Filipino ceramic arts is expanding during the pandemic

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When people found themselves separated from others, they gravitated toward handmade mugs, bowls, and plates — pieces that felt touched by a human. In photo: works by Iori Espiritu. Photo courtesy of IORI ESPIRITU

Tucked inside Tiaong, Quezon is Ugu Bigyan’s Pottery Garden and Restaurant. The building is a mix of brick, dark wood, and concrete painted sunflower yellow. Bigyan’s ceramics decorate the shelves and tables in lines of greens, browns, and oranges that mimic mountains and sunsets.

“My style is very natural,” described Bigyan. An accountant who chose craft over the office, he finds excitement in incorporating parts of nature he’s found into his work. “I’m always experimenting with something. Instead of putting the regular clay handle, I want to make it into roots, into twigs, or sometimes I’ll visit the sea and look for some nice shells or stones around the area and then I bring it back home and I use it in my pottery.”

Ugu Bigyan’s Pottery Garden and Restaurant in Tiaong, Quezon. Photo courtesy of UGU BIGYAN/FACEBOOK

He alternates his days between glazing and working the potter’s wheel. Sometimes, he'll find time to do molding. “It’s exciting every time you open the kiln because you discover new colors of glazes. And then for the clay, [by] using different [types] of clay, makaka discover ka ng different textures (you can discover different textures),” he said.

“Well, [a] long, long time ago, I also wanted to learn pottery but there [was] no school here in the Philippines,” said Bigyan. He learned pottery through a mixture of self-teaching, attending workshops taught by his friend and fellow Quezon-bred potter Jaime de Guzman, and observing the techniques of foreign potters who came to visit. While the names of all those potters have escaped him now, their techniques still live on through his teaching. “I decided to teach pottery to some students who really wanted to try hand techniques with clay,” he said.

An Alcantara, a writer who runs an inn in San Pablo, Laguna, had asked Bigyan to teach her ceramics to help work through the grief of her father’s passing. “Ugu was a friend,” she said. “We had been friends for several years before that because we would collect his pottery and because he’s just an all around nice person.” On Mondays, Bigyan’s day off, she used to drive for 30-40 minutes to his garden to learn claywork.

Alcantara’s first foray into ceramics was through a gathering her sister-in-law had organized. There she met Lanelle Abueva-Fernando, another ceramics artist known for incorporating a volcanic ash glaze into her pieces. She taught them how to make their own pieces starting with the basics. Alcantara had never been interested in making bowls and plates — she liked to make little worlds with their own contained stories. At the gathering, amid the bowls and flat dishes, was Alcantara’s elephant, glazed blue.

From Lanelle Abueva-Fernando's barong series. Photo courtesy of LANELLE ABUEVA-FERNANDO

“Right away I told Ugu I’m not so interested in doing functional ware. I wanted to do little figures,” Alcantara expressed. “He told me he doesn’t really do that but he was willing to explore it with me.” Bigyan taught her the fundamentals: the qualities of clay, how to handle it, how it behaves, and helped her explore how to make the figures she wanted by letting her use the kiln in his pottery garden.

Every Monday, when she wasn’t bent over the pottery wheel, she was reading one of the many books Bigyan had left for her as references. In its pages she discovered the myriad possibilities of ceramics; forms other than the vessels, bowls, and cups that were the domain of pottery. “In one of those books I discovered a woman named Helen Cordero. She’s from Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico. And, you know, she was making little figures — little people — exactly like I wanted to make!” said Alcantara. “Through her and through that book, I discovered a Mexican genre called Clay Storytellers.”

In the clay storytelling genre, the big figure is called the Storyteller, who is surrounded by smaller figures, referred to as Listener dolls. “She’s a storyteller,” she said, referring to a larger, more detailed sculpture at the center of the piece. “That’s why the mouth is open and the eyes are closed.” She explained, “For me, for a time, I was not putting eyes because I was of the thinking that whoever owns it would just project the expression.”

Alcantara is inspired by ordinary folk, like someone selling vegetables at a marketplace, or sweet sampaguita by a church. Her proudest works are Luis Magwawalis, named after the person who used to sweep their gardens, Little Boy Bagwis, an imagined toddler who runs fast, and Boni Mag-iibon, based on a man she met in Lukban who whistled to attract birds. “The whole point is that a story comes alive only in the relationship between the storyteller and the listener,” she said.

An Alcantara's Luis Magwawalis and Boni Mag-iibon. Photos courtesy of AN ALCANTARA

A tight-knit community

“Because people were locked down at home, many decided to redecorate their homes, makeover their favorite spaces. Functional pottery like vases, pots, and plates were in demand,” explained Alcantara. “Some potters shifted to online selling, giving them a wider market. I also heard that those who have participated in online fairs like Art in the Park do very well.”

“What I like is, now, potters are doing well because people are going back to basics: handmade stuff. I’m proud and happy that all the potters here in the Philippines are doing well,” said Abueva-Fernando. “People stay home more often these days, so they are more aware and conscious [of] decorating interior and gardens. Stay home [so] might as well enjoy beautiful and pretty things — [like an] uplifting house and garden during this pandemic.”

Abueva-Fernando first learned about pottery in 1977, when her family had moved to Tokyo, Japan. “You go all around Japan — museums, galleries, and restaurants, there’s ceramics all around,” she said.

She spent six months casually learning about ceramics in what she described as hobby schools, before meeting Aoki Shokichi, a photographer and filmmaker turned potter who established a kiln in Hachijojima. “I lived on an island, apprenticed with him, for three years,” she explained. “I was one of the six apprentices with him.” She said that, despite not knowing any Japanese, she learned through the act itself. They spent days silent, working exactly as their sensei had instructed. “The Japanese terms I learned were glazes, equipment, and ingredients,” she said.

“After three years, I wanted to undo what I learned because it was too Japanese looking, so I went to Sun Valley, Idaho,” she explained, learning of their workshops through Ceramics Monthly, a magazine she was subscribed to. There, her teachers gave her the creative freedom to explore. “We were left to do what we wanted to. We had ten different kinds of kilns,” she described.

Crescent Moon Café and Studio Pottery in Antipolo. Photo from CRESCENT MOON CAFE/FACEBOOK

She returned home to the Philippines in 1981, where she started her first studio in Antipolo (in 1997, she opened her current studio, Crescent Moon Café and Studio Pottery, with her late husband, Bey Fernando). For ten years, she would have exhibits three times a year, where she created one-of-a-kind vases and vessels. At the same time, she was trying to sell her items to larger establishments, who rejected their lack of uniformity. “Hotels and restaurants were telling me, oh bakit tabingi (oh, why is this askew)? Oh the sizes are inconsistent. Oh the colors are not the same,” she said.

The tide changed when a bar along Jupiter St. commissioned her, specifically to make pieces that embraced irregularities. Requests rushed in like waves. Hotels wanted her pieces — the same ceramic pieces they rejected for the past decade. “It took me ten years to convince them,” said Abueva-Fernando.

Along with Bigyan and Abueva-Fernando, Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn are part of what could be considered the first generation of Filipino potters. “There were very few potters in the '70s. We didn’t see each other very often, we were all isolated,” described Jon.

Jon learned the craft through an apprenticeship in Barcelona while visiting his cousin. Tessy was a Fine Arts student in the University of the Philippines taking up painting, who fell in love with the craft after a teacher had come to the school. “I completely forgot about painting and did pottery,” she said, describing pottery as more calming. They set up the beginnings of what would later grow into a school, and then a community.

Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn. Photo from ART IN THE PARK

The school started with the wives of scientists from a research institute in Calamba, Laguna, who wanted to take up pottery as a pastime. News spread like the roots of an old tree, slowly but with great strength. Their pottery school attracted such large crowds from outside cities like Manila and Los Baños that they were forced to move to the Madrigal Center in Alabang, and then in Greenbelt — “the old Greenbelt,” they clarified, before the mall was built.

“By teaching, it created a community. I don’t think we saw it at first,” said Jon, who admitted that they were initially apprehensive at the idea of teaching. “Teaching is very difficult when you begin, but then it starts to pay off in ways you never imagined. It created a community that just expanded over the years and has paid back in so many ways.”

“Pottery is blossoming in the Philippines today because of Jon and Tessy Pettyjohn,” confirmed Alcantara. “They produced many excellent potters. And from there, some of their excellent teachers became teachers themselves. It is through them that the UP Fine Arts now has a Ceramics degree.”

One such student is Iori Espiritu, who learned pottery in a 2008 Pettyjohn Workshop. “I wasn’t able to attend a class field trip to Ilocos where they visited a pottery factory there and I was so amazed by my classmates' photographs of a man working on the wheel that I got compelled to look for pottery classes in Manila. At that time, the Pettyjohns were the only ones offering it,” she said.

Espiritu is most known for mugs that feature a human face molded and painted into the clay. “I had several attempts at it before I reached this design. I like drawing portraits so I thought, why not on ceramics? I wanted to create something happy and also reflective of who I am as a person,” she said.

Iori Espiritu learned pottery in a 2008 Pettyjohn Workshop. "I wanted to create something happy and also reflective of who I am as a person," she said. Photo courtesy of IORI ESPIRITU

She hails from Polillo, an island in the northeastern region of the archipelago. “I'm mostly inspired by nature and my experience growing up in the province — my random walks there, looking and trying to [identify] wild plants, animals and textures of rocks, sand and earth, the colors of the sunset.”

Pottery, as Espiritu describes it, is forgiving in nature, which lends itself well to experimentation. “I think the older you get, you realize it’s important to try to see things from different points of view,” said Jon. “That’s another thing — students will do things they shouldn’t do, and you’ll learn from it. We can learn from their mistakes. Sometimes their mistakes aren’t mistakes, they’re good, and [something] no one ever thought of.”

Jon likened potters to farmers, who balance being both craftsmen and artists. “What’s so interesting is fusion in the pottery world — potters have been copying from each other and [are] inspired by different cultures throughout its history,” he said.

Because of this, pottery pieces are like sentences, preserved and passed down from a different time. They are the communication between potters of the past and the present, nature and the craftsmen.

“We use the earth’s materials and the earth’s forces to make colors and textures,” said Jon. When they fire the kiln, the temperature they use is the same as fresh lava flowing out of a volcano, bright red with spots of glowing white, indicative of the heat. “We love rocks. We look for them all the time. We drive around. We have a hammer and a sack at the back of the car. That’s the most fun part.”

The language of pottery

Rosa Mirasol, who similarly happened into the field by taking a pottery elective in college, described the process of sourcing her materials as magical, like holding the earth in your hands. She buys stoneware clay from Central Ceramics in Maryland, Cubao, and then mixes it with local terracotta from Batangas to add more redness and strength.

“In pottery, the most important lesson is listening,” she said. “Listen to your clay and you give life to a new form.”

Mirasol’s work puts organisms in the forefront, like human faces and bodies, sea creatures, and flowers. “We get our inspiration from the same world we live in, and working with natural materials is collaborating with nature,” she said. Apart from pottery being a craft, it is also how she expresses her spirituality. “I've been making Diwatas (Goddess forms) since 2017. I think the first sculpted and painted piece I made was the Diwata ng Pagsibol (Goddess of Spring). I was moved to paint the Diwata with flowers as I was praying for strength and healing after the Taal eruption and the rising number of COVID-19 cases. That was last March 2020. Since then, I always seize all opportunities to share my prayers through the things that I make.”

Rosa Mirasol's work from her Instagram page, @ililikhaanceramics.

Her recent online exhibition, entitled “Ritwal ng Paghilom at Pagsibol” (Ritual of Healing and Beginning), was a three month long prayer where she responded to the fears, hurts, losses, and anger the world felt when coronavirus cases surged to the thousands, and when conflicts ravaged Israel and Palestine. “In every piece, I whispered prayers of healing and hope which I sincerely wished to bring not only to those who will be able to receive my works, but also those who need healing and hope the most. I sent my work with a small love letter saying, "maghilom at sumibol ka" (heal and continue to bloom).”

Like the Pettyjohns, she is engaged in the ongoing conversation that pottery pieces instigate. In particular, she finds herself drawn to unsigned cultural artifacts like the Manunggul Jar, Maitum Jar, and 2000-year-old ritual vessels that tell the humble tales of our Filipino ancestors’ beliefs, cultures, and principles. “I draw inspiration from them and hope that I can give justice to our cultural roots and be able to share their wisdom through my works,” she said.

The catalyst that invites someone to try their hand at ceramics can come in different forms. If Jon and Abueva-Fernando had found it walking the streets of a foreign country while Tessy and Mirasol had been drawn to it through school, Aly Kangleon's first exposure was through a series she’d watched in her childhood.

“I first encountered pottery in an anime I watched as a child called ‘Honey and Clover.’ It’s about a group of art students in college and one of them is a potter named Yamada,” she explained excitedly. “Nakakatawa, ang dami kong kilalang fellow potters na yun rin ang ceramics awakening (It’s funny that the show was also the ceramics awakening of many of my fellow potters). We’re all just a bunch of weebs out here, it seems!” She laughed.

Works by Aly Kangleon. Photo from @MANIBALANG/INSTAGRAM

She made the decision to take up pottery a decade later, trying to find a way to work through a period of anxiety and depression.

“I [thought] about the scene from ‘Honey and Clover’ where we see Yamada in the ceramics studio. It’s a shot of the pottery wheel as her hands guide the clay to realize the shape of a bowl. Suddenly, droplets of water seem to bloom against the dark canvas of clay as her tears fall onto the pot. It looked cathartic,” she painted the scene. “So I figured, yeah, ok I want that! Perhaps I, too, can cry into a bowl and be done with my endless sadness! Clay as a spectral ear, keeper of my doom thoughts so I can be free!”

She took up various projects and part-time jobs to pay for classes, which she dropped and returned to for several years until 2017, where she found herself rooted and entwined firmly in the community.

“I’m not gonna lie, I was OBSESSED with it right off the bat ‘cause I was so horrible at it,” was her response when asked when she fell in love with pottery. “Though of course, my glazing skills improved over time, which greatly helped in making my work look better — what really shifted everything was taking ceramics for what it is rather than vilifying it for what it’s not,” she explained. The experience of letting go of her expectations, she said, made her feel like a child peering through curious eyes, brimming with wonder. “Through making ceramics I’ve really become more mindful sa buhay and gracious sa mga things na hindi ko naman makokontrol.”

Kangleon, who goes by the handle @manibalang on Instagram, started selling her pieces through the platform around September last year. Similarly, Espiritu, who began selling her pieces through the account @masa.ceramics, opened up online sales around May. Both of their accounts follow similar mechanics: the first person to comment the number, phrase, or answer to a riddle gets first dibs. For both of them, each piece sells out in minutes, even seconds.

“Pottery has gained popularity in recent years, especially nitong pandemya, and I love that the community is expanding,” gushed Kangleon. Where people found themselves separated from others, they gravitated toward handmade mugs, bowls, and plates — pieces that felt touched by a human.

Stonewear sink by Lanelle Abueva Fernando. Photo courtesy of LANELLE ABUEVA FERNANDO

Kangleon is best known for her pieces that incorporate breasts into mugs, bowls, plates, and even coffee drippers. “I’ve always held the body — my body — as something magnificent in its ordinariness,” she explained. “I’ve always made an active effort not to hide my body as [a] rebellion to societal expectations of what women should look like [and] who our bodies should cater [to] — really just trying to normalize bodies as something that’s not a big deal. But ayun, [I] really just made some boob cups for myself to reclaim the body — my body — as something that doesn’t inherently invite shame or violence.”

The same way pottery has been a way for her to feel and understand her body, Kangleon approaches her ceramics as a diary. “I really see my work as a distillation of my life and experiences, which are not necessarily limited to those realized in the material world. There’s an entire universe of thoughts, desires, and meditations that are already memories constantly finding their way into my work,” she said candidly. “Which is also why a lot of my work is not available to the public. They’re kept and shared among friends because everything is so intimate, too personal!”

She also views her pottery as an ongoing conversation between herself and the user who receives the piece. Each time a mug is held, a plate is eaten from, or a coffee dripper is used to make a brew, these new stories are strung together, tied to the narrative Kangleon began with her pottery. “It’s a continuous process na every time you use it, dumaragdag ka rin sa naratibo ng piyesa (it adds to the narrative of the piece),” she said.