Years ago, near the bank of Lake Balaton, Hungary, a four-year-old Zsuzsa Ujj was playing with the clay that she found at the bottom of a puddle. Squeezing the wet earth between her fingers, she knew she had fallen in love. By the time she was 14, she was enrolled in a specialized high school to study ceramic arts, followed by a tenure at the Hungarian Academy of Crafts and Design. Today, she works full-time to craft porcelain Judaica with a uniquely contemporary but timeless style.
Ujj’s works combine simple elegance with joyful celebration. The smooth curves of her porcelain candlesticks and goblets may be cool to the touch, but they exude the inviting feeling of warmth. And as functional, spiritual objects, they are not just works of art, but important items in someone’s home, which the artist has treated with deep care. Some are ornamented with swaying leaves and vines; her Etsy shop warns that “the hand painted lines follow my breath and my heartbeats, so minor differences may occur.” Many others are left bare of any surface design, allowing their gentle geometry to speak for itself.
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One shape repeats itself again and again in Ujj’s pieces: the form of a pomegranate. Ujj recounted that in Jewish tradition, “the pomegranate is a symbol of prosperity and fruitfulness.” An old Jewish teaching holds that the pomegranate has 613 seeds (of course, an approximation, as the number of seeds varies from fruit to fruit), which correspond to the 613 mitzvot, or commandments laid out for the Jewish people in the Bible.
Ujj is not just drawn to the traditional Jewish symbolism of pomegranates, but also to the math behind their globular shape. A former geometry teacher in an arts school, she has a deep understanding of sine waves and parabolas, and is fascinated with the numbers on invisible axes that determine organic curves. “They always look harmonic,” she told Hyperallergic. For Ujj, the pomegranates are like endless attempts to solve a math problem. “What I always like to play with in my work is to connect these positive and negative shapes,” she said. “I still haven’t found the ideal solution.”
Crafting porcelain is a long and difficult process, so each of these experiments represents many weeks of work. After hand carving and pouring casts, porcelain requires a kiln that can fire at temperatures over 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,427 degrees Celsius).
“This kind of work with porcelain in a small studio like mine has only been possible since the ’90s,” said Ujj. That was when NASA developed a ceramic coating for insulating their spacecraft, which when made available to the larger public, allowed smaller kilns to reach those high temperatures without allowing heat to escape. Before that, only wealthy, private manufacturies could produce porcelain through methods they often kept top secret. Hungary is home to legendary workshops like Herend Manufactory and Zsolnay, the latter of which was renowned for producing sinewy, Art Nouveau masterpieces, coated with gleaming, iridescent glazes. Ujj takes inspiration from this Hungarian Art Nouveau legacy as well, as evident in her undulating, life-like forms.
Ceramic Jewish art itself is a highly contemporary phenomenon in the diaspora, and until recently, had little precedent in Jewish history. Go to any Jewish history museum, and you’ll usually find shelves of menorahs and spice boxes made with metals like pewter and silver.
“This kind of porcelain collection has no tradition, because these pieces are very fragile,” Ujj told Hyperallergic. “In the history of Jewish people, there was a lot of moving from one place to another. Of course, metal survives that. But glass and ceramic, not so much.”
Ujj sees the market for ceramic Judaica as a sign that, in comparison to even more turbulent times in history, the customers feel secure in their homes. “When people buy this, I think it is a sign that we feel very safe, now that we can invest into pieces that are not so easy to carry. I hope that this safe period lasts long.”