Still life with pots

The inviting stoep of the 150-year-old Cape Victorian house overlooks a lush lawn, surrounded by a melange of colouful flowers, fragrant herbs and flourishing vegetables. Across the way is the studio and workshop which are the heartbeat of “Bukkenburg”, the pottery established 15 years ago by Felicity Potter and David Schlapobersky on a heritage site in the historic Overberg town of Swellendam.

Towering over the scene is the spectacular Langeberg range and, in the field beyond, a flock of sheep grazes and calls for dinner at the appropriate time.

Invariably, inviting smells emanate from the kitchen that opens out onto the stoep as Felicity, drawing on the abundant produce from her garden, beguiles the tastebuds of family and friends with exquisite food, beautifully displayed on Bukkenburg’s platters and bowls.

Remarkable love story

It is in these idyllic surroundings that the couple, with Felicity’s son James, severely handicapped after a motor accident at the age of four and now in his early 50s, settled when they made the decision to leave the frenzy of Johannesburg and pursue their creativity in a more peaceful environment.

Theirs is a remarkable love story. They met when David came to help look after James and, in 1972, moved, as house-parents, with James and his two brothers, to Cresset House, near Johannesburg, a Camphill school and training centre for children in need of special care. Their responsibility extended beyond the 12 trainees in their care to encompass the dairy, vegetable garden and bakery.

During their time at Cresset House they met Tim Morris, renowned South African studio potter, who helped them create a pottery studio at the school, shared his knowledge with them and, in David’s words, “lit a fire beneath us that still burns”.

Back in Johannesburg after their stint at Cresset House David and Felicity established a studio at their home in Parkview, where they spent 20 years making and firing high temperature, reduction-fired stoneware and porcelain. They built their first gas-fired kiln, exhibited their pots widely and attracted the attention of galleries, landscape and interior designers and collectors. In the 1980s and early 1990s they were instrumental in the creation of the Johannesburg Studio Route and were also involved for many years in the Alexandra Art Centre.

Their work was, and still is influenced by their predecessors in what has become known as the ‘Anglo-Oriental tradition.

At the same time, they began to plan their move to a more peaceful rural environment. “Our move to Swellendam in 1996,” says Schlapobersky, “was a natural extension of our life together. The search for a quiet country town close to the mountains and the sea but not too far from a big centre had been going on for many years. The environment in which we now live is reflected in our current work, which has benefited from technical innovations such as the move from gas- to oil-fired (paraffin) kilns, allowing us to introduce subtle and exciting effects.”

Way of life

James is an integral element in this scene. “Our life together has always involved the care of James — his dependence on us has dictated a way of life which we have been able to combine with the work of a studio pottery at home. The rhythm of James’s needs, of the making and firing of our pots, of feeding the sheep and tending the garden, are part of a life cycle whose integrity is reflected in our work,” says David.

The gates of Bukkenburg are always open and, at any given time, visitors to the town can be found wandering up the gravel driveway to view, exclaim over and buy the pottery on display in the studio. Three times a year the couple holds Open Studio events, drawing in other members of the town’s arts and craft community and treating visitors to a visual and culinary feast.

In a world in which ceramics are taking increasingly unlikely forms, the concept of hand-producing tableware seems almost quaintly old-fashioned, but creating “pots for people at a reasonable price” is the guiding principle at Bukkenburg – an approach to life derived from the English craft tradition.

Each piece – from tiny porcelain bowls to massive amphorae – stoneware jars commissioned by Hamilton Russell Vineyards for maturing wine – is personally and lovingly crafted.

The pots are thrown by David on the wheel and hand-decorated by Felicity, whose background in textile design and art is reflected in work that ranges from free-flowing to minutely precise, in an ever-changing array of rich colours and exciting glazes which they blend and mix themselves, as they do the clay they use.

Bukkenburg comes to Jo’burg from 29 May to 5 June with an exhibition at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Glenhove Road and David and Felicity will be guest workshop presenters at the Clay Festival organised by Ceramics Southern Africa on 4 and 5 June at the Berario Recreation Centre.

It will be, says David, “a celebration of almost 40 years of making pots together”.

The exhibition shows at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre, Great Park Synagogue, Glenhove Road, Houghton from May 29 to June 5. Tel: 011 728 8088.

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Pat Schwartz
Guest Author

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