Bowled Over

The colors of the sky come alive by the potters of Rishtan

Delighted, astonished and overwhelmed on seeing the great shining blue domes and tall facades of the mosques, madrasas and mausoleums of Samarkand sheathed in ceramic tiles of blue, turquoise and milky white, we realized that we had never  before seen all the blues of the sky at once.  The blue and white willow- patterned ceramics of China, the Meissen Blue Onion dishes from Germany, Dutch Delft, even the Royal Danish porcelain, all seem tame in comparison.

In Rishtan, a small city in the Fergana Valley, generations of potters have mixed glazes in colors of the sky and transferred them in finely detailed all-over patterns to tableware.    Celebrated among them, is master potter Rustam Usmanov.  Carrying on the family tradition for eight generations, or about 250 years, the Usmanov family, like many other pottery families in Rishtan, have been potters since long before Tsarist Russia, throughout the earlier Kokand Khanate, 1740-1876.  Directly on the ancient major East-West trade route, the Silk Road, there is a strong possibility that Rishtan potters originally tried to copy Chinese porcelain even though the necessary kaolin clay was not locally available.  Today at least 1,000 potters live and work in Rishtan.

The tradition was broken only once during what people now call the Soviet Time (1922-1991), when all labor was collectivized, private home workshops were forbidden, and artisans worked in Soviet factories.   But because there was a pottery factory in Rishtan, skills were not lost and, as it turns out, the creative impulse was only postponed.
 
As we entered the Usmanov family home and workshop through a wide doorway lined with tiles, we found a paradise of roses: climbing roses, tea roses, tree roses.  An artisan was painting plates in the open air.  A long table was set for our lunch in the patio, covered with pink and red block-print cotton from yet another master craftsman in the Fergana Valley, and hundreds of museum quality plates covered the walls.
Rustam Usmanov, is a master potter and a happy man.  He is doing the work he loves, at which he is exceptionally skilled.  He works in his peaceful and harmonious home.  He believes in his work, not for what it might earn, but for his soul.  Put your heart into it, he advised and money will come.  Of course, he admitted, heart alone is not enough. Skill, learning and experience are required.

Now, since independence from Soviet rule, he is free to develop new patterns and techniques.  Innovation is important to him and to other skilled artisans, as, unsurprisingly, they become tired of doing the same thing day after day.    His production reflects his inventive skills; only 30% - 40% of it is purely traditional, and the rest is new.  Inspiration comes from nature, especially from flowers, sometimes from ordinary shapes of urns or teapots, from calligraphy and from the immensely varied geometric tiles on the madrasas of the region.

The brilliance of Rishtan blue comes from a wild plant whose small branches are picked in autumn and burned to ash to provide the main ingredient of the blue glaze.  During Soviet Time, the factory used commercial lead glazes and the local recipes were nearly lost, but older local master potters remembered and in the 1990s revived the techniques. Now lead-free and fired at a higher temperature than most earthenware, Rishtan ceramics are both delicate and sturdy.  (I can attest to that – three teapots and six cups made it safely home, rolled up in a suzani in my checked baggage.)
 
Usmanov has been awarded the UNESCO Seal of Excellence. His work is in many museums and he has visited and studied abroad.   As Seattle and Rishtan are Sister Cities, he and his son were invited to exhibit and give demonstrations there in 2009.   A study tour in Japan inspired his new kiln that was just finished, ready to be tested at the back of the patio.  Beside the entry way stood a worktable with wrapping paper, knife, tape and calculator.  Credit cards are not much in use in Uzbekistan but otherwise business is clearly possible even in Usmanov’s rose-filled Eden.

He attributes much of his new good fortune to the success of his pottery at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, the largest international market in the world for traditional crafts of a high standard. He has been invited to exhibit – and sell - since it began in 2004.  With the profits from the first year he was able to publish a beautiful photography book about his work, Ceramics of Rishtan, by Ljalja Kuznetsova (ISBN 594113076-7).

Profits from the second year financed the rose garden in the patio and in the third year, the design and installation of hundreds of  tiles for the workshop entrance.  Each year he makes the improvements and does the research and design that would be unaffordable without the wide markets now available to him through the Santa Fe Folk Art Market and ever-increasing cultural tourism groups, most of them from France and Germany, but not yet many Americans.

Make the journey to his workshop. Ask a few questions.  Stop and smell his roses.

Clare Brett Smith, an advocate for artisans worldwide for nearly 40 years, traveled to Uzbekistan for HAND/EYE in May 2010.  She can be reached at clarebsmith@gmail.com.

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