Driving out of Moscow on early winter mornings, you are often treated to one of nature’s most dazzling shows – a late winter sunrise. As light creeps up over the horizon, the sun will follow, catching the clouds of steam rising from the city factories and painting them in shades of yellow and orange. It’s impossible to capture in a photograph, as the light changes every second. Add in the darkened buildings on the skyline, and you have a reason worth getting out and about early.
Anthony and I seem to spend a lot of time in the Mighty Silverado these days as I work my way somewhat methodically through my “List of Things to do Before we Leave.” The Porcelain Factory in Gzhel was our destination a couple of weeks ago – taking advantage of an Embassy day off for Veterans’ Day. By doing a little research, I found out that the factory would accept visitors for private tours, and with a fluent Russian speaker on hand, it was easy to arrange.
I am always delighted by the pride Russians take in handcrafting – it is very much a part of their history and who they are as a people. We were shown around this small factory by a lady who had encyclopedic knowledge of the area. Gzhel has historically produced the best clay in Russia – apparently even the Imperial China Factories come to Gzhel for their clay. She was very proud of this and you can see the history of the clay (from the crudest ceramic bowls to the most delicate china) and the development of the creative process (including some very eccentric designers) in the tiny factory museum. My favourite piece was one created by one these designers with his self-portrait in the center of samples of all his creations.
The walk around the factory floors, however, was what I had come for. Starting with a lesson on the operation of enormous ovens (standing cold and unattended today), we made our way from floor to floor, each one representing a different step in the process.
Perhaps because it was just the two of us, she allowed me to take photos, to touch the molds, to peer into the shelves of glazed but unfired pieces. We passed by rows of bowls, plates, vases, ranks of soldiers and flocks of birds – all the distinct pink color of the white underglaze, waiting to be fired.
She explained the painstaking process of turning clay into white figures and vessels; from white clay to the traditional blue and white porcelain for which the region is rightly famous.
The painting rooms were my favourite. Ladies hunched over tables lined with rows of statues, bowls, cups, and other ornaments, waiting in rows along the shelves above them.
The skill in their hands was a sight to behold – right in front of us they replicated the same flower or ornamental leaf on every piece.
Faces on porcelain pigs were painted by looking into a mirror – one cheeky face grinning at us while we watched another brought to life with just a few skilled strokes of a brush.
At one table a fresh-faced Snow Princess waited patiently, a long dark braid flowing down her back, but an air of being not-quite-finished-yet about her, while her sisters waited behind her for their turn.
For the final step, the master glazer was not even wearing gloves as she dipped each painted piece into a bath of clear glaze, which would then be fired to allow the painted decorations and features to appear blue through the white.
And then it was my turn. A one-on-one master class where I would be taught the painting techniques and allowed to paint a piece of my own. The pleasure was in the learning process. Practicing the swirls of petals and tiny fine lines of facial features. I chose a matryoshka doll. My efforts at bringing her to life were somewhat shaky, but my teacher seemed to think I did well for a first-timer.
Meanwhile, back in the truck, Anthony had found us a place to get some shashlik for lunch and, more importantly, a place to load the bed of the truck with firewood. Winter is, after all, on its way.
In Moscow, we hit the city at the perfect time to see the sunset – bathing the Kremlin and golden domes of the cathedrals in an orange glow, and once again treating us to one of nature’s finest lightshows.