It’s not often that you meet someone who’s so enamoured with their craft that their excitement and energy towards it is infectious. This was my experience upon speaking with ceramicist George Muscat, who, despite an artistic career spanning several decades, harbours a passion and enthusiasm for ceramics that is difficult to convey.
“With ceramics, you can either read a lot about it, or you can learn through experimentation,” says the ceramist, who received his education at the Salvatore Dimech School for Craftsmen under the tutorship of Gabriel Caruana between 1975 and 1978. He went on to attend various courses by Maltese and foreign artists which, together with a good deal of experimentation, contributed in making him an excellent thrower, as well as enabling him to acquire several hand building and glazing techniques.
George’s first encounter with his treasured medium came about at the tender age of 14. He recalls sitting for an entrance exam to get into what is now MCAST in Targa Gap. The exam consisted of a still life drawing and creating a clay tile, and George placed first. “It was the first time I had ever touched clay,” he smiles.
Being taught by the late Gabriel Caruana, who George fondly refers to as ‘maestro’, George likens his approach to ceramics to Gabriel’s own in their preference for spontaneity, albeit, he admits, it wasn’t always the case. Directing me to a sculpture from his first exhibition in 1997, the artist explains that the sculpture, denoting Dwejra in Gozo, took him a week to complete. “It wouldn’t be the case today,” he says, explaining, “today, I’ll just create clay canvases which allow me to be spontaneous,” pointing at a few he has on his workbench. “These take about an hour to do, and I’ll have three, four or five ready for when I’m feeling inspired. For me, the faster I complete a piece and the more spontaneous it is, the more I like it.”
He links this immediacy to casting, which is among his specialities. “Casting is the closest I can get to photography – to capturing a moment,” he asserts, “if I were to cast your hand, the mould captures it, in that moment. Filling that mould with clay or resin is like developing a photo.”
Looking back on his journey, George recalls having to make the decision to work in construction after completing his studies, and despite his true passion being art, he admits that the experience taught him a lot. “I realised that I couldn’t make a living from art, so I started working with my father. I branched out on my own and became self-employed some time later,” he says, adding that for 10 years, his main focus was work, comprising mainly of construction and tile laying.
He’d still join his mentor, Gabriel Caruana, for classes in the evenings, and was eventually entrusted with delivering evening ceramics classes for adults at the same school in which he had studied. He taught for a while, before taking a break to focus on building a house for his young family. Standing now within the studio of the house he built, he looks around and says, “it took me two years and eight months to finish this house, part-time, after work.” And once he had his own studio, there was nothing else for it: it was finally time for George to focus on ceramics properly. “I bought my first kiln and started working, holding my first exhibition in 1997. It all went from there,” he recalls with a smile.
“Art critic Emanuel Victor Borg would always tell me that it’s selfish to work and not exhibit, because art is made to be shared, so I put up my first exhibition,” he says, and after that, another art critic, George Glanville, gave him a valuable piece of advice that would spur George to push himself ever harder. “He told me, ‘there is no looking back now. There’s a ladder you have to climb.’ And after each successive successful exhibition he’d warn me, ‘you’re climbing the ladder quickly, be careful not to lose your footing. It’s OK to keep to the same step, so long as you don’t move a step down.’ That put a lot of pressure on – it’s what makes putting on an exhibition stressful once you gain a reputation,” he laughs.
Asked about his technique, George shudders, “I don’t keep to a technique. It’s more about finding new things and trying to apply them. I’m constantly changing.” The ceramist explains that to him, having a style is akin to falling into a comfort zone. “Why would you only do this?” he asks, gesturing at a cast. “Should I only do plates, because they sell like pastizzi? No – I do what I feel in that moment. Sticking to a style is like working in a production line in a factory, and I’m afraid of that,” he laments. “If there’s anything that I’d like people to take away from my work it’s happiness,” he continues, adding that he wants his work to make people happy.
Apart from the evening ceramics class, George also introduced Japanese pottery technique raku as a course in Malta, going on to give raku lessons at MCAST Institute of Art and Design. And despite enjoying teaching and planning to return to give evening classes now, he admits that long term, his primary focus remains his art.
Asked about his creative process, George can’t resist joking, “the worst is when you have commissions! I would love to only work when I’m in the mood, but when you have a commission, you can’t do that.” The animated ceramist brings out a slab of clay to illustrate the spontaneous element he favours in his work, and the changeability of his chosen medium. He carves out a small section of clay and works it with his hands, forming a ball before throwing it and flattening it against the table.
“This is the beauty of spontaneity,” he says, using a tool to make markings in the surface of the clay. “This technique is called stretching,” he explains, as he picks up the piece of clay and with the skill of someone who’s done this many times before, begins to throw it, at an angle, against the table. With each throw, the scored markings stretch and change, transforming the surface of the slab entirely.
It’s no surprise then, that the artist is so inspired by his medium. “Once you begin working with clay, it makes you want to know more – it makes you want to control it, and leaves you frustrated because you can’t.” He directs me to three rectangular pieces coated in finely crushed glass, which are waiting on his workbench to be fired at a later stage. They denote the Vitorja, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ, he explains, and were all done quickly, in one day. Pointing to the area around each piece that shows where the clay has contracted and shrunk, he explains, “these need to sit for seven to eight weeks, in order for the clay to lose 80 per cent of its moisture,” and only then can they be fired and the results be seen.
And with an artistic journey spanning so many years, the ceramist is bound to have highlights. Looking back on the myriad pieces he’s created, he reveals, “one of my personal favourite pieces is hanging in the main hall of the ONE TV studio in Marsa, and it’s called Malta. It’s a big, colourful piece that denotes what makes up our island, and looked at from afar, taking in all the different pieces, it takes the form of a fish. Across from it, there is another of my pieces called The Day After – a landscape filled with recycled glass, which I also really like. Another memorable piece was one I did for then-President of Malta Dr George Abela, which is at Verdala Palace.”
His work has also taken him across the globe, with travels to Egypt and China among several trips during which he represented Malta alongside other international artists. And it was in Egypt in 2000 that George met his idol, ceramist Nicolas Pit. “My work was included in a book featuring the work of 500 artists that was published from that trip, and as luck would have it, they placed my work on the same page as that of Nicolas Pit,” he grins.
And with nine personal exhibitions under his belt, I ask the tireless George, what’s next? His reply is humble and once again, reveals his tireless energy towards his craft. “I just want to keep working, so my wish is to be able to do so. One of my primary focuses at the moment is casting, and I’d like to continue exploring that, as well as nurturing and helping other artists, and forming part of other artistic projects. And hopefully, there will also be another exhibition on the cards soon.” We can’t wait to see what’s next.
This article originally appeared in The Commercial Courier