left: Figure by Rimas Visgirda
"Come and make sculpture in beautiful surroundings. Sculpture park at the centre of Europe. Artist's residency with cultural programme".
I really didn't know what to expect when I stepped off the plane at Vilnius airport. At the meeting point I looked around for the director of Europos Parkas. Instead of the middleaged man with a beard that I had imagined, Gintaras Karosas was young, vigourous and clean-shaven. At great speed he drove a minibus down winding roads and through forests avoiding enormous pot holes with alarming agility. It was dark when we arrived. However, the van headlights lit upon many sculptures as we hurtled up the three-quarter mile drive to the house. The next morning looking out of the great windows in my enormous room I saw that the house and sculpture park were surrounded by a forest. The trees were extraordinarily tall and slender, the white of the silver birch contrasting with the warm russets of the pine.
At breakfast I met the other inmates. Lina, Gintaras' young wife, who manned the office when not conducting guided tours around the park; Janet, an american sculptor, who was aiming to finish her work for the sculpture park in three days time; Stefania, an Italian-Swiss photographer, whose project was to take interesting, somewhat decadent black and white photographs of Vilnius; Eilidh, a young painter from Glasgow; and Trudi from Newcastle, an environmental artist. With myself a potter we were a motley crew.' However, as time went by it proved to be an interesting mix. I think we all learned something from each other.
Our cultural programme during the first few days consisted of visiting as many museums and churches in Vilnius as it was possible to do. Meanwhile, when not imbibing culture, we helped Janet finish her sculpture. This was an extraordinary net creation, hung from hoops which was eventually hoisted up, high into the trees. The other sculptures in the park were no less extraordinary. There was a giant armchair pool, the armchair made from metal mesh, the pool in the seat, concrete. There were other mammoth creations constructed, or in the process of being constructed, in concrete. Gintaras had an army of workmen employed in mixing, transporting, pouring or trowelling the concrete into or on to these, presumably in accordance with the artist's instructions. Other sculptures were of stone, metal or wood; the smaller pieces being generally more successful.
During the first week my three colleagues on the residecy got started on their very different schemes. Eilidh spent her days with a sketch pad, making many drawings before transferring her ideas to paint and canvas. Stefania would set off for Vilnius with her camera, not returning until suppertime. Trudi found a place in the forest where she could work out her ideas for an environmental installation. This involved a great deal of digging and physical hard work. Not to mention biting from mosquitos.
Keen to get started I asked Gintaras if he could find me some clay. A small amount of contaminated terracotta materialized. I had a project in mind and worked on this for a couple of days. It gradually dawned on me, however, that Gintaras had no idea where to find the clay I needed or how to contact potters. I would have to do it myself. Armed with a spade I searched the area. The soil was a sandy clay, predominantly sand, it would seem, even deep down where someone was building a cellar I found a few large nuggets by the side of an underground spring. Although it became quite velvety in texture when cleaned and kneaded, there just wasn't enough to be viable. Meanwhile, another project took my attention.
Before I left for Lithuania it had been pointed out that a ceramic Symposium was taking place in Panevezys in August. Steve Mattison gave me the name and phone number of the gallery and organiser. It seemed an opportunity not to be missed, and in fact was one of the highlights of my stay. When I contacted Jolanta Lebednykiene she invited me to come and look at the symposium pieces being exhibited. in her gallery. However, the night before I was due to go the rewinding mechanism of my camera jammed. This was a disaster. How could I make a record of what I saw at Panevezys ? Next morning, armed with a map of the town and a few useful Lithuanian phrases, I set off with the early bus for Vilnius. In Vilnius there was a trolley bus to catch across town to the railway station. Here, according to Lina was where the bus station was, although I could not find it. Here also, there was a language problem. The warm friendliness so far encountered was replaced at the railway information office by scorn. Signs and gestures indicated that anyone travelling to Panevezys without speaking the language was an imbecile. Fortunately the bus station eventually materialised, and then the correct bus was found with minutes to spare.
When I arrived at last at the Panevezys Gallery, Jolanta Lebednykiene was most charming. Not only was I able to look round the gallery on two floors on my own, but she allowed me to examine the archives as well. Because it was a Tuesday the gallery was closed to the general public. Had I had my camera I am sure I would have run out of film. As it was I had to content myself with taking notes and drawings of memorable pieces. It would take too long to describe many of the objects. Some were enormous. One or two particularly caught my attention; for instance, two works by Vilija Balciuniene from Lithuania which had a strange ethereal presence. One sculpture was a tall white box, about four feet high with raised mask-like faces, grecian in aspect and dreamlike in quality. The other consisted of two profiled heads, their pointed caps streaming back as they each sailed on boat forms towards each other.
Then there were the extraordinary round balls of Eugenijus Cibinskas. These balls, ranging from around 20" diameter to quite small, were decorated with rectilinear and triangular designs consisting of delicate black lines and subtle areas of colour. Each ball contained a small rectilinear or square hole, inviting the eye to explore its curious sense of depth and perspective, leading into the interior of the ball. At this point it is necessary to mention that all the work of the symposium was made and fired at the glass factory of Panevezys, using a special white chamotte clay transported from Russia, and which they fire to 1380c. Of the other Lithuanian exhibitors I particularly liked the work of Romualdas Aleliunas, whose female form 'Torso' displayed a reclining back. This was a relaxed, understated piece, graceful, yet somehow powerful.
Several foreign potters had also taken part in the symposium. Of these there were three whose work made an immediate visual impact, not simply because of their size. The powerful waved sculptures of Rosarlo Agvilar from Mexico, which seemed to defy gravity; the equally gravity defying work of Giancarlo Scapin from Italy, a sort of undulating tower around 7 feet high, its walls as full of holes as a slice of Gruyere cheese; the delicate, intricate but enormous floor piece made by Yih-Wen Kuo, called 'Chinese Puzzle' - All these works made a huge impact upon one's visual senses. Also taking part were Philip Cornelius and Thomas Orr (USA), and Peteris Martinsons (Latvia), who had, in addition to their work in the exhibition, various sculptures stored in the gallery archives. I felt a particular affinity with the warm architectural ceramics of Peteris Martinsons.
Two more participants from the USA were Frederick Olsen with his complex 'Tumble Boxes' and Rimas VisGirda whose tall, slab-built forms were witty, garish and female. Interesting surfaces were created by Kostas Tarkassis (Greece), his elogated forms impressed with granite chips, and Nerute Ciuksiene (Lithuania), whose organic creations were fabricated from a network of tiny coloured and textured coils welded together. The piece I remember most vividly was in the archives- a kind of elongated daschund (363cms long) with a dog's head at either end. The title was 'Walking'.
There was Nina Hole (Denmark), of 'Fire House' fame (International Potters Festival '97) with a pithy title for her sculpture 'Who is Leaving?'. Maria Baumgartner (Austria) and her three enormous coiled bowls; and Alvydas Pakarklis' (Lithuania) large coiled sculptures. Then last, but not least, the installations. Upon a mat woven from human hair lay various objects including long striped sticks of cellophane wrapped candy, and what looked like a row of breast shaped brassiere pads - the only ceramic objects in Luisa Figini's (Switzerland) installation. The mural or installation of Makoto Hatori (Japan) was made up of several large clusters of tiny thrown bottles and cylinders. These clusters were fixed at intervals to a wooden backing. Aldona Skudraite (Lithuania) had placed her installation on a huge sheet of glass supported on sand; while Egidijus Radvenskas' large whorled shells were placed in procession across the gallery floor.
Having thanked Jolanta Lebednykiene for her kindness I returned from Panevezys, very excited by what I had seen, and determined to write to some of the participants in the hope of obtaining a few photos or slides. Since my return to the UK I have written to more than half of the twenty participants and have received several generous replies including slides and, in a couple of instances, beautifully illustrated colour catalologues. Meanwhile we were taken on a trip to Kaunas, visiting reconstructed ancient villages on the way. In Kaunas, besides the city's main art gallery we spent much time in the Devil's Museum which truly lived up to its name. Back in Vilnius I spent much time in the Museum of Arts and Crafts but couldn't get any information on the potters exhibiting there. On the point of despair I found the Academia of Art, walked in and asked to speak to somebody. They took me to the secretary's office. The secretary, Benita, spoke excellent English, was quite charming and promised to help. Apparently there was a large ceramics department. She suggested I returned on the 16th of September when the college opened for the new term.
Part 2 next issue. "The Forest Devil at Europa Park."