HALLWAY TALKS with Ilona Romule
Rothko Center:Are you the only artist in the country creating lithophanes*?
Ilona Romule: Yes, in fact, I am the only one in the world teaching this technique. The lithophane process was widespread in 18th-century Europe but then disappeared altogether. That was back when it was a very complicated process. It was done on glass using wax and a backlight, and so, the craftsmen could immediately see how it would turn out when made using porcelain. The wax becomes transparent under the light, which gives you an idea of the final result. Portraits of kings and pastoral scenes were all made using lithophanes; and it would take up to a year to make a new plate. But I do it blindly, and like all techniques I use, it takes a colossal amount of time.
RC: How did you arrive at this complex technique? At your own style?
IR: Well, it was an accident. I had already seen Chinese lithophanes where the surface is cut out, and dimension is created in an outward-facing (low) relief, like a photo positive. So, when illuminated from the inside, it looks like a photonegative. That is to say, the more prominent the area, the darker it becomes. But I wanted the other way round! At first, I too, worked in relief – they looked beautiful on vases, lamps etc. But if it was a portrait, then the nose, as the thicker part, was too dark. Well, I couldn’t have that. And so, I decided to do the complete opposite. In other words, work in inward-facing (high) relief. And the result was miraculous! The relief, by the way, needs to be very shallow, literally 1.5 mm. If you make it any deeper, it comes out just black and white. But if you want all the nuances of shadows, then it’s here that the fine work begins… So one day, my friend from America, who was familiar with many artists and their work, told me that the technique was already widely used among them. They created them on 3D machines, based on photographs, with a 3mm relief. But it wasn’t practised manually. He was asked whether he knew anyone who made lithophanes manually, and so he wrote to me. I started googling which of my works were lithophany (laughs) and discovered that that was exactly what I’d been doing! It turned out that I had invented the wheel without knowing it was the wheel.
RC: Do you like challenges? Why do you take on the most difficult of things?
IR: My dad is a perfectionist. He is a woodcarver and later became a jeweller. My mum is a painter, so I’ve spent most of my life observing subtlety and precision in everything. That’s why I’ve been able to do long and painstaking things since childhood.
RC: Tell us about your studios in China and Hungary. How did you end up there?
IR: The city of Jingdezhen (China) is the birthplace of porcelain, a porcelain-maker’s Mecca. An hour’s drive from Jingdezhen lies mount Gaoling, where you’ll find factories and large deposits of the raw materials required for making porcelain. This is because porcelain is a factory-made thing and demands factory conditions. The raw material is not the clay you might build houses with. In new countries such as America, Israel, and Australia, there are no porcelain factories, so the Chinese are now very open to foreigners coming down and working there. Their historical porcelain is made to an exquisite standard, but they no longer invent anything new; they only rinse and repeat. But foreigners do masses of wonderful original work. There are a lot of factories in Jingdezhen, around 400 – some big, some small, and some tiny studio-size things. There’s this super impressive factory where they make seven-metre vases, though once they have shrunk in the kiln, they stand at only five metres tall. Everything is done manually. And these pillar-shaped vases can be found all over the city. All of the lampposts, rubbish bins, and traffic lights in Jingdezhen are made from porcelain. And they are all painted! You know, they don’t have land as such; dig a spade into the ground, and you’ll find bits of porcelain. At first, I worked in an international studio where it’s conventional to leave some of your work. I then worked with porcelain at a university, where there were students from all over the world, and I worked in a studio designed for four people. Whereas now, I am in a factory. Because I want to be able to turn the tap and have the porcelain flow like cream. That’s the way it should be instead of me buying three to five litres of it in a shop. And in Hungary, I sometimes work in a factory in Herend, where they have the best porcelain in Europe. They are in the business of collectable handmade work, not mass-market consumer goods.
RC: And what about your studio in Rīga? What’s it like?
IR: There isn’t one (laughs).
RC: What do you mean?
IR: Who would keep it clean and tidy! (laughs). I’ve only got one room in my apartment for a studio, so there is very little space. That’s why the only thing I do there is paint my work. By the way, the Rothko Centre has helped me a lot. Being in residency here, I’ve been able to paint big pieces I brought over from China. There was no chance to do it anywhere else. And it’s been my most creative period.
RC: Yes, we remember you spent a long time here and did very fine-precision work…
IR: And such things take a lot longer than lithophanes! With underglaze, there’s scope for mistakes, but without it, there’s not. So maximum concentration is required.
RC: Are you a very relaxed person? A balanced person?
IR: Me? (Surprised)
RC: Is there any other way you could do this work?
IR: Nope. That’s why I don’t paint as much as I could. So it was vital that I came here, to the residency, to work on this. There are loads of distractions at home, like paperwork, documents and reports. It’s awful! It’s just killing me. I can’t spend half the day digging through the office and the other half creating. It’s unfeasible. They’ll probably have me hanged or thrown in jail soon, but I just can’t (laughs).
RC: You have been a member of the Geneva International Academy of Ceramics since 2001 and a member of its board of Directors for several years. So you conduct seminars and masterclasses all around the world. These are duties, responsibilities, like the documents we’ve just mentioned. How does this ‘coexist’ with art and with the process of creation?
IR: I don’t have a family, and this was a conscious choice. To illustrate, let’s take the example of my sister. She was a very talented graphic artist. Initially, right after her studies, she had far more creative talent than I did. Talent, but no ambition. And she chose to start a family. Then the kids came… If I’d decided to have children, I would have been the perfect mother, taking care of them. But I am an artist. And as an artist, I live my life and don’t really consider anyone else. Not everyone likes this approach. If a man were to live like this, it would be considered normal, but if a woman were to do so, she wouldn’t be forgiven, and it would begin to displease the man. When I’m with someone, I am the one doing the cooking and cleaning – I can’t do anything else. I can’t work at the same time! That’s why I have always had ‘visiting’ relationships. I hang around for a while and then back off and work. There is no other way. And when the classmates of mine, who stopped creating in order to start a family, return to art, having raised their children, they are stuck on the same level as before. They work as they worked back in the 80s. This, unfortunately, is a fact. Technology has rushed forward, but they haven’t travelled or seen anything. And so, the desire to master something new is no longer as strong. They learned a certain technique and are now afraid to try anything else. They lack the courage of youth, where you could plunge yourself headfirst into the unknown.
RC: Is that the only reason you don’t have competition?
IR: That and the fact that these days, everything can be copied, and quick techniques can be mastered. Are you prepared to sit there for hours like me? And my other quirk is that I make stories and narratives. You can’t just copy a narrative – it’s a unique thing.
RC: Are your stories autobiographical?
RC: Which emotion, above all, is to be imprinted on porcelain? Pain? Or maybe joy?
IR: Pain, of course. My work is very personal; these are my stories. Those who know me can read my biography through them. But, at the same time, I work a lot from my dreams, from the events around me.
RC: Are you deliberately looking for problems so as to shake things up and bring about an outburst of emotion?
IR: There was a period of time when I was travelling around Italy, and I saw a lot of the Classics. And it was all amazing, really beautiful. So was my work – beautiful. In the negative sense of the word – there was nothing bright, no solution and no problem. Anyone could have done it; just beautiful. And I went to America to ‘spoil’ myself. That’s when I made my chameleons. And so, the most powerful examples of my work are about breakups and emotionally intense moments. You suffer a little at first, but then you work, and the result isn’t so simple.
RC: How have recent events affected you specifically?
IR: I recently got back from Geneva; it was my last trip as a member of the Academy’s board of directors. My task was to organise travel for seven Ukrainian artists. Two of them were men, which made things difficult. We made a request through UNESCO. I organised a UNESCO evening completely free of charge and gave it my all, so I felt I had fulfilled my mission. There were 14 of us on the board of directors, and we did a lot of it together. But I organised this project by myself, entirely independently. I got such an indescribable feeling of joy from the fact that I could help. Everything was done from the heart.
RC: What catches your attention in modern art?
IR: I am more interested in parallel art forms like music, literature and architecture than the work of other visual artists. I am, of course, only expressing my opinion here, but there is no interesting painting in Latvia at the moment. I would rather look at photography, but painting… Well, the work is not of the quality that would stop me in my tracks, struck with wonder. More often than not, I will just walk straight past it. Of course, I deal more within my own sphere, but I will say that ceramics in Latvia are, unfortunately, outdated. A lot of us are stuck in the 80s, in our youth.
RC: And what about young ceramists?
IR: Those who travel the world create something unique. What’s more, it doesn’t depend on age. It’s like Pēteris’ (Pēteris Martinsons) work – it never looked old-fashioned; it has always been modern.
RC: Obviously, it’s no coincidence that your exhibition is now in the Martinsons House?
IR: It’s no coincidence. Everything related to Pēteris Martinsons is important. There are several generations of us that have studied under Pēteris. He used to get hold of foreign design journals that were inaccessible to us students during Soviet times. He opened up the world to us in this way. He taught garden ceramics and murals at the Academy. Not the specific techniques, but how to work. I remember how we came to maybe our third or fourth lesson with him without having done any sketches. And Martinson said, “Why are you even here if your heart’s not in it?!” This phrase stuck with me for a long time (smiles). My graduation project was a mural. I wanted to make porcelain jewellery, but I was strongly encouraged to create this massive thing. Moreover, nobody taught us how to make it big, how to connect the pieces. My supervisor was a sculptor and he only came over to me a couple of times. So Pēteris taught me how to do it. I owe my ability to do big projects to him. We were like-minded in many ways: in our view of the world and our attitude to work.
RC: Has Pēteris Martinsons influenced your career?
IR: My decision to forge a career like this is undoubtedly because of Pēteris. His philosophy was that an artist becomes an artist by travelling the world rather than killing themselves in their studio. And yes, I agree! I couldn’t sit at home and create without going outside. You have the children, you’re cooking the porridge, there’s a husband there, wandering around the place… (laughs). Can you really produce works of art amid all this mayhem? No, you can’t. You should fly around the world. You should meet new people and talk to them. By the way, meeting people is your biggest priority. I talk to people, and, through them, I see the country. I can’t do it through a hotel window. And I’d also ride a scooter through the jungle, in spite of the difficulties and uncomfortable conditions. I am curious how people live in these circumstances and how they fill their lives. I have travelled all over the world. The only place I haven’t been to is Africa.
RC: Have you left Africa for dessert?
IR: Well, yes. Actually, I wanted to visit all of the exotic countries while I was young, and then I could go to the peace of Europe and America. But I have already been to the peaceful countries (laughs). Now, returning to the topic, what impresses me and ‘catches my attention’ is simply not art. It’s the fjords, waterfalls and animals; all the wonderful things. I have just got back from Turkmenistan. I, of course, gave lectures, but the main reason I headed there was for impressions. Two days in the desert, scorching-hot craters, experiencing life in a Yurt… Five-star travel doesn’t interest me at all! After all, they are the same five stars wherever you go (smiles). And exhibitions are routine. I go through them carefree, without much inner excitement. Okay, I liked this one more, that one less, and well, that’s it…. Then again, I connect all the work that I see with the artist’s personality. It’s very important. And if I find an interesting artist on Facebook, I want to get to know them. I wonder who they are and what they are like. It is generally interesting people behind interesting work. But it also happens the other way around – amazing work and disgusting people. But I’m lucky, as I make friends with both good people and good artists.
RC: What’s your personal philosophy? Your life motto?
IR: Do what you can, and what will be, will be. And more still: nothing ventured, nothing gained!
*Lithophanes are art pieces made from delicate sheets of semi-transparent white porcelain with a decorative or figurative motif, which is engraved or moulded into the negative surface using a shallow relief. When illuminated from behind, with artificial or natural light, the sheets show a scene in the positive, creating a three-dimensional effect.