Years ago, near the bank of Lake Balaton, Hungary, a four-year-old Zsuzsa Ujj was playing with the clay that she found at the bottom of a puddle. Squeezing the wet earth between her fingers, she knew she had fallen in love. By the time she was 14, she was enrolled in a specialized high school to study ceramic arts, followed by a tenure at the Hungarian Academy of Crafts and Design. Today, she works full-time to craft porcelain Judaica with a uniquely contemporary but timeless style.
Ujj’s works combine simple elegance with joyful celebration. The smooth curves of her porcelain candlesticks and goblets may be cool to the touch, but they exude the inviting feeling of warmth. And as functional, spiritual objects, they are not just works of art, but important items in someone’s home, which the artist has treated with deep care. Some are ornamented with swaying leaves and vines; her Etsy shop warns that “the hand painted lines follow my breath and my heartbeats, so minor differences may occur.” Many others are left bare of any surface design, allowing their gentle geometry to speak for itself.
One shape repeats itself again and again in Ujj’s pieces: the form of a pomegranate. Ujj recounted that in Jewish tradition, “the pomegranate is a symbol of prosperity and fruitfulness.” An old Jewish teaching holds that the pomegranate has 613 seeds (of course, an approximation, as the number of seeds varies from fruit to fruit), which correspond to the 613 mitzvot, or commandments laid out for the Jewish people in the Bible.
Ujj is not just drawn to the traditional Jewish symbolism of pomegranates, but also to the math behind their globular shape. A former geometry teacher in an arts school, she has a deep understanding of sine waves and parabolas, and is fascinated with the numbers on invisible axes that determine organic curves. “They always look harmonic,” she told Hyperallergic. For Ujj, the pomegranates are like endless attempts to solve a math problem. “What I always like to play with in my work is to connect these positive and negative shapes,” she said. “I still haven’t found the ideal solution.”
Crafting porcelain is a long and difficult process, so each of these experiments represents many weeks of work. After hand carving and pouring casts, porcelain requires a kiln that can fire at temperatures over 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,427 degrees Celsius).
“This kind of work with porcelain in a small studio like mine has only been possible since the ’90s,” said Ujj. That was when NASA developed a ceramic coating for insulating their spacecraft, which when made available to the larger public, allowed smaller kilns to reach those high temperatures without allowing heat to escape. Before that, only wealthy, private manufacturies could produce porcelain through methods they often kept top secret. Hungary is home to legendary workshops like Herend Manufactory and Zsolnay, the latter of which was renowned for producing sinewy, Art Nouveau masterpieces, coated with gleaming, iridescent glazes. Ujj takes inspiration from this Hungarian Art Nouveau legacy as well, as evident in her undulating, life-like forms.
Ceramic Jewish art itself is a highly contemporary phenomenon in the diaspora, and until recently, had little precedent in Jewish history. Go to any Jewish history museum, and you’ll usually find shelves of menorahs and spice boxes made with metals like pewter and silver.
“This kind of porcelain collection has no tradition, because these pieces are very fragile,” Ujj told Hyperallergic. “In the history of Jewish people, there was a lot of moving from one place to another. Of course, metal survives that. But glass and ceramic, not so much.”
Ujj sees the market for ceramic Judaica as a sign that, in comparison to even more turbulent times in history, the customers feel secure in their homes. “When people buy this, I think it is a sign that we feel very safe, now that we can invest into pieces that are not so easy to carry. I hope that this safe period lasts long.”
Bobby Wilson Combats Indigenous Stereotypes Through Humor
The artist-performer’s career undulates, ever so gracefully, across multiple mediums and registers of generational pain, healing laughter, and Indigenous joy.
Rare 19th-Century Silhouette Album’s Secrets Unlocked
Traveling portrait artist William Bache’s album depicts famous figures like Thomas Jefferson as well as people whose identity was previously unknown.
Haggerty Museum of Art Presents Tomás Saraceno in Dialogue With Dr. Somesh Roy
The artist and researcher will explore soot’s effects on climate change and public health in this online conversation.
McKnight Visual Artist Fellows Discussion Series at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
The series features 2021 Fellows David Bowen, Mara Duvra, Rotem Tamir, Ben Moren, and Dyani White Hawk in conversation with renowned curators and critics.
Artists Show What They Can Do With a Google Phone’s Camera
Works by 21 photographers are now on view in Manhattan for the seventh season and 100th project coming out of the Google Pixel Creator Labs.
Nevada Museum of Art Presents Adaline Kent: The Click of Authenticity
For the first time in nearly 60 years, the innovative yet under-recognized artist is the subject of a retrospective exhibition. On view in Reno, Nevada.
Met Museum Kicked Me Out for Praying to My Ancestral Gods
My danced prayer to looted Cambodian antiquities was too much for the New York museum.
A Museum Guard’s Ode to the Healing Power of Art
In All the Beauty in the World, Patrick Bringley revisits the many ways that art meets life, and life art, and how death is often the bridge between them.
The Public Theater in NYC Presents Plays for the Plague Year
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’s theatrical concert chronicles the 2020 lockdown and the hope and perseverance that emerged from it.
UK Extends Export Ban on Coveted “Portrait of Omai”
London’s National Portrait Gallery was given a few months to acquire the work, which depicts the first Polynesian visitor to the UK.
The Sculptor Making Art With Loved Ones’ Ashes
Inspired by the three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julian Stair’s exhibition honors the lives of eight people with cinerary jars.
Mondays at Pratt Institute: Weekly Openings of Work by Graduating Artists
Free and open to the public, Pratt Shows celebrate the school’s graduating students. MFA and BFA work on view this spring in Brooklyn, New York.
Art Institute of Chicago Under Scrutiny Over Sacred Nepali Necklace
The 17th-century object remains on display at the Chicago museum despite Nepal’s calls for repatriation.
Art Problems: How Do I Get a Public Art Commission?
Want to leave a mark on your city or town, but don’t know where to start? Paddy Johnson has some tips.