Meet the artist: Ceramics, humanity and the self

Caroline Curmi - 15th March 2020

Life is made up of small experiences which, when fused together, create an intricate and highly profound narrative. Such is the motivation behind the works of one of Malta’s most celebrated artists and ceramists, Paul Scerri.

Nestled deep in the little alleyways behind Zurrieq’s parish church lies a little paradise of Paul Scerri’s creation. Walking through Maltese limestone corridors decorated with beautiful examples of Maltese art, we reach a magical space where the artist spends most of his time, in a little hut perched in the corner.

Fitted with a kiln, a thermally insulated chamber, and housing various tools, the structure serves as Paul’s workspace to bring his stunning creations to life. Despite his naturally bashful demeanour, Paul’s soulful narration indicates a passionate, sensitive and grounded interior.

His description of his art is poetic in its simplicity: “similarly to mankind, ceramics requires four indispensable elements. You have earth in the form of clay, water to mould it, air to dry it and fire to bake it,” he explains.

Admittedly, Paul picked up this manner of speech during his time studying at the State Institute of Ceramic Arts Gaetano Ballardini in Faenza, Italy, and it is one example of many tokens gathered during his time there which he carries with him to this day.

Paul’s time in Italy proved invaluable for his artistic development, and he shares a small anecdote: “one of my teachers there, Malio Tassinari, once saw me punching the clay to spread it out – in Perugia that’s what I’d always done and no one had ever batted an eye,” he analogises.

The artist recounts how his tutor had walked over to draw his attention and imparted an important lesson along the way: “they taught us that clay is not to be beaten but demands respect – to be smelt, heard, and even tasted.

That’s how you define its attributes,” Paul continues, adding that this perspective injected him with the passion for ceramics. Paul’s experience as an art lecturer is immediately reflected through the instinctive way he warms up a chunk of clay in his I enquire about this latest change and he explains that his intention was to mimic the lowered ears of a reprimanded dog.

Paul Cassar

Paul delves into a verbal mind map, gently explaining the piece’s intended message – isolation – and the details he aims to implement to visualise this sensation. Generally, Paul refrains from revealing the motif behind his artworks for two main reasons.

“If I tell you what this is, I’d feel as if I’m humiliating you because you have all the capacity to reach your own conclusion. And then again, if I tell you, I would be giving it away,” he explains.

Indeed, curiosity plays a big role when it comes to experiencing art, and visitors at his exhibitions often have a lot of questions to ask, but he prefers to leave them unanswered. The artist quickly draws up an example to highlight his firm stance on the matter.

“If you’re reading a book, you imagine your own version of the environment it depicts,” he explains, continuing, “now let’s say the book mentions a red vase, and you associate it with your grandmother’s transparent red vase. Once the film adaptation comes out and you realise that the vase shown there doesn’t match your vision, you will feel disappointed,” he says.

Despite this, Paul admits to favouring observations from one age group. “I enjoy listening to the children, because they’re innocent and are not influenced by anything. They don’t wait for you to narrate a story, they start narrating themselves – and usually some truth rises from their words,” he explains. Emotions are Paul’s creative fuel.

Paul Cassar

“My work is all the result of my own feelings,” he explains. “I’m not much of a talker, but I too have stories which I wish to share, and my work narrates them for me in a very delicate manner.”

We delve into the topic of past exhibitions and the intensity behind each starts to emerge.

A lengthy illness, a silent political commentary, ostracization and other life experiences are but some of the stories that led to his creations, and I’m blown away by the powerful subtlety with which the artist communicates such profound narrations.

As he flicks through a virtual album filled with exhibition images, one series catches my eye and I find myself quizzing Paul about it, who gracefully accepts and entertains each query and shares its history with me.

As part of an exhibition curated by Joe-Philippe Abela entitled Human Matter, the artist had produced a series of 10 human hearts, all depicting the emotional consequences born from one’s manner of being and loving: “this is the qalb tad-deheb, a heart of gold… this is the kind heart, it’s gnawed… this is an open heart with a clockwork built inside it… the evil heart... it has a chunk bitten off but that has been spat back out, and there are the seven deadly sins written on it,” he explains.

There is a certain simplicity behind these interpretations of such heavy topics, and I’m not at all surprised to hear about the series’ astounding success.

Such was its popularity that he went on to produce nine copies of each, with each one numbered and certified. One copy even sold for more than double its asking price at a recent art auction. Despite the pride generated from such public appreciation of his work, Paul’s focus is not financial. While he admits to the importance of money in life, he does not believe it is the source of happiness.

“A lobster would no longer be pleasant to eat if you consume it every day,” he explains, adding that when greedy people reach the top, they find themselves stuck as they have nowhere else to go. “When you have everything, you’re not happy.

Paul Cassar

“In fact, when you see celebrities’ children, they are dripping with boredom, not like the kids in Africa with their genuine smiles – that is my personal theory,” he says.

Paul chooses to focus on the imperfect and real, accentuating a person’s journey to reach their current state.

“I delight in depicting imperfect noses and crooked feet – those are the elements I seek out because of the stories they tell,” he says.

He slides a humorous jab at his own nose and links its similarity to the Roman noses he so often incorporates in his work, but his words are only meant as light-hearted commentary: “the self-portrait is in the spirit rather than the physical aspect.”

Ultimately, aesthetic perfection is not Paul’s mission: “traditional beauty doesn’t interest me,” he concludes, a phrase which highlights his personal belief of the nonexistence of perfection and emphasises that real and true beauty in its rawest forms can easily be spotted, if one is patient enough to look out for it.

This first appeared in the February/March edition of the Commercial Courier

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Meet the artist: Ceramics, humanity and the self