The hands that shape pottery in São Pedro do Corval, Portugal

The hands that shape pottery in São Pedro do Corval, Portugal

Years ago, in São Pedro do Corval, almost every door opened on to a pottery wheel. A land rich in clay, many families lived off this raw material and what they created from it.

As years passed, the scenario changed. The younger generations stopped following their elders’ traditions and the pottery wheels started to disappear, as did the great clay masters.

Despite the apparent disinterest for this art, there are still some who keep it alive and breathe new life into the history that characterises this region. Egídio’s story is precisely an example of this. A journey that took hard work and brings new hope.

One need only enter his workshop to understand the respect this young potter has for his work. Born and raised in a family of potters, in São Pedro do Corval, he is part of the 5th generation dedicated to pottery.

He grew up in his grandparents’ workshop and, later on, in his parents’. He spent all his free time observing the wheel’s movement and watching each piece come to life. He realised at an early age that this was what he wanted to do. He was always interested in the art that ran through his family’s veins. He was eager to do and learn, therefore it didn’t take him long to create his first pieces on his own. He was a good observer and natural talent helped make him an authentic traditional potter.

He opened his own workshop 11 years ago, beside Casa do Barro (the Clay House). A unique space that is worth visiting. His wife helps him manage the business, but he transforms, creates and sells his work on his own. The silence and peace he feels when he produces a piece is one of the things he loves most about this craft.

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«I love focusing on this alone. The silence and tranquillity it brings me. This work used to be much more lonelier. Now I receive many visits from customers and am interrupted frequently to show the pieces that are available.»
For him, there are only two problems in this profession: the winter and lack of time.

«Alentejo winters are very harsh and handling water all the time makes them even colder. And it also delays the drying process. Then it’s the time I spend here. I lose track of time and often go home after midnight. And even so I wish the days were longer to have time to make more pieces and think up new ideas.»

Although he loves the quiet, he misses the times when the village had another life.

«In most villages in Alentejo, people moved away, but in São Pedro they stayed, mostly because of pottery and the vineyards. There was always work and it was very busy. At one point, there were 60 pottery workshops and more than half the population worked in this field. And it wasn’t just the potters, it was also the people working the ovens. My father had up to 27 people working with him.

As the years went by, and with the crisis that afflicted the country, the number of people working in pottery started to drop and the younger generation lost interest in learning this art. Therefore, there are less and less people doing it. And many of those who remain don’t do it the natural way. It’s all mechanical and more industrial.»

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In São Pedro do Corval there are now only four or five people working at the wheel. The evolution of machinery led to pieces being produced with plaster moulds and ceramic machines. Although he now uses an electric wheel, Egídio initially learned to work with a foot powered wheel. For him, this is still the most traditional way to mould clay.

«You can be much more creative with the wheel and every piece is different. There’s a margin for error that often makes the pieces unique. It is a much more artistic way of working the clay. With moulds, it’s just a question of copying, it’s very mechanical, almost scientific.»

He makes hundreds of pieces every day, from cups to dishes and vases. Between the time when it was essential to daily life and the present day, the use of this raw material has evolved considerably. Clay has made its mark in the field of interior decoration and opened up a new world.

«You can make thousands of things with clay. I often don’t have the time to release my creativity. But, every time, I try and make something different and innovative that will add something to the art. When I have a break between commissions, I always make something new, and knowing that there is still so much to create makes me excited about my work.»

Maintaining the same passion and curiosity for his work, and with two grown sons, he would be glad if one of them embraced his project and joined him in the many hours he spends creating at the wheel.

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