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The Platonic Bowl

The perfect pots of Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye

The pots of Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye have an ideal serenity and timeless beauty, as visitors to her retrospective in Istanbul have discovered. But their cool simplicity belies the passion that goes into creating them. Alistair McAlpine met the artist in Paris.

“I remember the day that I fell in love with the sea. I was quite small at the time. My whole life has been a love affair with the sea.’ Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye is a potter born in Istanbul in 1938. Her love affair with the sea is a deep emotional fact that says something about her as a person, but does not reflect specifically in her work- “I don‘t believe in Nature,” she insists. Nor are natural shapes found in her pottery.

“I am obsessional - I do nothing but pots. Large pots, very large pots, small pots and pots that in range in between. Pots in the blues of the ancient Middle East. Pots in beige with thin white and orange stripes, white pots with thin brown stripes, grey pots, yellow pots, pots in browns and blacks. All her work is in stoneware, a medium she has refined and perfected.

The importance of her art is now well recognised. ln the foreword of the catalogue for August’s retrospective of her work at the Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen – which moved ro Istanbul – Bodil Busck Laursen wrote: “Alev Siesbye’s significance to a large number of Danish ceramic artists cannot be stressed enough. Her unique, glowing colour schemes and the subtle lines so characteristic of her bowls have left their mark on ceremicists from Denmark and abroad.” This is praise indeed, for Denmark and its Museum of Decorative Art are the epicentre of ceramic stoneware.

But you do not need to read fine tributes in catalogues to realise that than Alev is a considerable artist. Her pots speak for themselves.They are objects of outstanding beauty, sensuous in shape and so thin that it seems impossible they can be made of stoneware. “When I first made stoneware I was criticised – stoneware is supposed to be heavy, not delicate as my stoneware is.”

She says that it is the work that teaches her “Your work in always ahead of you. I fight the pot and the pot fights back. Its a dialogue. Sometimes I make a glaze for a form- sometimes a form for a glaze. It’s the pot that tells you how to decorate it.”

Born in Turkey and educated just outside the English town of Tunbridge Wells, Alev first in Istanbul, then in Germany, before moving to Copenhagen. In Turkey she says that she learnt only that she wanted to be a potter, the most important lesson of her life.

It was in Copenhagen that she learnt about quality and the feel for materials.”It’s important to understand the materials that you use. You cannot do good work if the material is not good. Clay and glazes need understanding. You need a dialogue with them. You personalise them. They are like your handwriting.”

Alev it involved in a never-ending battle to create ever more beautiful pots, and every pot she creates consists of clay, glaze and a large chunk of her own soul. There is a colossal passion in both the work and the potter and a distain for mere design. “I hate design,” she says. Her studio in Paris, where she now lives, is an elegant space, but functionality takes precedence “An artist empties places. I love to look at things from different angles.”

When she is asked which potter she most admires, Hans Coper is the name that springs from her lips, yet their work could not be more different. And Lucie Rie? “Wotruba [the Austrian sculptor] said that I am a descendent of Lucie Rie. I cannot see this myself. No potter inspired me. ”It is not the pottery at recent centuries that has influenced her, rather ancient Cycladic art, Anatolian sculpture, the sculpture of ancient Mesopotamia.

Her training was rigourous. In Germany, she worked on the production line in ceramic factories, then as a Freelance designer for Rosenthal. In the 1960s she designed for Royal Copenhagen in Denmark, where she learnt a lot from the master potter Nils Thorsson. Her life has been one of learning how to make pots, each better than the last.

Over the years, Alev has won numerous prizes, and her work is to be found in thirty-five museums around the world. In London her work is shown at the Anita Besson (Gallery in Old Bond Street’s Royal Arcade, in Istanbul at Galeri Nev, in Copenhagen at the Egelund Gallery, and in New York at the Garth Clark Gallery, at 24 West 57th Stream. Prices start at $2,000 for a small piece and run to $12,000 for a very large pot. Each of Alev’s pots has its own personality. Standing together however these pots seem like a family, each giving an added strength to the one next to it. There is a magic to these pots, a magic that makes them feel different from other pots. They have their roots in the depths of prehistory.

“Turkey is a very powerful country emotionally, a magic country.” she says. This is Alev’s magic. It comes as no surprise, having seen her pots, that she is in love with the sea. Only an element so wide and all-embracing as the ocean could possibly interest a potter whose life energy is dedicated to the single task of making the perfect pot.

Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye: a Ceramic Universe 1964-2002 is at the Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, Istanbul, until November 4. An exhibition of the blue-glazed pots is at the Kasa Gallery, Karaköy, Istanbul until November 6 [2002]. Her work is on permanent exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 27
  • Beaufort’s Hunt

    Francis Beaufort’s epic 1812 survey of Turkey’s southern coast and its classical sites sparked a European treasure hunt. It also very nearly cost him his life. By Nicholas Courtney with photgraphs by Kate Clow and James Mortimer

  • Wish you were here

    Max Fruchtermann (1852 –1918) was the publisher who took the postcard to Turkey and thereby took Turkey to the world. His cards sold by the million. Mert Sandalcı – historian, archivist and librettist – has assembled thousands of these cards into three mammoth volumes. Elizabeth Meath Baker leafs through their pages.

  • The Birth of the Big Apple

    Wild apples, with their pink or white blossom in spring, are still a common sight in Turkey. They are collected in the autumn, when they ripen, and preserved for winter.
    More cookery features

  • Drama in the Round

    Robert Ousterhout, who fell in love with the Kariye Camii, the Church of the Chora, 25 years ago. Here he makes an impassioned case for preserving this 14th-century masterpiece.

  • Travels with Turhan

    Brian Mathew pays tribute to the late Turhan Baytop, Turkey’s pre-eminent botanist

  • Fine fast food

    Most fast food is heavy, greasy and bad for your health. Güllaç pancakes, by contrast, are beautiful organza-thin leaves, light as a feather and made from the simplest ingredients. What’s more, they keep for an age. Berrin Torolsan sees the best gullaç in the making

  • Parallel Lives

    Both were ambitious men with a penchant for poetry who suffered extremes of fortune. David Barchard charts the ties between two dominant figures in nineteenth-century Turkey, the British Ambassador Stratford Canning, and the Ottoman sultan Mahmut II

  • Grape Expectations

    Wine is now the most popukar alcoholic drink on the planet, says Esat Ayhan, ‘and we in Turkey are benefitting from this positive wind.’ Owner for the past twenty-two years of a fashionable Cihangir şarküteri, stocking everything from De Cecco pasta to bacon and paté, Esat Bey took the opportunity to expand its renowned La Cave wine section into an entire floor devoted to the grape.

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Issue 27, 2002 Sublime Simplicity
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