Zsuzsanna Nyul: Mother Tongue
While living in the UK, Hungarian artist Zsuzsanna Nyul looked to the traditional ceramics of her homeland to help find her creative language
“I find it utterly important to find your own artistic language,” states Hungarian-born-and-based maker Zsuzsanna Nyul, who found her own through the traditional folk pottery native to her country and neighbouring Romania. “Old folk pottery is my favourite and its honesty gave me the direction to find my own aesthetic.” It was this that formed the foundation of her signature hand-painted ceramics; contemporary designs that carry a wealth of creative history and respect of place.
Nyul’s inspiration is rooted in the historic folk craft that emerged in eastern Europe during the middle ages – and, in some areas, still prevails today. Her signature stoneware, characterised by a richly designed, shiny surface and a rough unglazed base, is a materialisation of the contrast between the typically rustic styles native to Corund, Transylvania, and more elaborately decorated porcelain collections of Hungary. Made entirely by Nyul’s hand, authentic charm is instilled in each piece – along with a sprinkling of folklore. “They speak of the tale of a talented poor peasant who goes to find his luck in a wealthy noble world. Although he becomes an Earl, he stays true to his humble origins,” Nyul explains. “I find these tales very important as this is what gives honesty to the works and why I think people are drawn to them.”
Nyul was exposed to traditional stoneware during childhood summers spent at her grandparents’ house. “Their house was filled with beautiful pieces from Corund, Kalotaszeg and many other places from Hungary as well,” she recalls. “These ceramics captured me with their honesty and naive nature.” Yet she only started to reference them in her own work while she was living in the UK, having moved to study art at Oxford University. During her degree, she initially focused on more conceptual works made of plaster, clay and grout – but a constant feeling of “not belonging anywhere” lead her back to the pottery entwined in her heritage. “Living in a different country for so long generated and exaggerated homesickness which became my main theme in art,” she notes. “The feeling became so strong that I brought back Hungarian folk art to surround us with at home... This naturally evolved in my making of Hungarian-related arts and crafts.”
Her first pieces were made “in a tiny garden shed” at her home in the Cotwolds and, after an encouraging visit from design luminary William Yeoward, she invested in her own kiln so she could make in larger quantities – a necessity for her growing clientele. Nyul has mastered a unique hand-pressing technique that allows her to move and re-shape her ceramics right up until the last firing, giving each piece “freedom and individuality”. Drying and firing takes around four days, before individual pieces can be decorated. “I love painting the roses and especially enjoy how these 100-years-old flowers come alive again under my hand,” she says. “It feels like time travel.”
Nyul moved back to Hungary two years ago, where she resides in the upper part of Lake Balaton – surrounded by fellow artists and creatives. The philosophy of her studio continues to celebrate time-worn techniques and demonstrate the importance of hand-made. “Hand-made is important as honesty and truth is important,” she says. “I like to think these works are more cherished and will be passed on as heirlooms.” A sentiment much in line with our own.