The beauty of a crafted piece of crockery, as opposed to an industrially produced one, is that the creative fingerprint of the artisan is evident in every piece. Hand-produced ceramics offer a human-to-human conversation of personal quirks, perfections and imperfections and it is for this reason that people, often without knowing why, respond instinctively to a well-made piece.
Cape Town-based Clementina van der Walt, is a master of this style of making. She is not only a legend in the South African ceramic world but in craft terms she is somewhat of a national treasure. Fellow potters, both local and international, light up at the mere mention of her name because of her technical skill and original style, which encompasses a body of work that is varied, often robust and brightly coloured with restrained decoration, and is nonetheless practical and long lasting. Her popular tableware, vessels and wall art, made in her Woodstock studio sit, well-loved, in the homes of many South Africans.
“I particularly love the human scale of tableware rather than the monumental - the familiarity of it, and how it is connected to a person,” she explains. “I make things that people can use but especially love making different mugs and cups. They are important to me because they are more intimate than a plate. It’s how you hold it or put it to your mouth. I collect other people’s coffee cups and it is very important which ones I use for what time of day. I think about the maker - I know most of them - and it reminds me of them and gives me a kind of soul connection through daily ritual.”
Escaping the busy studio, when she is able, van der Walt can be found in her country cottage in Calitzdorp where she uses the time to be creative in a slower, quieter way. She potters there but has no kiln on site so it is her time to make special pieces that are not driven by commercial gain. This is where she recently started to make her Karoo cups, with a simple desire to make one for her own use.
“I got my inspiration initially from the cups of Hylton Nel, [the famous fine-art ceramicist and her Calitzdorp neighbour], and of course he was probably inspired by the old-fashioned tea cup that flares out at the top,” she tell us. However she makes them chunkier than a dainty china cup and, because she is “not interested in saucers”, she gives them a small stem on which to stand and from which the bowl of the cup bulges and sways in an irregular wobble.
Their heritage is clear, but it is in the holding that the magic happens because they are naturally designed to sit snugly in the hand. Initially hand-pinched into a thick cup, van der Walt then carves grooves into them to make them lighter. They are hand sculpted, not thrown on a wheel or coiled into a perfect shape and that is what offers the person using it the affinity with its creator. “It’s from my hand to yours,” she offers. “It really amuses me, with all the webinars and talks I have been watching during lockdown… people like Bill Gates are drinking out of commercial, ugly cups. A cup is something we use every day. Why should it be a cold experience? Why should it not remind us of the essence of being human?”
100 Beautiful Things is presented by the V&A Waterfront in celebration of South Africa’s creativity, compassion, ingenuity and resilience. Every week we will be showcasing five amazingly beautiful creative things that make us proud. It is curated in partnership with Platform Creative.