Interview: “We are looking for a warm modernity!” The ceramists Elizabeth Fonseca and Gilberto Paim


Elizabeth Fonseca and Gilberto Paim are Brazilian ceramists. They work in the small town Nova Friburgo in the state of Rio de Janeiro. When visiting them in the end of 2009 I had the pleasure of getting to know the artists’ unique styles, which they developed under the influence of artists like Lucie Rie and due to the inner cultural movements in Brazil throughout the 60ies and 70ies. While having exhibited in New York, Los Angeles,and the UK they are planning an exhibition in Germany for the end of 2011. One reason more to introduce the fabulous art works of the couple.

Elizabeth Fonseca and Gilberto Paim

KIKA Gilberto, Elizabeth, when you went to university you’ve been studying communication. How did you come from communication to ceramics?

ELIZABETH We have always been very interested in arts in general and used to visit galleries. We’ve seen all kinds of exhibitions and when we got in contact with ceramics, it was love at first sight. We’ve been very affected by the material. When we’ve been studying at university we did a parallel course with an artist who just had opened a studio and gave lessons. We started with her and were completely fascinated. Then we graduated, but since our passion for ceramics was strong we continued to work with it, to study more, to learn more, and to practice. We had to practice a lot and used all our time to do this. We simply couldn’t stop.

GILBERTO Well, both Elizabeth and I were not very happy about our graduation course at university, and ceramics were fulfilling us in many ways. But when we started to study ceramics as a complementary activity, even though we didn’t have high expectations – we didn’t know whether we were technically gifted or even capable of working with that – but we got immediately interested. In my personal experience, I didn’t have much manual talent, I was better in intellectual activities such as writing. Getting into ceramics was a real challenge for me, it was relearning and remodeling myself in a certain way.

In the very beginning we did not knew very much about the techniques and the culture of ceramics, but we wanted to learn about it, and visit museums, studios, and more. And even though the art of ceramic is very ancient, almost every culture dealt with ceramics at some point and carrying a lot of tradition, it is at the same time an art that usually does not carry lots of expectations with it. This turned into something good for us as it gave us time to learn how to work with it, to get to know better its various techniques, to experiment a lot and develop our own language in a natural way, without much pressure. It is a little different from painting, as far I can see. Painting students have more anxious expectations on themselves when they start to work.

ELIZABETH We discovered many interesting things in the process and learned a lot about ourselves. We had to dive in, to experiment. Even now there is still an universe of possibilities.

GILBERTO We always ask ourselves: will we have enough time to do all the things that we know we can do? There are limitations regarding the material you have to work with – sometimes you imagine a certain result, but it takes time until you reach it and feel satisfied. Art is always an experience you have with yourself – the borders you want to cross, the experiences you want to make – it can work out sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t.

ELIZABETH I think that ceramics are a very rich and large field. This involves painting, sculpture and design all together.

An easier question: As a couple you understand each other very good. How was it in the beginning? When you started to work with ceramics, have you already been together?

ELIZABETH We were already dating when we began to learn ceramics. Certainly it brought us even closer.

When you came to Nova Friburgo 30 years ago, was it the fulfilling of a dream?

ELIZABETH Yes, we wanted a studio where we could work in a more comfortable and introspective way. In Rio a house and studio space like ours is very expensive. We had the possibility to come here and we didn’t think twice.

GILBERTO In Rio we had a shared studio with other four partners.

ELIZABETH So, we had to divide a small space. It was not very easy…

GILBERTO It is possible for us to live and work in a relatively small town, but our clients are in other places such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and maybe in… Germany!

When I look at your structures they are really interesting for me to see. They are profound. What are the most important influences on structures you have?

GILBERTO I think there has been an important moment in 1981, right after we started, when we saw a great retrospective exhibition of the Austrian-born ceramist Lucie Rie in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. We were impressed by the extreme modernity, inventiveness and coherence of her work. The elegance of her shapes and the richness of her surfaces deeply inspired us. She was not trying to revive styles from the past in the same nostalgically way as many other ceramists of her time. Lucie Rie and Hans Coper (a German ceramist who also lived in London) where the ones who really created a modern language for ceramics. When we exhibited in Beaux Arts Bath in 2008, we had the opportunity to appreciate directly some of their pieces from the gallery collection.

But we also have a great interest in very ancient ceramics such as pre-colombian (Marajoara and Mimbres), and the black and white Persian ceramics from Susa (4000 BC).

The surface treatment of our porcelains are mainly inspired by abstract weave patterns from the crafts of textile and basketry.

ELIZABETH We appreciate very much Scandinavian ceramics which are very simple and pure. They are made for daily life but with a ritualistic intention.

GILBERTO Brazilian modernism is in our blood and greatly influenced our ceramics. The abstract artists (“artistas concretos”) from the 50ies and 60ies were mainly concerned about the poetics of geometry, and achieved a new and austere visuality.

ELIZABETH The shape of the MAC (Museu de Arte Contemporânea) of Niteroi designed by Niemeyer (1996) seems like a Lucie Rie bowl with a feet! It is amazing, isn´t it?

GILBERTO In 1957 when we were born the modern art movement in Rio was very strong. Brasilia was inaugurated in 1960! Modernism was very important in the country, especially for design, architecture and painting. We incorporated its influences in our work. But we are looking for a warm modernity, not a cold one. Our work is much more about the possibilities of poetic simplicity than rationality.

ELIZABETH Our artistic approach is abstract and geometric, but in an intuitive way.

You told me before, that ceramics as an art is still something new coming up in Brazil. When you’ve been to the UK the second time, to exhibit your own arts, did you realize some difference towards the visitors?

ELIZABETH For sure, I believe in England you don’t have to explain so much. People understand and appreciate ceramic art in a more direct way because of their strong modern studio ceramics tradition.

GILBERTO The director of Beaux Arts Bath made some interesting connections between some of our works and those of other contemporary ceramists. Unfortunately this kind of expertise is very rare in Brazil.

How important are collectors for your work?

GILBERTO I think collectors are very important, because they understand the work in itself, while the interior designer tends to focus only on its decorative aspects. And the collector has a love relationship with his objects.

ELIZABETH The eye of the collector is more accurate and cultivate.

Both of you have an individual style. And some of your works you produced together, the “Four Hands” projects. How is your collaboration? And are you satisfied afterwards with the results?

ELIZABETH Sometimes yes and sometimes not, but I think it is very good to work together. Even when we work individually we normally ask for each others opinion. When we do the “Four Hands” works, our dialogue is more intense and our different skills converge in the same project.

GILBERTO Yes, there is something catalytic lying in it, actually a real enrichment for us. We motivate each other in the process.

ELIZABETH Sometimes we protect ourselves from the contemporary indifference towards art and we feel stronger.

You are very successful ceramists, not only compared to Brazilian artists. In the beginning you started with few. How is the process to make a living out of the work and go even beyond this?

ELIZABETH Not very easy, but now we have supporters among collectors, journalists, photographers and cultural center directors. We manage to inform them regularly about new directions in our work.

GILBERTO In a certain way our journalistic education helped building up this communication. We are known in our area, but it was never easy seen from the financial angle. We have to work a lot. There is an effort inside the studio with the materials and the kiln. And there is an external effort of promoting, organizing exhibitions etc. So there are different skills we have to combine.

When we started selling our work in the 80s, there were two ceramic galleries in Sao Paulo, mainly focused on the work of Japanese or nissei potters – the Japanese community is very important there. When we began experimenting with porcelain and coloured slips, and our work started to get away from the Japan-orientated aesthetics, the dealers said: “This is not ceramics for us, it is very different!” But we were persistent and firm because we believed a lot in the possibilities of that new language. We went straight forward and we finally created a new public of a different kind, in different places.

There are more and more positive expectations about our work independently of not having the support of a developed ceramic art market. I think this has to do with our inner strength, as we’ve been keeping working constantly through the years we’ve been creating this new context.

ELIZABETH We did what we think we had to. Even if it was not easy…

Where can someone who would like to see your works go to?

ELIZABETH To Interni shops in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Our partnership is really good. We had many experiences with galleries and boutiques before. This one is important because they do love and respect our work. And they are very professional.

GILBERTO It’s like a family, like being part of a group or a movement.

ELIZABETH The firm produces and sells contemporary wooden furniture of great quality.

GILBERTO This is very interesting, because there is a strong tradition of modern wood furniture in Brazil initiated by Joaquim Tenreiro in the 50ies. Maria Candida Machado, the furniture designer of Interni is very talented.

ELIZABETH Our ceramics are very well displayed in there.

GILBERTO It is very important to present studio ceramics with dignity.

ELIZABETH We know it is difficult to find a partner like them.

GILBERTO I believe there exists a very special harmony between the furniture and our ceramic objects. Right, it is a store, but they have the attitude of an art gallery. And finally we work with a lot of freedom.

ELIZABETH Sometimes they maybe say: “We have now a demand for white vases.” But there are no further restrictions, so we can work very freely. You’ll understand the synergy when you go there.

Thank you so much for the interview!

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