‘what about us?’

Play Movie

‘what about us?’


to Katherine Kennard
reading this story


Winter 2024

‘what about us?’

There is something magical about the winter light in the Swiss mountains: a clarity that makes everything in sight perfectly defined. The contours of the mountains, the edges of the roofs, the trimmed trees, the curved lanterns on the streets. And then the sun emerges, ascending behind a peak, as clear as the air itself.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2757
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2789
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3619

As its timid warmth caresses the narrow stone paths between buildings and the streets, the biting cold lingers in the unheated houses of ancient times. Within them, the air feels so pure that it almost stings your nostrils with each breath. It penetrates deep within, and there it stays.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2806
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2838
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2839
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2791

As we sit in a room of Helga Ritsch’s atelier house in Soazza, enveloped by its dark, warm wooden walls, it’s as though we were suspended between worlds – the crispness of the outside and the subdued darkness of the inside. Despite its stark, unadorned presence, the house radiates a depth and aura that feels deeply primal, as if it were there to make us feel embraced and protected. This marks the first of numerous dualities we’ll discover. With Helga we’ve entered a realm that questions and reveals the intricate layers of existence, both knowingly and unknowingly. What begins as something diametrically opposed gradually reaches a state of equilibrium, in a perpetual dance where each side alternately takes the lead.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3618
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3441
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3240

It isn’t until the late morning that the sunlight appears in the atelier house. Low on the horizon, it casts atmospheric beams of light across the room that feel almost palpable in the distance. This is one of Helga’s favourite rooms: it is here where she spends much of her time when she isnt working. Regularity doesn’t suit her, which led to her decision to cease commission work long ago. She might immerse herself in her work from dawn till dusk for days on end, only to then spend days or weeks without creating a single piece. During these quiet spells, she often finds herself seated in this room, on one of the three minimalist wooden chairs, lost in a book. As someone who has pursued different interests throughout her life, she reads multiple books at once. Between the many volumes, titles on German philology and architecture appear frequently, reflecting her academic and professional background in these areas.

Life moulds us, not always to our desires, but to what we truly need. That’s been my journey.


agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3066

The deeper your acquaintance with her grows, the more it seems she has led multiple lives. Mention this, and instead of the genuine pride you might anticipate, her demeanour shifts, as if a momentary sadness has overshadowed it. True to her straightforward nature, Helga doesn’t leave you guessing: she’ll openly tell you that her diverse and intense pursuits have taken a toll on her health. While she considers herself an extrovert, experience has taught her what her body and mind need most: time for herself and herself alone. It’s something she has always found in Soazza, which is perhaps the reason that she has been recently spending most of her time here.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3651
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2818
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3632
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2833

This place soothes her being. While her eyes sparkle as she talks about Milan, its vibrant buzz and lively atmosphere, acknowledging that some thrive in such a city without hankering after any personal space, she knows she needs some distance for herself. So, this space – her space – with its shallow roofs, its many small rooms and its overall purist look becomes the ideal canvas, not just for her individual pieces but also for her being.


Helga works in collections – a winter and a summer cycle. Before she starts creating in the winter, she transforms her atelier house into an archive, a space for self-reflection that assembles works spanning back to 30 years. Her interest in ceramics was sparked in her teenage years, but it wasn’t until later that she pursued it professionally. At that time, this craft had few enthusiasts in Europe, but she embraced it nonetheless – or perhaps even because of its lack of popularity. There is a side of her that runs into challenges head-on: when others say that something she cares about is not possible or feasible, she will test it for herself. That might explain why black porcelain is one of her favourite materials, even though it is so volatile and challenging to shape.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3457
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3367

The ‘winter sleep’, as she fondly calls her archive, has become a personal ritual. It is a reflection of her work ethos, where, much like this ritual, she creates from an inner compulsion, not for the sake of others’ approval or admiration. That does not prevent her from being genuinely interested in how others view her pieces and engage with them. Yet she prefers her objects to speak for themselves, as articulating her own perspective on them doesn’t come naturally to her.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3011
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3010

While a profound thoughtfulness permeates her essence, she also possesses a light-hearted nature, marked by openness and a deep-seated intuition. This becomes evident in her interactions and her keen perception of her surroundings. It is also present in the sparkle in her eyes, her laughter that resonates through the room and the warm way she tells any personal stories.

A form of a piece unfolds as I engage with it, emerging from a deep, inner place.

These two sides of her, if not more, come alive in her work, where intellect and intuition guide her creations. “I begin with a concept, an initial idea, yet without a definitive blueprint,” she says. “The final form of a piece unfolds as I engage with it, emerging from a deep, inner place.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2904

As we enter her studio, we are overwhelmed by many visual cues: her beautiful desk, a small sideboard library, and a plethora of objects – each one of them carefully placed, each an eye-catcher of its own. “This is my room; usually no one else enters it,” she says. But we are welcome during her ‘winter sleep’. In one corner, one or two old ceramic tiles with a turquoise glaze rest with intention, marking a significant beginning. Across the room, our attention is drawn to the quirky charm of a large, brown chicken, its form organic and uneven. This piece captivates us, perhaps because its unexpectedness is a testament to its importance to Helga, warranting its unique place in the studio. Alongside these initial creations, there are also a few turned pieces.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3075
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3743
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3588
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3761
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3432


While her voice guides us through tales of a distant past, accompanied by the old wood creaking under our shoes, we discover unexpected pieces and glimpses of today’s Helga, pieces that show her growth as much as the innate clarity of her vision.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2843
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3306
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3396
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3443

Her study of structural forms has been a constant companion on her path, perhaps a remainder of her previous life as an architect. With it comes the marriage of the wide and the narrow, the juxtaposition of the smoothest porcelain with raw stoneware. Above all, it introduces a purity of shapes that feels utterly human in its striking perfection, and which cannot be replicated.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2909
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2915

Helgas early work often adhered to the traditional norms of ceramics while she was learning this craft with its full glazing techniques and complexity in production. Over time, however, she simplified her approach to its core. What may seem a deliberate choice towards a form of purism, which undoubtedly fits her being, was in fact more practical than conceptual at its root. All the specialised tools, such as a glazing spray gun and compressor, demand regular maintenance – a task in which she found little joy. Consequently, Helga sold her extraneous equipment to concentrate on what she enjoys doing on repeat. Because ceramics takes relentless practice, and then some more.


The potter’s wheel, especially, doesn’t spare frustration to those who want to master it. At the outset, the young Helga steered clear of it, as she felt that the wheel was dictating the forms more than her own intentions. Yet she could not let go of it either.

It was under the persistent urging of master ceramist Mathies Schwarze that she eventually allowed herself to be persuaded. He played a crucial role in two respects: refining her classical pottery skills and helping her come to the realisation that there wasn’t more he could teach her. This became a pivotal moment for Helga to advance and shape her own journey. To this day, she speaks about him with warm respect, remembering joyful moments when they worked four-handed to craft the tall candlestick that appears in her archive exhibit. “You don’t necessarily need four hands, but it is more fun to do it together, so thats what we did,” she remembers, laughing.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3688
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2829
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3110
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3221

They have remained in touch over the years, but didn’t speak or meet up regularly. At some point they discussed a joint exhibit. Helga was hesitant, as it would require a space worthy of the pieces. She pauses, and then she specifies “a space worth having his work on display.” Her demeanour shows that she genuinely means these words. “When I finally had the right space,” she continues, “it was too late as unfortunately he was already sick.” A veil of sadness comes over her, but this time it is accompanied by a gentle smile of acceptance for what cannot be changed. An immense strength and a profound humanity live within Helga – along with many other facets of her character you might not see at first.

Mathies Schwarze was born on the same day as her father, who sadly passed away when she was in her mid-twenty. This tied them together – or her to him. Not in terms of a father figure – she does not seem to have searched for one – but rather because this fact seemed to connect their lives. When she speaks of that joint exhibition that never was, we are reminded of one of her recurring themes, ‘memento mori’ – remember that one day you must die. You will be only a memory, so don’t miss the moment. A constant reminder ever since her father’s passing. In her creations, she favours the elemental simplicity of a circle and a cross to convey this theme, moving away from traditional symbols such as skulls, candles, and flowers. Ever since she explained it to us, we have seen how much it matters to her. It is omnipresent in her atelier – clearly evident in some paintings, hidden in others, or to be found in the marks of a metal brush on a black porcelain piece.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A2968
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3387

Asked if she wonders about what memory will remain of her, she candidly answers, “No, Im not concerned about that.” She says it with a hint of surprise, as if this question has never even occurred to her. Just as she doesn’t work to please others, she does not live to be remembered. She lives for herself, focused on doing what she feels compelled to do, in the way that feels most authentic to her – because at any moment everything could become nothing but a memory – and then what have you lived for?


Helga gives each of her artistic cycles a working title, always ending with a question mark. “It reflects my penchant for philosophical inquiry,” she explains. Some titles are personal, like ‘welcomehome?’, her 2023 summer cycle in which she questions if Soazza could be her ‘forever home’. Others delve into even more profound personal depths, yet their engagement with universal themes resonates within us all – as is the case for the current cycle. “‘what about us?’ is complicated,” she smiles. “It’s a question that’s been in my head for a long time, and it remains unanswered.” It is about what happens to us, to things. What if we meet a person or not, if a form has a twist or not, what happens if two forms are combined? What happens with us in any type of connection we might experience? Whether our formative relationship with our parents, a first love, or having a dear friend or a companion. What do we do, when we know that eventually we will turn into a memory? And all that memory makes of us.

Life is a journey that we shape, giving it direction, much like Helga begins her creations with a vision. Yet it also sculpts us in return – in subtle, mysterious ways that we might not fully grasp as it all happens. Similarly, Helga’s pieces emerge from a deep place within her, manifesting in ways and forms she finds difficult to explain, as if they breathe with their own essence.

As part of her winter cycle she focuses on things that give her a thrill and a reason to do what she does: the known and the unknown. She finds her way back to a white porcelain, which she has not worked with in months. While she knows the material well, she discovers it anew. With it, but also with black porcelain and stoneware, she conducts experiments to see what happens to the shapes, the materials and the objects if she blends forms together, adds a real or an apparent opening, uses a touch of a deep green glaze. Among forms and ways that are known to her, new details unveil themselves.

This is what draws me in. What will emerge from the final firing? The unpredictable, that something you cannot define. That I find most appealing.

Then there is the thread. Far from a design gimmick, it has to do with Helga’s personal history: “I grew up among millions of metres of threads,” she says with that same smile of veiled acceptance. It is symbolic of the complex relationship with her mother – something familiar to many daughters, each in their own way. The colourful thread is a playful way of portraying this bond, always placed differently, in a pairing or contrasting colour to the object. Used over decades, it has become her trademark.

It stands for a bond that will never get lost, even when its physical reminder is no longer attached to the object. “That is why I know that no matter how complex the relationship with a mother is, it will forever endure,” says Helga with a soft smile. Even when the thread is not present in a piece, that bond is still there. In the solitude of Soazza, in the quietness of her atelier, head deep in her work, Helga reflects and reminds herself and us about our own bonds, what matters to us and how we want to live knowing that we will become a memory.

agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3691
agobay NS 0025 helga ritsch 2L0A3002

Discover the ethereal beauty of Helga’s winter cycle, where every piece is a world of its own. Where two shapes can meet within the same object: the softly double-curved outside and the beautifully rounded plainness of its inside. Where grooves manually applied on the outside of a vessel enhance its sensorial experience. While your fingertips find peace in the gently emerging and disappearing lines, you will not want to let go of this piece. Admire two juxtaposed shapes, seamlessly fused into a singular entity, standing firm despite being crafted from soft and malleable black porcelain. Choose the unique shape that speaks to you and form a new bond with a piece that will transcend time itself.


Written by AGOBAY
Photographs by Nico Schaerer

Related Stories