Arts & Crafts

A Sense of Balance

A Sense of Balance

Meet the ceramic guru Maria Ziessler

Wandering around Maria Ziessler’s gorgeous White River home is a tonic to the soul, her beautiful wood-fired ceramic ware mingling with the artefacts she and her husband Holger have collected on their various travels, and which add soul and inspiration to every nook and cranny.

Maria studied ceramics in the former East Germany for two years, 1987 to 1988, and apprenticed under master potter Ragnvald Leonhardt, probably the person who has had the greatest influence on her work. Ragnvald used to cut each piece to show her exactly where her mistakes lay and how to correct them, an excellent learning curve.
This in itself was a fair accomplishment, as there were only around 20 places available in the country and getting accepted was fairly tough. The apprenticeship included theoretical training at the college interspersed with sessions with the master potter in-between.
After completing her training, Maria worked in various studios, starting up her own in 1994. After a two-year stint in the States, Maria and Holger moved to South Africa in 2000, at the request of Mercy Air, the non-profit humanitarian relief association that serves in rural areas. “We came to this country to help people, although it wasn’t initially part of the plan,” she laughs. “I always thought I’d end up somewhere like India or Nepal. But I love it here, and the South African people have touched me deeply.”

Also, making the same form repeatedly is very calming and therapeutic, and is a lesson in itself

Maria and Holger are both part of the ground crew for Mercy Air, and as such the organisation is a major part of Maria’s life. They fly to various southern African countries with medical teams to administer aid and help where help is most needed, for example doing eye screening and supplying hearing aids. They are also involved in a variety of agricultural projects, and wherever there is a need where small aircraft will make a difference, Mercy Air will step in. For instance, someone travelling by road may take five days to reach their destination, whereas by air it will be a matter of one day, a considerable difference when there is a dire need. An example would be the Mozambique floods which took place in 2000, leaving thousands homeless. They flew in against great odds, landing in almost inaccessible areas to provide relief and support wherever it was necessary.
Maria dedicates one day a week to the children in the informal settlement Msholozi by giving assistance wherever she can, perhaps a weekly soup kitchen, much-needed clothing or medical supplies, or taking them to the doctor or clinic when they are ill or in need of medical attention. Very importantly, she has a library project, and makes sure the kids have regular story time.
“It is essential that they laugh, and can simply be children,” she says. “I have so much fun with them, we play games together and they just enjoy being kids.” While they have very little of material value, they have so much to offer and to give, and spending time with them is a joy and delight.
Maria has always tried to combine her love of ceramics with her circumstances, working with clay no matter where life has taken her. At the moment, between her Mercy Air work and the time she spends at Msholozi, she only manages to spend around three days a week in her studio, and tries to participate in a few exhibitions every year, which consist of individual pieces.

She has four children of her own: Hauke (25) and Ole (23) are currently studying in Germany and America, and Lia (11) and Zoe (8). The latter take up a large part of her time and are one of the richest and most treasured aspects in her life. Lia is very keen on ceramic ware and loves to help out in the studio, especially when it comes to intricate carving work, and has helped create a few lovely pieces of her own.
Maria takes on orders. “I love doing commissions for people, and although large orders are a little unnerving, I relish the challenge and so far so good.The nature of wood firing is such that you can never be sure of the outcome and each piece is always going to be different. Also, making the same form repeatedly is very calming and therapeutic, and is a lesson in itself.” She is currently working on a large order of delegate gifts for the Richemont International Conference at Leopard Creek Golf Estate in collaboration with Kim Kay, who added the illustrations for the pieces. Each one is unique, with a small foot, wide rim, a touch of fire marks and a splash of illustration, with a hint here and there of gold, just to elevate the piece.
Wood firing is Maria’s chosen method of firing her work, a lengthy process that takes around 14 hours of feeding the flames and coaxing more and more heat from the kiln. It is capable of temperatures of up to 1 400°C, although she doesn’t like to push it past 1 300°C, as many of the colours are lost at very high temperatures. “I am so happy with these,” she enthuses, gently cradling a rust-coloured bowl adorned with flashes of amber and oxidised copper. “I have been working towards achieving orange and green in my wood-fired work for years, and at last I have the results I have been hoping for!”
Maria has loved ceramics and pottery for years. Her mother’s home was full of beautiful ceramic ware that came from her grandmother, and she used to look at it and wonder how it was made, and wanted to recreate it. When she was 16, she built her own kiln in the backyard, and while the results weren’t a huge success, the kiln itself reached temperatures of around 900°C, quite an amazing feat.

There is a number of potters living in the area and the exchange of knowledge is a constant inspiration. “It’s wonderful to have so many different minds full of different ideas and creativeness. It is a beautiful exchange of knowledge and we all constantly learn from one another. I learn something new every day; I will never be finished learning. You need to find your own rhythm, style and footprint, and each piece that comes out of the kiln is a beautiful surprise. I especially look out for the unintended marks, the ones that were never planned; they are what make each piece unique and exquisite.” Each piece is adorned with one of Maria’s signature stamps, the Bhutanese MA, MZ or more specifically, a fish symbol. “The fish is both a symbol of my faith, and it also reminds me of my East German upbringing, where we always thought of ourselves as having to swim against the current.”
The important thing at the moment is balance. As far as her ceramic work, the equilibrium between that which is aesthetically pleasing and that which is creative is very significant and a large part of this is the inspiration Maria derives from her surroundings and also from nature. “I am influenced by trees, people, structure and shapes. I was recently in India and loved the shapes and forms I saw on the buildings, and I would love to translate that into my work. I look at structure and wonder how to transform it into a shape I can utilise, and then create balance, between the shape and foot for example. I believe you get decorative people and shape people, and I am definitely a shape person. Form intrigues and fascinates me, and that’s also why I love working porcelain, it takes on such beautiful contours.”
It also helps that Holger is so much a part of the process, and loves to be involved. “The work I do, especially when it comes to working with the kiln, is very labour-intensive and I couldn’t do it without him. Knowing how much I missed working with clay and how important it is to me, he built up my studio into the beautiful and calming space it is. And ceramics are also what brought us together!” she laughs. Holger built a wheel from scratch because he wanted to learn to do pottery on the wheel, even though he had no knowledge of the pottery wheel or how it worked. He was an aircraft engineer working on Russian fighter jets at the time, and when they met they immediately connected.

Form intrigues and fascinates me, and that’s also why I love working porcelain, it takes on such beautiful contours

Maria believes that each piece of her work is indicative of her, as is the case with all artists and crafters. She holds up a beautiful deep-blue organically shaped tea bowl, and gently places it alongside an exquisitely formed spiral jug. “If you’re a tea bowl, be a tea bowl,” she muses. “Don’t be a jug. Always be who you are, never who you aren’t. Don’t be something that isn’t naturally who you are.”
Her work is definitely suggestive of who she is; natural, unassuming, bubbly and earthy. The whimsical colours and ethereal nuances of nature shine through in everything she says and does, and her home mirrors this natural spontaneity and warmth, just as her perfect, swirling clay bowls with their delicate splashes of fire-rich shades mirror her sense of balance.

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