramicists and Potters, which runs the only ancient kiln in the municipality. «We had dreams. We discussed different ideas. We planned something important. The municipality has not produced what we expected.» Why, he wonders, can’t ceramics and history coexist with major construction? Betty Psaropoulou, who has searched Greece thoroughly to compile objects for a museum of New Ceramics Art, says the traditional art must be saved. «Few people understand why ceramics have survived so long,» Psaropoulou says. «Why did the Acropolis survive?» This article first appeared in the April 30 issue of «K,» Kathimerini’s Sunday color supplement.