Ceramists worldwide have undoubtedly had an immense impact on contemporary art. Significant figures like Beate Kuhn and George Ohr have made great strides in the global movement. However, these monumental names often obscure the achievements of artisans from regions beyond our borders that have contributed to the global campaign in their own right.
Placing focus on the country of Spain, a number of figures from the region have made ripples in the contemporary art movement throughout the decades. However, when considering modern ceramics from Catalonia, no other figures deserve more recognition than the Serra family.
Jordi Serra Moragas, the current head of the famed Serra Workshop in Barcelona, comes from a line of artisans that have greatly contributed to modern Canatan contemporary art using ceramics as a medium of expression.
Through SAI’s Viva Experience, students were offered a tour of the Serra Workshop and given a brief history of ceramics and its making process by Jordi Serra himself.
Recently, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with Jordi in a casual one-on-one interview. With a few questions in hand and a beer in the other, Jordi opens up about his family history and the culmination of their achievements with his restaurant as the setting.
The following interview has been translated from Spanish/Castilian to English.
Jordi, tell me briefly who you are and how these generations of artists in your family came to be.
“I am the third member of a generation of potters my grandfather Antoni Serra started. He was born in 1869 and began ceramics in 1901.”
“He created a workshop with artists. He did not want to make popular ceramics, but he wanted to make art from ceramics. Therefore, [his workshop] is considered the first art ceramic workshop in Spain. But in Spain, until then, there were only porcelain and ceramic factories, [and] they were more dedicated to making decorative objects for the palaces in Madrid, but without any aesthetic knowledge of the moment.”
Could you elaborate on the moment you speak of?
“This moment [in question] is interesting in Catalonia, and especially in Europe, because it is the moment of modernism, Jugendstil or Art Nouveau. It is an important movement known throughout the world and appreciated for its beauty, its preciousness, its delicacy, and it brings together a series of actors of this moment who are important in the world; renowned architects like Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner, [and] Josep i Cadafalch.”
“In this period, he meets, for example, Santiago Rusiñol, Ramón Casas, Isidro Nonell. [These] are three mainstays of Catalan painting and are represented well in Barcelona’s museums of art and history.
After some time, my grandfather goes to Paris to learn porcelain.”
“Because in Paris there is a very important factory that perfectly mastered a unique technique, which is the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, which is known throughout the world.”
“Perhaps it is not the first porcelain factory in Europe. The first porcelain factory in Europe was in Holland. This was the first institution after the Chinese, who were the great inventors of porcelain.
When they discovered how the materials had to be made here, this factory was established in Holland. These were the beginnings of porcelain in Europe.”
“In Sèvres, [my grandfather] learned to make ceramics and with this knowledge, he was able to run this workshop from 1901 to 1909. This did not last long, however. Later, he was appointed as a professor at the school of art and fine crafts to oversee a number of students. Among them were three of his own children. Also as one of his students was the famed Joan Miró, who was also from the same era as my father and two uncles.
In that school, ceramics was taught with a [different] movement from what was traditionally done. Traditionally, ceramics schools of fine arts bought all the materials to make the porcelains. But in this school, my grandfather said “This cannot be. We are going to manufacture all the materials ourselves.” Thus, here is where I believe that, theoretically, the modern age of ceramics began in Catalonia.”
So the students here made everything from scratch?
“The students learned to make all the elements they needed so they did not have to buy them ready-made. My grandfather instituted that if they made all the colors and all the glazes to decorate the ceramics, they would not have to buy them in a store… or from factories that manufactured them.
All the chemical products, glasses, colors, and all the manufacturing elements that involved ceramic production were fabricated here.”
Have your family’s ceramics been exposed to regions outside of Catalonia?
My father’s work exposed me to a whole new world. We traveled and did exhibits together until he passed and I took over the workshop. Throughout my time with my father, we somehow connected with the ceramic world in Japan. I’m lucky enough to have connected with Japan. I have done many conferences throughout Japan. They see that my work has a technique that had long been forgotten and precisely for this reason, they continue calling me to return. I’ve had exhibits all over Japan. It was amazing and I have worked with Japan for over 25 years. [Having] spent a large part of my life exhibiting in Japan, I fully emerged myself within their culture, especially with food. And so, it has been a fantastic experience for me.
In Japan, I had the privilege of meeting with great artistic masters in the country who are considered national treasures. These artisanal potters I met with span 15 to 20 generations of potters. It’s extraordinary that for centuries, they have [preserved and used] the same oven. The love for ceramics in Japan is tremendous and this whole experience has been incredibly beneficial.
What has been most memorable in your years of working in ceramics?
“The work is, above all, mastery in the technique of metallic reflection. Throughout 65 years of [working] with ceramics, I have been improving my technique. At the beginning of my ceramics journey, I would save only half of the pieces from the oven, because of how sensitive the pieces were and inexperienced I was. Now, I can tell you that I save all the pieces, except for one or two I discard if I don’t like how they come out. But after so many years of observing the temperature with my eyes, knowing what time to add smoke, and load firewood, it is such a special technique with so many years of learning. I am a chemist, and therefore, using my knowledge of chemistry to observe what happens inside an oven, what reaction the elements have, and how it works. With the knowledge of knowing, you can pull off truly spectacular pieces.”
What motivates you every day? Why do you do what you do?
“Search,” said Jordi.
“Find and Search. If you search, you always find something new. That is what any artist strives to do. This is what makes living as a ceramist a little more engaging. If this interest in creating things ends, what interest do you have? The search for knowledge is never-ending, so always search.”
Written by Leonardo Negrete-Perez, an Appalachian State University Student studying Spring 2023 in Barcelona.