Terracotta

Marcello's Journey, Part 3 of 3

We've made it to the final installment of Marcello's Journey - an interview hosted by Professor Giovanni Fiorentino (Director of the Mediterranean Center of Environmental Education - CMEA) in which artisan and artist Marcello Aversa shares his story with us.  

Passion, courage, and conviction: signposts on the path that Marcello traveled to become the world renowned sculptor that he is today.  He was guided by his trust in nature and the beauty that humans are capable of creating when working in harmony with it.  

In Part 3, Marcello shares his vision for safeguarding a vibrant future for artisanship.  It's marked by openness and sharing.  It's guided by an appreciation for the very thing that surrounds us no matter where we are: nature

(CLICCA QUI per la versione in ITALIANO.)

CLICK HERE for full interview. 


 
 

Prof. Giovanni Fiorentino (GF):

What’s the timeline of your workflow?  Is it true that it echoes nature’s timing, like agrarian processes that coincided with the changing seasons?

Marcello Aversa (MA):

I need to take my time in order to be satisfied with my sculptures.  After shaping them, I dry them: each sculpture is covered with a glass dome that is gradually lifted over the course of a few days to ensure that the clay dries evenly without cracking.  I follow the progress of each sculpture for days, even months for more complicated pieces.  When it’s finally dry, I place the sculpture in an oven for a few days at a low temperature to avoid drying it out completely. When I open that oven, and everything went well, I’m compensated for the hard work and patience that went into it!

The same thing goes for farmers that don’t take shortcuts.  The Earth and its bounty articulate the rhythm of our lives.  At one time, we anxiously awaited the summer to eat a watermelon, the winter to eat tangerines, and the springtime to taste a cherry. The Neapolitan crèche even has 12 characters that represent the 12 months of the year.

Today, we are no longer forced to wait.  We can have what we want, when we want it, and we are convinced that this convenience does not have an impact on our happiness. Adults and children hurry to buy things that the globalized world imposes upon them; sometimes we have a hard time understanding if we really want these things, or if we want to emulate those who have them.  The funny thing is that, once we have them, we become their slaves rather than their masters.  Modern devices have improved our quality of life; but we risk losing many basic aspects of our culture like human interaction and storytelling.

GF:

You mentioned Peninsulart.  What is it? What are its goals?

MA:

Peninsulart is a cultural association open to everyone – especially to artisans.  Its goal is to pass on traditional artisanal crafts that risk extinction. 

All too often, petty motives like jealousy ensure that artisans’ tombs become the vault of their secrets.  In the past, this has led to the disappearance of many traditional crafts. Peninsulart’s goal is to turn the tide on this trend and create venues for sharing tricks of the trade with younger generations.

Sometimes, I feel discouraged when I see that young people are not exposed to artisanship so as to develop a passion for it; but when I see the excitement in the eyes of children that touch clay for the first time, hope is restored in me!

The situation that we find ourselves in is the fault of my own generation.  We conceived a world without points of reference that is increasingly selfish and inconsiderate, where everything is expected to be perfect, but without sacrifice; where employees are encouraged to seek hand-outs rather than hard work. . . the old-fashioned way.

GF:

How can we rectify the situation?

MA:

With new ideas. 

Once in the midst of a conversation about projects for local artisans, Mayor Cuomo (the Mayor of Sorrento) told me, “Marcello, we want to help you, but we need your ideas.” 

Alda Merini once said, “I love the simplicity that accompanies humility.” I truly appreciated the Mayor’s words, especially because it came from a politician that evidently appreciates the importance of being humble in order to solve a problem.

As adults we also need to hear ideas from young people. Francesco de Gregorio used to sing, “we are history.”  Better yet, we make history, and so will the young people.  My hope is that when this happens, they don’t make our same mistakes.  My dream is that future generations make history by working together to solve problems

To go back to our conversation about nature, lets hope that the younger generations love it as much as the Little Prince loved his planet, and that they take care of it just like he took care of his rose; lets hope that they maintain our culture and traditions. 

The Earth is the most beautiful gift we ever received.  She never betrayed us.  Lets not let her down, lets protect her for those that will come after us.  Lets live with her in the present, thinking about the future, never forgetting her past.  

Ph: Marcello Aversa

Translated by Salvatore Ambrosino

Marcello's Journey, Part 2 of 3

Yesterday we learned about Marcello's roots.  All about how he made a living working from morning until night on his hands and knees shaping terracotta tiles and bricks. 

Today we learn about his connection with nature and what led to his life-changing decision to abandon his family brick ovens to become an artist in the face of adversity.

It all started with an organic vision of sharing, learning and growing together. This is the story about how Marcello transformed a vision into reality. 

(CLICCA QUI per la versione in ITALIANO.)

Prof. Giovanni Fiorentino (GF):

No one agrees with you, and your family tries to discourage you from this decision; but you decided to leave the factory anyway.  How did you think you were going to make money?

Marcello Aversa (MA):

Actually, I encountered several obstacles that were very difficult to overcome.

First off, my family was under the impression that I should be committed to a mental institution.  I chose to abandon a profitable business to venture into the unknown despite how difficult it was for me to sell my terracotta creations.

Packing my sculptures in a cardboard box, I began making frequent trips to San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, the famed neighborhood of Neapolitan crèches.  Unfortunately, though, the Saint Joseph, Madonna and Baby Jesus sculptures accompanied me on my way there, as well as on my way back. 

Then one day, thanks to a friend, I participated in an exhibit of Sacred Art in Pompeii.  From that moment on (maybe it was the Madonna who interceded!) I began to receive invitations to participate in exhibits in Italy and abroad.

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GF: 

What guided you in your decision?

MA:

I believe that we are all puppets.  It’s up to us to feel the vibrations of the strings moved by the puppeteer.  Since I’m Christian, I believe that the puppeteer is God.  This is the only way that we can expect to best carry out our role in the grand theater of life.  It’s up to us to decide if we want to be protagonists, or simply be part of the chorus.

The vibrations that I felt pushed me away from the family kiln, even though it will always have a special place in my heart.  In fact, I would like to realize my biggest dream in that factory by transforming it into a center of Artisanal excellence where local artisans and artists can pass down their craft to anyone that is interested, especially to young people: crafts that, together with the natural beauty and innate hospitality of our community make Sorrento so special.  

This is part of the reason why I collaborated with many other local artisans to create the Associazione Peninsulart, where we organized events and exhibits for this same purpose.  

 

GF:

In 2000, a small workshop arrives.  What does a workshop mean for you? What was your inspiration? I distinctly remember my grandfather’s workshop, but when I pass in front of yours, I see a man working amidst an exhibit space…

MA:

In 2000, I took another big step: I opened a workshop in the historic center of Sorrento.  For years now, I open the door to this workshop daily and enter a world where I give life to crèches that depict Sorrento’s oldest traditions: costumes, farm houses, archeological sites, plants and rituals.

More than inspiration, I had my own idea of what a workshop should be.  A creative place where artisans and artists could share ideas – a place where I could grow both professionally and as a person.

Today, in my shop window, you will find the masterpieces of my friends, masters from all over Italy that come to visit often to give live demonstrations of their craft.

Next time you pass by my shop window, look closely.  If you take a few minutes to look, you won’t see a man at work, but a man having fun; this is what makes me happiest.

GF:

What impact has nature had on you? On your memories? On your creativity? On your daily life?

MA:

Even if you might find it strange, a sensation that I am sure none of you have ever felt will always be part of me.  For practical reasons, when we worked at the kiln, we had to walk in the dirt barefoot.

When you walk barefoot on freshly worked soil gives you the sensation that you’ve become one with the earth itself. 

It’s hard to explain it in words, you’ll just have to try it out for yourself.

Translated by Salvatore P Ambrosino

Stay tuned for Part 3... Coming tomorrow. 

Marcello's Journey, Part 1 of 3

Marcello Aversa: a sculptor of Neapolitan crèches from Sorrento. 
His name complements sustainability, harmony, tradition… the keystones of artisanship and why it is so precious. 

In Part 1 of the following three-part interview series, Professor Giovanni Fiorentino (Director of the Mediterranean Center of Environmental Education - CMEA) asks Marcello to delve further into these topics as he retraces the journey that let him to discover his craft and lifelong passion.

(CLICCA QUI per la versione in ITALIANO.)

 
 

Marcello Aversa (MA)
I accepted this invitation, not to receive praise, but with the hope that my experience might be useful to some, if not all of you. 

Prof. Giovanni Fiorentino (GF)
May we begin by exploring Marcello’s relationship with the word “soil”? 
What does the term “soil” mean to you?  What relationship do you have with “soil”? 

MA
Soil, understood as clay has been central theme throughout my life. 

Clay is what I use today to create my miniature sculptures [in terracotta].  Clay is what I used [as a primary material] 20 years ago in the kilns of Maiano, a small village located in Sant’Agnello, where baking stones for wood-burning ovens are still produced today.  In fact, until the end of the Second World War, these ovens were also used to produce terracotta roofing tiles and shingles; however, the manual labor that this entailed made these products prohibitively expensive in an industrial age - they are no longer made by hand.  

Potters then began to work with pottery wheels to make terracotta grills, piggy banks and characteristic objects like “il vrularo,”  a perforated pot used to roast dampened chestnuts.  Another interesting product [typical to the potting tradition of Maiano] was a small cup that farmers in Schito, a neighborhood of Castellammare, used to cover artichokes to make them more tender when cooked. The production of terracotta pipes was also popular. 

The best part is that terracotta factories, beyond their production range, assisted farmers and had an almost perfectly sustainable production cycle

GF
You speak of factories.  Tell me about them.   What were they?  How were they integrated in the surrounding community?  How many people did they employ?  Were they important? 

MA
Until the early 50s, there were 8 kilns in the village of Maiano; between the families and laborers that worked there, these factories employed about 40 people. 

There are texts dating as early as the the late 1400s that talk about Sorrento’s potting tradition.  In the second half of the 1800s, Monsignor Bonaventura Gargiulo, a Native of Maiano, also wrote about this craft in a journal called “Stelle e Fiore.” 

Terracotta tiles from Maiano are special because of the type of clay that is found in our soil.  Once the clay is baked, it remains very porous, which favors efficient absorption and retention of heat.  This makes bakers very happy... It helps them reduce costs of production as they consume less wood in their wood-burning ovens. 

The clay, which is typically found between 1-10m below ground, was traditionally extracted from local citrus groves. The large ditches that resulted, were later filled with waste - of course, nothing toxic: ashes from the kiln, broken pieces of tile or pots, stones and unused clay.  Farmers would also discard of natural waste in these ditches: leaves, small branches, and rotten oranges and lemons that had fallen to the ground. This combination of biodegradable waste favored drainage and the growth of new plants as their roots would not be hindered by the dense clay that would otherwise be dispersed throughout the soil. 

The terracotta factories also reused byproducts of other crafts: woodchips from local carpenters, “nuzzoli,” or olive pits, from local olive presses and small quantities of wood. Once the kiln finished burning, brickmakers would sift through the sediment that remained in the combustion chamber and extract charcoal that was used for cooking in the same terracotta grills that they produced.   

(Ph Credit: http://www.marcelloaversa.it/)

GF
Marcello, what exactly did you do as a “mattonaio,” or brickmaker? Was it tiring? How old were you when you inherited your father’s factory? How do you remember this period of your life? 

MA
Mattonaio. This word was my nightmare when I was little. 

When teachers asked our parents’ professions, my classmates would list a series of jobs and professions that sounded much more important than my father’s: doctor, office worker, store owner. . . I had a hard time uttering “mattonaio.”

Even though I took my first steps among my family’s factory, it wasn’t until I started working along side my father that I truly understood the tremendous sacrifices that he made to ensure that our family lacked nothing. It was then that I truly appreciated that old mattonaio

When I was 19, my father passed away and my uncle and I became the shared owners of our factory. 

Kneeling on the ground for nearly ten hours a day with my hands in water to rinse molds, the same water whose surface would freeze during the winter months… to the point that my hands chilled to the bone. I made bricks and pavers. 

I earned much more than I would have as an accountant (the field that I specialized in at university) or behind a desk in a public office. But in life, as you know, Professor, nothing comes easily.  

GF
And then, at a certain point, you dove into the presepe [Nativity Scene], that is, you rediscovered a local tradition that reconciles creativity with manual labor… and you took a gamble.

MA
For a series of reasons, I developed a passion for the very thing that changed my entire life: the Neapolitan crèche. 

At Christmas time, I built large Nativity scenes, first in the Chapel of Saint Rocco near my home, and later in other churches around Sorrento.  I also won a few awards in a contest organized by Professor Antonino Fiorentino.  At the same time, I began to receive compliments from artists that I always admired, such as Michele Di Maio, a painter from Sorrento, and the Parlato brothers. 

Then one day, don’t ask me how, I began to make the nativity scenes smaller, creating small blocks of terracotta, upon which I would place small figurines no larger than 2cm. 

Sometimes people ask my why I began to miniaturize my sculptures; maybe I was inspired by a passage from Natale in Casa Cupiello, by the great Edoardo de Filippo: 

A crèche is as grand as the real world, where a merry swarm of miniature people hurry to reach a shed where a miniature donkey and a miniature cow, who with their breath, warm Baby Jesus: a miniature, but grand baby that trembles and cries as any small baby would tremble and cry. 

This passion of mine made me happy, but at the same time it troubled me because I realized that my real job had turned me into an automaton.  I woke up early each morning and I kneaded clay to make bricks; in the evening, I counted what I produced and calculated how much the day’s work was worth.  In other words, I had become a version of Mr. Chermisi form The Little Prince, my second favorite book after the Gospel.   

It was at that time that I made one of the most important decisions of my life: I left the family kiln and began sculpting crèches and shepherds. 

Translated by Salvatore Ambrosino.

Stay tuned for Part 2 ... Coming tomorrow.