Certainly the last thing I expected to find in La Rioja, Spain, where most of the great wine of that country comes from, is a world famous potter, Antonio Naharro. What makes it all more important is that this President of Potters in Spain with at least 8 national prizes to his credit has a Jewish background.
It’s hard to miss his extremely large premises since the entire area in front of the workshop and store is filled with oversized pots that go from huge to small decorative pieces. Inside, the neatly organized shop are shelves displaying resplendent wonderful and colourful pottery, some natural colouration, others coloured in vibrant blue and red. The clay he uses comes from various regions in Spain. “Some are better for certain items, others may need more iron in the clay.”
His wife and he, years ago decided that the partnership they had at that time, was too stressful so they worked out a solution where he successfully became his own boss and never looked back. And off to the side in a smallish room compared to the size of the salesroom, is this slightly grey haired, handsome man of 68, with a twinkle in his eye and a smile that doesn’t seem to leave his face. And strangely, with the softest hands since I expected calluses and roughness.
Taking a good look at the photos of his father and mother, hanging in his office, the frame splashed with clay, it’s only when I see the telephone and the radio that I realize they are so covered with the red substance that they look like sculptures although both seem to be working since he took the phone at one time, still a land line, and turned off the radio when we entered
His hands are either dipping in red clay coloured water or grabbing a hunk of red clay and then setting down on the wheel. He has already done several dozens of similar soup size bowls, a large order from one restaurant client, and is trying to finish so that it can be sent out as soon as possible.
A dish for chicken and veggies
Like a baker, as soon as one tray is filled with newly formed bowls, he brings it over to a large rack on wheels. It’s amazing to watch the speed of his perfectly formed output (200-300 a day) even while we are having an interpreted interview from Spanish to English and vice versa.
During the conversation, he just happens to throw in the fact that he is of Jewish heritage. Ah, that’s unusual since here we are in the 21st century and in the 15th century most Jews went into exile or converted to Christianity, however some Jews still practiced but ‘underground’ So I asked about conversos and he didn’t have the faintest idea what I was talking about. Sure he’s Jewish but it doesn’t seem to make any difference since he is living in an area where there is only one other once Jewish family. The important issue today, he tells me, is that he comes from generations of potters and Jews.
Does he keep any of the traditions, not really, he tells me, since he doesn’t know what they are. But he is proud that he does have a Jewish ancestry. His take on that ugly time in Spain is that the rich were the people who were forced to leave or convert while the poorer crafts people who were needed, were left alone, not bothered by the new doctrine. History certainly has a way of being revised, altering to the needs of the country or person. And while we talked he switched suddenly from bowls to making in rapid time, a stunning pitcher with the ease of a man that has been a perfectionist for decades.
He has no intentions of retiring. “To what?” he asks, since he says everyday is joyous when he is at this studio in Salvatierra de los Barros (Badajoz). Here he meets people from all over the world, produces products that his agent sends to many European countries and the US.
Out in the larger room, there’s a small beaded curtained off area where he keeps his treasured collection, some dating back to 1500. From these he admits to taking inspiration with their shape and intricate detailing. They are beautiful. And since he is truly an artist, only his own best and most expensive products have his initials.
A huge kiln is nearby where the ceramics are baked. As for the best selling pieces, he laughs as he asks one of his staff members to bring in a strange looking object. The shiny red clay dish has a peculiar elongated central section and the dish skirt has curved sides. It’s for a whole chicken and the veggies are on the lower part hence a meal in one. The other big seller is a spoon holder which he tells me the tourists love to bring back as souvenirs and gifts.
So since he was 12 and watching with great enthusiasm and awe, his father turning out pottery, he decided that was his ambition so to learn more with a view trips, one to Paris at 17, he has never looked back about his choice and never regretted it.
Perhaps the only sadness for me as I looked over this large showroom with the racks and shelves of wonderful objects is that he didn’t seem more interested in details about his Jewish heritage and the Jews of Spain. Perhaps he was just too young to know about conversos, perhaps knowing the history upset me more than him.