Rothko Centre: Do you have a ritual you always do before starting work?

Lilija Zeiļa: Not really, no. My ritual is a well-planned and considered mental scheme, an idea about what I’m going to make and why. The hardest part is getting started (smiles). From there on, it’s all pretty straightforward.

RC: You had your mind so firmly set on ceramics that, having failed your first exams into Rēzekne Secondary Art School, you went for a second attempt, is that right?

LZ: I didn’t want to go work in a production plant right after school, but the Academy (the Art Academy of Latvia – ed.) seemed unrealistic – people would try for five to six years to get there! Such an elite place. The crowds of would-be artists were huge, and admission criteria were super strict. They also had stiff competition in Rēzekne, so I didn’t get in with just one mark short of excellent! That one turned out to be fatal (laughs). Of course, I was upset but decided to give it another go the following year. I didn’t say anything to my parents, except – nothing doing, guess I’ll apply for a regular secondary school now. No, my parents didn’t mind. My dad was a simple worker, but he had an artist’s soul. Still, a practical man that he was, he said I should train as a decorator: “Making posters and placards, you’ll never be short of work!”

But my heart wasn’t in it. During practice placement in a factory, I saw clear as day what my job would be – ironing banners and writing slogans. So I put my foot down – no, anything but that. Those were my words to myself and others, and I went a different way.

At that point, all my time and thoughts were at the art studio in the Chemical District (a municipal area of Daugavpils built around a large chemical plant) on the sixth floor of a residential block. The place was run by a group of artists from Rīga – the Dobrāji family, Kārlis and Inta, also Arnolds Auziņš and Valda Mežbārde… They seemed like creatures from another planet, with fantastic ideas, a totally different perspective, so easy to be around. You had to pay to attend the studio, and they would train people for entrance exams if someone wanted to study art at the tertiary level. In Daugavpils, would-be students were mainly prepared for the Mukhina Institute in Leningrad. The three Baltic republics had stable quotas there, so it was a safer route – you could apply with reasonable chances of actually getting in. Our academy was a much riskier business. Kārlis Dobrājs told me to go to the Mukhina School. Why work yourself to death when it might all come to nothing? But I said no, I wanted to study here, in Latvia.

RC: What lessons from the studio have stayed with you to this day?

LZ:We were an excellent bunch, and I was one of the youngest. The teachers were like a breath of fresh air, very different from us, locals. They didn’t teach with the standard methods we got at school; they had proper academy techniques. Everything was so clear, so structured. It was a great help when I applied to the school in Rēzekne.

Their every word, their way of seeing things an untrained eye would totally miss… I remember our sessions in plein air and my frustration: “Why are we painting this grey and dreary house?” To which Kārlis Dobrājs said – half-close your eyes and try to see it on a sunny day, all drenched in yellow light, and don’t forget this marshy blue… The way he put it, so much to think about, almost to the end of your life… Oh, if everyone could have had such teachers! They could teach just about anybody, provided you really wanted to learn. After that, I had an easy time at the art school. People wouldn’t believe the pieces were mine, the ones I’d done at the studio. We had quite a few quarrels about it (laughs). Yes, they were trying to break me. Bring me down a peg or two (laughs).

RC: And still, why ceramics? It’s a physically demanding art, and you’re a woman…

LZ: I have a story about that, the idea that pottery is actually a woman’s job. At least in the southern countries. One day we had a tourist group over from Turkey at the Clay Centre (Daugavpils Clay Art Centre – ed.), and I invited the men to try and work the wheel. And they refused, saying it was no job for a man. “Men do the firing or prepare the materials. But the pot, the vessel is made by the woman”. So there you go.

RC: The firing, the materials… And how did you manage this “unfeminine” side of work?

LZ: Dad told me from the word go: “You’ve already made one silly mistake, gone off to study ceramics, mind you don’t make another. Marry a “normal” man who’ll chop and carry the wood and help you with the clay.” And I did just that (laughs). Back then, my husband was a physics student, which was great because he knew the material side of things, the properties of different materials and how they could be worked like the back of his hand. He knew how kilns were operated. Now all our equipment is European, but back then, we built your own kilns, and he still knows how to do it! Back in the day, everything, including electric kilns, involved some guesswork. And we always had a clear division of labour – I never poked my nose in the technical side of things. In a sense, he was my laboratory assistant, so, for instance, he knows everything there is to know about glazes.

RC: So you work in tandem?

LZ: You won’t get very far without one. If your husband wants the standard programme with a hot supper at five, you can never be a ceramicist. And it would surely be hard to manage with a bunch of children, because, like it or not, you need to work around their schedule. We only have one daughter, and she grew up under my throwing wheel. Fortunately, she didn’t become a ceramicist (laughs). In general, you don’t see many dynasties in this line of work, so that’s bound to mean something (laughs). So, if you want the standard kit, a strict daily routine, weekends off, you’ve come to the wrong person. Still, when my husband and I take a break, it’s all as it should be. We go off and shut the place down.

Yes… (gets pensive). Your whole family needs to accept it; there’s no other way. I was lucky, and ceramics became a family thing. And it still is, forty years on.

By the way, there’s this silent understanding that ceramic wares get stamped with double initials – the man’s and the wife’s. But my husband said no, these are your works, so it’s your name only, and that’s that. I asked again, maybe we go together? “No, this is your thing,” was his final say.

RC: Do you remember your first time at the throwing wheel?

LZ: I do! And I did great the first time round. And that was it. After that, for a very long time, try as I might, I just couldn’t get it right. Not until I got the hang of proper alignment, learnt to feel the material… You really need to feel it and get into the rhythm. But we were given an excellent piece of advice at the school in Rēzekne – instead of trying to make a vessel, the thing you’re really after, just go for a cylinder, and then shape it and mould it into whatever you want. It’s way more accessible and reliable in terms of approach.

RC: Which stages of your work are the most delicate?

LZ: The firing. Unglazed, to begin with, and then with the glazing. If it’s wood firing we’re talking about, the effect is super special. Everything is at play – the fire, the mood and the teamwork. You can get striking results from any number of things. Even the object placed next to yours in the kiln may affect your piece and change the picture you had in your head. It may well be that the “neighbour” turns out better than your thing! And that’s beautiful too.

The process is never entirely predictable. You can’t get bored with ceramics because each time we wait for a miracle. Each time we are excited to open the kiln as see what we’ve got. And even with the hi-tech properties of modern kilns, where you can plan the result in advance and be nearly one hundred per cent sure of getting it, there’s still a degree of the unexpected.

RC: Have you ever felt competition from other creators?

LZ: There’s no competition to speak of. When we go to festivals and meet international stars, there’s always something you can take home to add to your personal toolkit. I don’t know about other disciplines, but we’re happy to share our techniques. We don’t hog them to ourselves. Well, maybe a little something… (gets pensive). You see, there’s no point even trying. There’s no guarantee we can even repeat our own success (smiles).

RC: Do you ever wish to try your hand at something new?

LZ: Well, occasionally I do get cross with myself, saying – look around, everybody is testing new waters, exploring fresh themes, diversifying their creativity. But I’m a firm believer in developing one thing, what you’re especially good at, and training this muscle, striving for perfection, trying to become a master. Yes, I admit, sometimes I also want to go with the flow and tinker with something new. Yes, I’ll make the samples, and they’ll look pretty. But they don’t go with my “signature” style – my shapes, my vessels… they just don’t fit the picture. So I treat these experiments as a lesson, sort of “now I know what I shouldn’t do” (laughs).

I’m self-critical. Sometimes others are thrilled, and I don’t see why. Like, I might see a defect, something under-fired or overdone, a damaged texture. Now all these things are accepted as quirky bonus features. But I see flaws, and I can’t help it (laughs).

Let’s put it this way, I’m not one for giving everything a go. I channel all my energies into my own thing, so I simply wouldn’t have enough to properly go into different fields, not if we’re talking quality. I stand for giving your best in one line of work, for attempting perfection and for continued effort. You need to keep a constant rhythm. Ideally, work every day. If you haven’t touched the material for up to a month, your hand’s just won’t be what they used to. You should at least think about working (laughs). Or you’ll get rusty and will need to start over from scratch, rebuild the fire from zero.

RC: Do you need special conditions to work in? How comfortable do you need to be?

LZ: I’ve had to start in such severe conditions that now I’m okay with almost anything. I’m not fussy. Of course, good things grow on you really fast, and there’s a difference between mechanical throwing and having your wheel run on electricity. And if it’s a dream-come-true scenario and you get to a plein air to work with a celebrated master, you might get the short end of the stick and be given the hardest, the most tedious work, such as sifting sand all day long or kneading clay. But you get a grip on yourself and do it, and hold your tongue. In my experience, it was such a good test. And the master could see straight away who had it in them and who didn’t…

Now ceramicists have it way easier – they can get all kinds of materials, whatever they need and as much as they want. In our day, it was a treasure hunt chasing raw materials. We dug our clay by hand. Now we have special facilities around Europe where you buy your glazes, there’s no need to make them yourself, and everybody is buying things out there… But there are a few who still make their own stuff, and they get a vastly different result. You can spot it right away.

RC: Does contemporary art need texts?

LZ: You know, I think it does. I’ve started reading on it. And I get that that this is how you learn about the pieces. Of course, it’s a gift – the ability to describe your feelings and emotions, capture a mood, put your fantasies into words. There came a point when I got into it. So yes, I think it’s true. A little bit like the opera – before I go see a show, I need to read the libretto. Then I get a fuller picture and a deeper understanding of the message.

RC: How would you define beauty?

LZ: In ceramics or in general?

RC: On the whole.

LZ: It’s hard to put into words… Harmony, I guess, in everything around you. It may well be unreal and impossible to achieve. But if you so much as get near your maximum best, and if there’s harmony in the essentials… Right now, at my age, my main concern is my loved ones. When they’re all fine, it’s beautiful! The minutes, the time spent with my people, mine in blood and in spirit… Some I don’t meet above once a year, but our precious times together give me this wonderful vibe. They transform the world into a thing of beauty and turn everything beautiful. Even if these are chance encounters, in truth – in fact, I’m certain – they’re part of a bigger plan (smiles). The warmth of these meetings sustains me for a very long time.

Or when you come home from long and eventful travels, like a trip to Rome. I often hear people speak of such homecomings in derogatory terms, like coming back to the sticks where you have nothing. I disagree. I don’t feel that way. The colours of my travels fill me to the core and then burst out into my environment. They radiate their warmth and shine their light on everything that surrounds me. The spirit of adventure makes my life more vibrant here, at home. And you can see its effects in my creativity; it’s a different mood. Positive emotions save your work from getting dull and going stale. Everything you do in this frame of mind is beautiful.

RC: Is your life a success?

LZ: I’m happy to have found my life’s work. I consider myself lucky because I’ve never wanted to do anything else. So yes, it is.