ABBA EST VIRA
by Pretziada Studio & Elvio Usai
Once something becomes unnecessary, we feel at liberty to make art of it, and in doing so we
instill it with necessity once more.
My husband’s aunt tells me stories of going down to the river to wash the family’s clothes or to fill rough ceramic urns with water that they would hike back up the hill on the tops of their heads. Once, as a child, she dropped her infant brother and watched as the women scrambled to grab him, as - to her child eyes - he seemed to drift downstream among reeds and stones. That river was a home too - an extension of her house - where they would gather and converse and splash industriously. But then a dam was built, and water piped directly to their huddled, mud-brick homes and today the banks of the river are only a remnant of days when the water rushed through the center. It is a wide, dry scramble of large rocks and blackberry brambles with just a thin, shimmery trickle at its center, constant and hushed, like memory itself. The unused urns sat for years in the low veranda, until they were eventually deemed superfluous and smashed in the garden by a band of barefoot children, rejoicing at this rare permission to destroy.
Elvio, the father and teacher of ceramicist Walter Usai, in the workshop working on the Abba Est Vira prototypes. At right, pictures of him at different moments in his career. Elvio began by working in his father's workshop after school.
These urns had been shaped by hand on the wheel. They had been glazed only inside, allowing for graceful and casual drips of color on the outer rim. They had been baked in a large, smoky fire that left muted patches of black ash on their sides. Once, a local potter brought me to the place where he would have dug up the clay for these urns. It was a square of empty land off a small highway with long-abandoned ruts of deep, red earth. Back then, the urns were fully of this island - earth, hands, fire, water. But these are stories from a time when every place was more self-sufficient and less plentiful. A time so fully eradicated from our daily life as to remain ghost-like and unspecific in our memory, words from someone else’s mouth, like black and white photographs with blurred spots, and someone who walked through the photo at just the wrong instant.
Now we live in the same area where my husband’s aunt grew up. It is barren and dusty in summer, lush and soft in winter, but always quiet, hidden, marvelous. It is a place where one easily finds the rustic past hiding meekly in stone-walled ruins with their collapsed roofs and their simple dirt floors, some family’s belongings abandoned - tools no longer relevant - thrown carelessly inside and blanketed with years of fine dust. Giant wine casks; wooden yokes for oxen; old, handmade leather boots missing their partners, soles sodden and split. It took a generation to walk away from this. They were swept up in a future that came barreling down on them - indoor plumbing, new white tennis shoes, butchered meat on the barbecue. They turned their backs, and who wouldn’t have?
Irony of ironies - that practicality and the commonplace make perfection, when we all too often place them opposite each other. The same potter told me of the years he spent hauling clay, working it soft enough to use on the wheel. It was four years before he could make any urn, and then came the day he would make a hundred at least, until his limbs were tight and the dry clay pulled at the hairs on his forearm. He had had to leave school, he disliked the long hours, his back ached from leaning over the wheel. While his friends gathered in the piazza in the evenings, he swept up the dried bits of dust and clay from the corners of the workshop to be kneaded the next day with water, reworked, molded and pushed up into new urns. Each one beautifully proportioned, a combination of thought and instinct, perfect, perfectly useful. Perfectly useful for a while.
I grew up far from here, in a Californian home where the spaces were spacious and defined (patio, back yard, lawn) and stocked fridges, AC, the Internet were a given. The magic of an indoor faucet was an everyday occurrence, so unremarkable as to not cause reflection, ever. What amazes me, then, is the history behind a shape, the effort of walking down to the river to have water, the expense for a family to buy handmade pots, when they were so poor they had no shoes. I, who think nothing of aisles and aisles of fresh mangoes and morels from halfway across the globe, see an old urn as graceful, organic, womanly and I marvel at it. To my husband’s aunt it was an unwieldy tool, heavy, always threatening to be found empty or develop a surreptitious crack. It was nothing she could imagine placing on her mantle - this earthy reminder of a youth spent with cold feet and an empty stomach.
The Abba Est Vira Collection was made as study in form of a variety of classic water containers (jugs & canteens), each with its own specific use.
And this brings us to the delicate question. Can we be so daft as to insist on a time when children were torn from school, when want was palpable, a pig so prized and valuable it would be ushered inside to sleep on the kitchen floor? What is it that we are missing that we need to instill romance where none lived? What is it that we are lacking that we want time to stay still, rivers to stay full, earth to be dug, fires to be lit, urns to be necessary?
Stangiara Vase, left, would be transported on the side of a donkey and then placed on a wall for fresh water during countryside chores. Autieri Vase, center, is the newest of the shapes, having been created in the 50's and 60's for truck drivers era to place on the seat next to them. Murighina Vase, right, had the same function as Stangiara Vase but would contain 5 liters of water rather than 1.5 liters.
The son of our aforementioned potter has refused to leave the workshop. That place, with its musty walls, and corners piled high in disorganization, has held sway over him. He makes his father’s urns (his grandfather’s, his great grandfather’s). Once they have dried he decorates each one with miniature roses, mock leaves, attentive little birds, looping handles like an intricate coiffure. He paints them pure white or an elaborate emerald. They are not rough and proud; they flaunt their futility. But they tell a story of a human history so long as to be
unimaginable, in caves of chipped stone or gathered in deep and dark graves, secreted away in the bellies of wooden ships, on the backs of mules, in the arms of girls sent down to their river chores, resting on a low wooden shelf, resurrected in this still and frosted form. They are today’s version; they tell of the need for tools and the need for beauty.
Anulare Vase, left, is an ancient form that would be used as a canteen to wear on one's shoulder. Assemini Vase, center, has the shape from its namesake town. Oristanese Vase, right, is a more sloping shape whose eponymous name refers to another town central to Sardinian ceramic production.