Years ago, near the shore of Lake Balaton, Hungary, four-year-old Zsuzsa Ujj was playing with clay she found at the bottom of a puddle. Squeezing the damp earth between her fingers, she knew she had fallen in love. At the age of 14, she was enrolled in a specialized high school to study ceramic arts, followed by a term at the Hungarian Academy of Crafts and Design. Today, she works full time making Judaica porcelain with a unique yet timeless contemporary style.
Ujj’s works combine simple elegance with joyful celebration. The smooth curves of its porcelain candlesticks and tumblers may be cold to the touch, but they exude an inviting warm feeling. And as functional and spiritual objects, they are not just works of art, but important elements in someone’s home, which the artist has treated with deep care. Some are adorned with swaying leaves and vines; his Etsy shop warns that “hand-painted lines follow my breathing and heartbeat, so minor differences may occur”. Many others are devoid of any surface design, allowing their soft geometry to speak for itself.
One shape is repeated again and again in Ujj’s pieces: the shape of a pomegranate. Ujj said that in Jewish tradition, “the pomegranate is a symbol of prosperity and fertility.” An old Jewish teaching argues that the pomegranate has 613 seeds (of course an approximation, since the number of seeds varies from fruit to fruit), which corresponds to the 613 mitzvot, Where commandments provided for the Jewish people in the Bible.
Ujj is not only drawn to the traditional Jewish symbolism of pomegranates, but also to the math behind their globular shape. A former geometry teacher at an art school, she has extensive knowledge of sine waves and parabolas, and is fascinated by numbers on invisible axes that determine organic curves. “They always look harmonious,” she told Hyperallergic. For Ujj, grenades are like endless attempts to solve a mathematical problem. “What I always like to play with in my work is connecting these positive and negative forms,” she said. “I still haven’t found the ideal solution.”
The manufacture of porcelain is a long and difficult process, so each of these experiments represents several weeks of work. After hand-carving and casting casts, porcelain requires a kiln that can fire at temperatures in excess of 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,427 degrees Celsius).
“This kind of work with porcelain in a small studio like mine has only been possible since the 90s,” Ujj said. That’s when NASA developed a ceramic coating to insulate its spacecraft, which when made available to the general public, allowed small ovens to reach those high temperatures without letting the heat escape. Before that, only wealthy private manufacturers could produce porcelain using methods that they often kept secret. Hungary is home to legendary workshops like Herend factory and Zsolnay, the latter renowned for producing edgy Art Nouveau masterpieces covered in brilliant, iridescent enamels. Ujj is also inspired by this heritage of Hungarian Art Nouveau, as evidenced by its undulating and realistic forms.
Jewish ceramic art itself is a very contemporary phenomenon in the Diaspora and until recently had little precedent in Jewish history. Go to any Jewish history museum, and you’ll usually find shelves of menorahs and spice boxes made with metals like pewter and silver.
“This type of porcelain collection has no tradition, because these pieces are very fragile,” Ujj told Hyperallergic. “In the history of the Jewish people, there has been a lot of movement from one place to another. Of course, the metal survives this. But glass and ceramics, not so much.
Ujj sees the market for Judaica ceramics as a sign that, compared to even more turbulent times in history, customers feel safe in their homes. “When people buy this, I think it’s a sign that we feel very safe, now that we can invest in parts that are not so easy to transport. I hope this period of safety lasts for a long time .