to Katherine Kennard
reading this story
In conversation, Helga Ritsch keeps reminding us that, for her, freedom is at the centre of everything. It is the alpha and the omega of her life, her work and her creative process. “Freedom, independent creation and a life with as few constraints as possible are very important to me,” says the Swiss ceramic artist. Just how much her art is echoing her words becomes clear when one takes a closer look at the works of her Summer Studio 2023, as she calls her seasonal output.
Some of Helga Ritsch’s new objects are stand-alone pieces. Among them are several one-of-a-kind beak bowls that feature black engobe and a black cotton thread, and an unglazed drinking bowl with a black foot. All of these items can be found in the AGOBAY online shop. They are unattached, free and therefore not part of a group.
On the other hand, some pieces have intentionally been paired with pillars, platforms or found art, forming delicate, sometimes mysterious little ensembles. This time, her choice of material is mostly sand-coloured stoneware.
As dependent as Helga Ritsch is on freedom, constraints play an equally important role in her creative process. What sounds like a non sequitur actually makes a lot of sense: it is only by deliberately limiting herself temporally and by working towards a deadline defined by herself, she explains, that she is able to not only finish her work but actually start working in the first place.
“Currently, I’m very angry about the state of the world.”
Helga Ritsch, ceramic artist
Over the last couple of years, a number of different characteristics have helped provide some sort of thematic grouping. In the past, this could have been the colour green or even a specific state of mind like in 2022, for instance, when Helga Ritsch felt “in abeyance”, as she herself puts it. This year, on the other hand, her mind revolved around the concept of home.
The working title she has chosen for this year’s Summer Studio – ‘welcomehome?’ – is very telling. 2023 is the first year that sees Helga Ritsch working in a single place, namely an age-old house she bought in Soazza, hidden off the beaten track in the valley of Misox in southern Switzerland. It therefore seems only logical that she is concerned with her place in the world, which she herself – more scholar than teacher – observes with an ever-attentive, overtly curious and at times fickle mind.
“Perhaps this is an attempt at becoming native,” Helga says, applying the notion to her work. “I try to find a suitable place for every item before I start to observe how they are doing and how they are feeling.” Obviously, the emphasis in ‘welcomehome?’ lies on the question mark. Helga Ritsch is challenging herself and any beholder to ask questions not only about the place and fate of every object, but also about themselves.
“Currently, I’m very angry about the state of the world,” she says. Her gaze falls onto the dark, broken pieces of a porcelain vase, atop which a water tap is fixed to the wall. This work, she explains, is inspired by her dad’s early childhood in Mussolini’s Italy. “He told me how there was no water at certain times during the war.” That’s why the faucet she used for this small, rather melancholic installation isn’t working – it isn’t connected to the water main. The vase, masterfully perfected just like every other piece, was destroyed by Helga using a hammer.
“War isn’t over,” she says during the same conversation, referring, of course, to all the wars that have been and are yet to be waged across the globe. “Beauty can be mundane,” she says, “but it doesn’t have to be.” There are forms of beauty, she continues, that have something inherently sublime about them. Something that can touch the human soul.
Found objects can be spotted in other installations as well. All of them are items that the artist keeps stumbling across when cleaning up, rearranging and repurposing her house, which acts as a studio, showroom and workshop at the same time. Polaroid photographs and paintings, small and large, can be seen hanging here or there on the walls.
“Beauty can be mundane – but it doesn’t have to be.”
Helga Ritsch, ceramic artist
On the first floor, another, much less bleak ensemble catches the visitor’s attention: three small cups with tiny feet, each of them covered with unique, dissimilar lids and hand-painted with black engobe. “I call them Dream Boxes,” Helga says, with a slight smile. “One is for those dreams that you’ve been able to make come true, the second for those that haven’t materialised and the third for those that you’re are still dreaming.”
What, then, would be a dream come true for her? What does she wish for this Summer Studio? “It is my wish that as many people as possible will understand what it is that I’m doing,” Helga says. It is only recently, she explains, that she has stopped talking about her work in great detail. “If I have to explain too much to someone, it’s not the right thing for that person,” she says. Home, we could conclude, might very well be wherever we choose to lay our head. However, we can’t lay our head wherever we please.