His creations, the pyramids of the ages, have turned the hearts and crowned years of hard work, with the prestigious Prize Bettancourt in 2010. Claude Aïello is a ceramic turner … of lives! Those of people of nations which he molded so that it becomes beautiful demographic jars; Those of his two younger brothers whom he trained in the profession; Those of the designers of the world for whom he will create unique and beautiful pieces; Those of the students and professionals for whom he’s a model and leader to become as well turners of works of art. With great humility and true mastery, Claude the craftsman continues to innovate in his workshop of Vallauris, pushing the boundaries of his art ever further to create vibrant works before our eyes.
Claude Aïello comes from a family of three generations of ceramists of Italian origin. “I am the eldest of 7 children. My grandfather was a ceramist. My father also became so, and his specialty was the wood-burning ovens.” At the age of 13, he arrived in France to follow his father who settled down in Vallauris, and he took up the ceramics because “he had to work as well.” But since the beginning, he was attracted by the turning of pieces and how from a ball of soil, one can create a shape! His father spoke to his employer and as soon as they find a wheel, they installed it for him. “Later, my dad even bought me a mechanic potter’s wheel- which is still in the basement.” He then began his apprenticeship in a traditional fired-clay factory, and he had been trained by several ceramic turners from Vallauris. One of them, Jacques-Fernand Orsini (Best Worker in France) will become a Master, instilling him a taste for the job. “He taught me to create and think out of the box to find my own way.”At the beginning, however, his orientation will remain classic.
He will start his own business in 1974 making a local production; mainly pots and kitchen tools. While his orders were exploding, he will flip totally the other way. He was thinking of expanding his workshop by installing a dryer, but his wife will suggest that he turns to single pieces and limited series. “I felt a bit of lassitude and my brothers had just left. As a result, I became more oriented towards the turn, which is an excellent creation tool.” And from there, in the 80s, he will start his collaboration with Orsini and the designers.
Very quickly, he creates unique and tailor-made pieces. Inquisitive about all subjects, and thanks to the influence of the trend-setters designers, Claude Aïello will work fashionable colors and shapes. The success will come in 1998 with the operation “Two designers in Vallauris” launched by the Ministry of Culture and Communication. The aim was to highlight the know-how of local craftsmen and to build real alliances to renew the production of earthenware. Ronan Bouroullec and Frédéric Ruyant will call him and the success is immediate. Similar partnerships will follow soon, and his unique know-how will be rewarded in 2010, with the highest distinction of Liliane Bettencourt Prize for The Intelligence of the Hand.
His art culminates in these prized artworks. He admitted it himself: “I could never have done this creation ten years before. And he will stress for 5 months, overcoming all difficulties. The project is titled “The Age of the World” with designer Mathieu Lehanneur: a series of pieces that model the age pyramids of the populations of different countries such as France, the United States, Japan, Russia or Egypt. Each piece will weigh 100 kg in the end and will all be turned by hand, without any machine intervention. A feat at each stage of manufacture! Both in the metering of materials to resist cooling, turning itself and shaping. “To achieve this part, I took 36 kg of clay almost 2 bags. I made it upside down on a tray, and once it was turned, there was a return to the horizontal which was very difficult.” Claude Aïello then created a base frame inside the piece to make it hold. “I had never done that in my life and I learned so much despite all my experience.” In the end, he will give birth to works of an incredible beauty, with precision of exactly 100 strata, all laid there in his workshop. It was magical! And all visitors will encourage him to present the pieces in a contest, in addition to the Vallauris Biennale that he will won. But the most emotional memory for Claude is when his friend, a painter from Auvergne region, will see the pieces and will go to weep. “Today, he is no longer of this world but I feel his benevolent presence in the workshop.” And there, it is his artisan friend who is moved to tears …
The most important thing for the master-ceramist is to create, and it is possible at all stages of his craft. It is also to keep the same wonder, and it’s still magical for him, after 45 years of practicing, to forget the notion of time when on the wheel, giving birth to objects. To do so, it is necessary to exercise without becoming discouraged, until mastering the shaping, the drying, the constraints of the fire and the placing in the oven. And know all the parameters and the different types of clays: the red, brown or white ones and not to mention enamelling with different colors and materials. These craft is learned with perseverance and passion, and there is great patience to acquire because it will take at least 8 years of experience before having pleasure at work.
Today, Claude humbly recognizes that he can create all forms. This art ceramist shapes unique pieces and finds his joy in succeeding each of them. His mastery made him one of the few craftsmen to be able to turn parts of large sizes. “With each project, I have a challenge to meet and I am satisfied when the piece is finished.” Claude Aïello continues his collaboration with designers from all walks of life, and dares atypical associations like textiles and ceramics, for example. He also has models he designed for a personal collection. “I made a nice table recently.” Each time, in an inspired way, with resolutely modern forms, which bring innovation and creativity.
In Vallauris, world capital of ceramics, Claude Aïello continues to create, with the genius of a Picasso valuing a long line of tradition pottery. “This trade dates back to the Gallo-Roman era! ” He exclaimed proudly … “A client even showed me a local amphora dating back to 2,500 BC.” His business is now classified as a Living Heritage and he teaches every week in an art school, advising relentlessly to transform the trade and perpetuate vocations. “There were nearly 32 factories in the middle of the 19th century that have disappeared, but the pottery continues evolving towards artistic ceramics.” An ancestral know-how with a need to innovate that he transmits in his improvement courses. With his students, Claude encourages to find their personal way of expression.
Earth is his element. Roundness is the form he likes, and there is in Claude Aïello’s art a great maternal fruition. He is sensitive and generous, and full of simplicity, with a great openness to others, in his small workshop in Vallauris. For there he began his career and there, he chose to become a ceramist of art, being a precursor of a trade that is now lived with and for the others. His exceptional manual intelligence and total mastery of his craft made him become an actor, incubator, inspiration and life leader, showing constantly how to turn and return to the essentials: the origin of life.
Interview held by Carine Mouradian on July 22, 2017, at Vallauris (Provence Côte d’Azur)
“ We are more genuine today because the trade has changed, and the customer relationship too. Before, one used to become a potter in the pure tradition, making a production of small series in the culinary and the utilitarian tools: coffee cups, pots and glasses of orangeade. It was a real know-how and the result of a real demand with special gifts for all types of events: lunch at the grandmother’s, the wedding of a neighbor or the concierge presents. Today, all customers without exception, want a customized piece, adapted to their needs and personal tastes. They have also become very demanding, willing to pay the price for a piece that pleases them, and it is often a pleasure purchase for oneself or to offer. We are therefore in the tailor-made and co-creation of unique pieces, or at least in small series. The relationship has therefore become more artistic and emotional; This is why we must be true and authentic.
This trade change has consequences on the local economy. There were 130 factories in Vallauris when I started. Today, the city model and the profession are threatened. The craft of ceramist persists but the difficulty is to make itself known and to work beyond the general scope. Creation is the solution and for that, we have to master the craft, much more than in the past. Collaboration with designers is successful because they are constantly on the lookout for trends and new ideas. The profession becomes much more elaborate and exciting for those who are inventive, and give their best in each new project. This is what I like most and the best example was my work with the pyramids of the ages. I did not know if I could do it, but I was the only one who took the challenge; And I had to face all kind of technical difficulties during 5 months, finding solutions with my experience. In the end, it was amazing pieces that summarized all the know-how of a career and a trade. I still have the first piece, the pyramid of Japan, which came out broken from the oven at the time of cooling and I show it as an example to my students.
My view of the consumer society remains optimistic because, although most customers are looking for convenience, there is still a clientele who places value on high-quality products. It is true that there is a loss of value in relation to objects. Many young people no longer attach importance to set the table with their grandmother’s good china for example that they will keep all their lives after their marriage. This tradition is replaced by pleasure in immediacy. But there is also a reversal and I am convinced that great work, like a beautiful jewel, will always find takers. Perhaps this is due to the current economic situation. A unique piece has an invaluable emotional value and will keep it a lifetime. That is why I believe that the world will increasingly invest in authenticity. I made a present recently for a movie actor in the United States. I turned to him a dish that is related to his trade and customized, written on his name and a sentence of Cocteau.
If I am genuine, it is because of my profession. I can’t tell so many hours I have spent here in my craftwork and to make grow this passion, I had to disregard many things to keep only the best and the essential. So today, I feel closer to human value, respect for the person and the relationship, than to appearances and role plays. The clay does not lie. It educates to the humility. I can even say that it teaches you how to lower yourself, regardless of your success and at all stages of a career. All the masters of ceramics claim that and one always has a pinch to the heart when opening its furnace to discover the surprise, good or bad. Even knowing all the parameters perfectly, the clay will always surprise us. And yet we do the same gesture, the same dosage but just an air bubble for example and we have to take it all back.
It is important to recognize the ceramist’s work, especially when it is done with four hands. To me it sounds incredible that all this hard work remains in the shadow, and one forgets to quote the artisan who realized it. This recognition is fundamental, because he chose to serve a project rather than devoting his time to his personal creation. Being respected and recognized will permit tthis type of collaboration to continue and to become an amazing experience, full of success.
My concern today is to convey this know-how and give meaning to all this work. For young passionate people, it is crucial to find a good master of learning, who will believe in their potential and reveal their handmade gift that unfolds in this trade! But I encourage my students to always find the right balance. It is not necessary to do it in big steps and to burn the crucial stages of learning. One must persevere, start again and work hard. And once they acquire the technique in their fingers, they can listen to their desires and express themselves through this art. So, perseverance and passion educate our hands which will become the greatest work tool and will bring a permanent pleasure.
In conclusion, one becomes authentic by producing one-off individual pieces which tell what life is all about, who is the person who makes them and talks about those to whom it is intended. By a trick … of magic! ”
Interview held by Carine Mouradian on July 22, 2017, at Vallauris (Provence Côte d’Azur)