La Bisbal’s ceramics tradition dates back hundreds of years, although no one is exactly sure when to date its beginnings. The reason for its existence is clear—La Bisbal has huge deposits of clay. For centuries, La Bisbal’s pottery was an artisanal endeavour, but it became an important industry. Driving toward La Bisbal, the red brick smokestacks that jut dramatically skyward are its most visible icons, but by no means its oldest. The stacks, approximately 10 stories high, once carried smoke from wood-fired kilns. In the early 1900s, these kilns were replaced by electric or gas energy, and ceramics production just kept growing apace.
The capital of the comarca of Baix Empordà, and an hour northwest of Barcelona, La Bisbal is the leading ceramic centre of Catalunya. It is unusual in that its production is diverse. Ceramics used in the building industry like bricks, tiles for pools and interiors, roofing materials and drainpipes, are manufactured, as is household pottery made by dozens of potters. This includes mugs, plates, sangría pitchers, platters and other tableware.
Jaume Rulduà Ros started his business in 1976 and makes pottery reflecting traditional patterns and glazes. He did not grow up in a family of clay artists. “As a boy, I would wander the streets of La Bisbal watching the potters at work in their studios and decided to go to school to learn,” he told Metropolitan.
For five years, Rulduà attended the design college Escola Massana in Barcelona. Upon returning to La Bisbal, he set up his studio in 1976. The clay body Rulduà uses is terracotta, a red clay. One recent day, he agreed to show a visitor how he works. With a relaxed, focused expression, he put a hunk of terracotta on his potter’s wheel. Continually adding water, he cupped the clay with both hands. Strong fingertips centred the clay, making the surface even so that the form was symmetrical. As a highly-skilled potter, Rulduà can throw several bowls in a row, all the same size, without measuring. While the electric wheel spun rapidly, he magically transformed the clay. He dipped a sponge into water, and back onto the piece of spinning clay to keep it wet, able to feel the perfect amount of moisture that allowed the clay to be malleable without collapsing.
After the pieces dried, Rulduà dipped them into a glaze using traditional tones of golden yellows and soft greens. Images like small flowers, chickens and horses, are painted on each piece, creating a folk-art quality. The next step was to place the glazed work on a six-foot-high cart that is on tracks. As a production potter, who sells both wholesale and retail and has a substantial output, he uses a large kiln. The cart was wheeled on the tracks into the electric kiln and fired to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit. The entire firing process takes 24 hours, and when it is completed his work is ready for market.
Another La Bisbal ceramicist, Antonia Roig Perera, has 37 years of experience producing her finely designed line of functional and decorative contemporary art. She works on a potter’s wheel and also uses porcelain to do hand-building. Porcelain is a difficult clay to work with, but the results produce thin, delicate yet strong pieces. It is perfect for her hanging lamps, sconces and votive holders, as the clay is translucent and allows the light to glow. There is a Japanese influence in some of Roig’s sleek pottery—her bowls with delicately turned feet, sake cups, teapots and other serving pieces. Dinner plates, cups, nesting bowls and vases tend to be angular in soft greens, purples, white, beiges and blacks. Painterly wall designs are also a part of her line.
Roig’s studio is located on the picturesque Passeig de Marimon Asprer, a wide walking path lined with plane trees on the Daro River. With her own gallery, she is one of the few artists in La Bisbal who creates contemporary work. Her studio is jumbled, but with its own sense of order: curved sconces left to dry, finished mugs in a box, a stack of plates waiting to be glazed and hand tools in a jar. Three electric kilns are lined up ready to produce their magic. Roig described her process: “After making the pieces, I let them dry for 10 days. They are fired, glazed and fired again to 2,336 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The Terra Cotta Musuem, currently being renovated, has part of its collection in La Bisbal’s Castle Palace of the Bishops of Girona, an important example of Romanesque architecture in Catalunya. In the museum, a retrospective of pottery dating from Roman times is on display: An unusual item is a Roman jug with small holes on the top that was used for watering plants. Early oil lamps and a variety of storage containers are also on exhibit. While castles, in general, are not known for their cosiness, this one, being small, has a homey feel to it and is worth a visit. The castle is in the old centre, a small maze of narrow streets with intimate squares that are perfect for a lunch and watching the Friday outdoor market.
Shopping for ceramics in La Bisbal is paradise for those who love hand-made pottery. Yes, there is junk, as imports have wheedled their way into La Bisbal. Overlook the cow head pencils, flowered china thimbles and plastic sheep. Thousands of La Bisbal pottery pieces sing with colour, and the energy of the potter’s hand transcends the trash. On the outskirts of the city, large stores are lined with thousands of garden urns, outdoor statuary and in-home ware. Over two dozen shops in the city have pottery tumbling out their doors onto the pavements. There is an abundance of storage jars, colourful wash basins, sculptures and tiles. Hand-made bowls are two to three euros, mugs four euros and plates about six euros. Find the slight groove of the potter’s fingers on the inside, and sometimes outside, of the pot. These small pathways usually mean the piece was made by hand. In buying hand-made pottery, visitors have a chance to take home part of the spirit of the artist that honours tradition.
Not for sale are those smokestacks. They are staying just where they are, yet another piece of La Bisbal art.
Tourist information office: The personnel here can call clay artists and arrange a studio appointment, and it's a great opportunity to see artists at work. Plaça del Castel; Winter: Tuesday - Friday, 10am-1pm; 3-5pm; Saturday: 11am-2pm; 5.30-8pm. Sunday: 11am-2pm. Summer: 11am-2pm; 5.30-8pm. Closed on Sunday afternoon and Monday. Tel. 972 64 51 66.
Rulduà Ceramica: Plaça de la Llibertat; www.rulduaceramica.com
Rogenca D'Ullastret Ceramistes: 112 Carrer l'Aigueta; firstname.lastname@example.org
Castle Palace of the Bishops of Girona: Same hours as Tourist Information Office.
Shopping (west side of town): Carrer de L'Aigueta: Pottery stores and a few antique stores line this street; it's packed in July and August.
The Old Bridge: This bridge was built in 1606. It has two arches and spans the dry bed of the Daro River.