And greetings from Scandinavia….
I have been in Guldagargaard Ceramic Research Centre in southern Denmark, a town called Skaelskor, for a while, on a writing residency and catching up with some editing and curating tasks at the same time. Now that I am largely up to date I thought I’d write for those of you who have ticked that box on your Portage entry form, about what it’s like being there and what might be expected and what not.
First of all is location. Skaelskor, which I have visited previously, is a train then a bus ride away from Copenhagen. They take a couple of hours or so but it’s easy and co-ordinated through a rural countryside much flatter than geologically young NZ. There are no hills to speak of but dark brown soil and crops of wheat, rye and oats so densely planted they seem solid blocks of gold and blue-green but step on and sink in and growth is knee and thigh-high. No cows, goats or sheep, which are housed in barns.
Skaelskor is small and situated on and around a tiny isthmus between a lake and a fjiord. A former fishing centre, it has three supermarkets and a variety of shops as might be expected (chemist, bakers, shoes, books, second-hand charity etc plus a bank, a town hall, a library (the most modern building) and a small museum (housed in a 14thC building) plus, inevitably in Denmark, an interior design store or two with bells and whistles for the domestic environment. There’s quite a well-established design consciousness present country-wide.
Then in the centre of town is this large park, previously an orchard – the biggest in Denmark – that is now the Guldagergaard Ceramic Research Centre, housed in the former family home and with the stables converted to studio spaces. When there is an overflow at the house, or entire families arrive, then additional cottages, a b+b and the local hotel are also employed as accommodation. The town has embraced the ceramic label and now holds an annual festival and market there to which many ceramists from the country bring work; shop windows, banks and the former jail are among the spaces utilised for display and exhibition.
Visiting artists are a varied lot. From major art stars (Richard Shaw, Kim Dickey and Fred Olsen were there this summer not to mention our own Jim Cooper and Denmark’s Sten Lykke Madsen) to average and various makers through to recent grads who exchange free bedroom/studio space for 20 hours a week labour of various sorts from washing floors to stacking wood for kilns to assisting with firings to sorting books in the library.
Each visiting artist brings tools and buys clay and glaze ingredients there as required. There are many clays from Audrey Blackman porcelain to two black clays for different temperatures and much in between such as England’s famed T-Material – warp-free stoneware. There are many kilns from four bourry-box/wood-firing of different configurations plus an anagama and the beautiful Fred Olsen cross-draught number that is poetry to view (and everything from a dream, to hell, to fire – depending on who is talking!) There are also gas, raku and electric kilns of various sizes and temperature range and technicians to fire then for/with you.
As for glazes – all ingredients are there and so are many boards with recipes, and samples of that recipe in various different kilns, at various temperatures and even to various locations in the kiln. As best as might be possible, you can decide and know what you are most likely to obtain!
Workspace is small and each studio holds four or five artists at a time. Upstairs in the stables is more display space and across the courtyard is the apple-packing shed/gallery that, as well as exhibitions, holds the large collection of work donated by former residents over the twenty years it’s been in existence as a ceramic centre. There are hundreds of pieces, that can be lifted from shelves and handled, made by artists with heavyweight reputations to members of the great unknown. It’s rare to be able to assess haptic qualities in collections and such access is a privilege for treasuring. So much information can go in via the hands and fingers.
In the residential building are eight bedrooms upstairs, single and twin, and one with attached bathroom downstairs that is often occupied by Sten Lykke Madsen, long term salt glazing wood-firer of mythical creatures, now older and unable to manage the stairs, but something of a national treasure in Denmark. Downstairs is a capacious kitchen, dining area, sitting area and a large library with an open fire much utilised in winter. It’s a big, warm comfortable house that has recently been refurbished with furniture and fittings by IKEA. There is no room servicing, you are expected to sort your own stuff as well as take a turn in providing and cooking an evening meal for all there, and that might be between eight and twenty people. In turn you are, each evening, given a meal bought and prepared by someone else which might be a simple soup, bread and cheeses to a three course Gordon Ramsay special!
Your breakfast and lunch etc is your concern and towards this you get a shelf in the frig and the cupboard for your personal stuff. If you cannot live without Marmite – take your own for you will not find it at any of the three supermarkets. But you will find groceries and local fruit and veg at prices generally quite a bit cheaper than in NZ although meat is more expensive. It doesn’t always seem cheaper because of the number of Danish Kroner to our dollar but a little maths will tell you so. Further, there will be a few buying oops when something turns out to be not what was presumed and there are a couple of shelves of such mistakes for general use, after all few can read Danish – the Scandinavian tongue reads and sounds rather like trying to sing a song with a mouthful of boiled lollies!
What is costly is clay and firings. Denmark has little forest cover, unlike Norway which has lavish amounts, and wood is an expensive fuel. So firing your precious product into permanence is an exercise for consideration. Travel into Copenhagen, when a break from country life or nose to grindstone is called for, is again cheaper than would be found for similar distances in NZ, altogether a bit over $30 each way but if you want to eat well or go to some of the excellent museums around town, this again will be more expensive than you will find at home. Still, at home you cannot find much by the likes of Raphael or Rembrandt, Matisse or Picasso or view design from most of the masters of the 20th century.
So, do it but take a packed lunch and eat at one of the very pleasant squares to be found throughout the city or walk across a couple of canals to Christiania – Copenhagen’s ‘independent state’ within a former army estate and now a well treed hippy wilderness with vernacular ‘woodbutcher’s art’ housing not far from central city, or head for the famous Tivoli Gardens – the grand-daddy of all the world’s amusement parks and a blend of beer garden, Central Park and Disneyland just across the road from the main railway station.
It’s all very much worth the trip as long as you remember that Guldagergaard is a ceramic research centre and you have a definite project to work through be it 3D printing or testing glazes in a wood fire kiln or working out some new idea for form…. there is plenty of help available. Without a project it can become an aimless sojourn in a foreign place and rather pointless. So, it needs a little thought around ticking that box. But it’s worth ticking!