Pots of Angels and Cathedrals: A letter from the king of France, Charles V11 dated Paris, 14 July, 1492, recognizes the presence of potters at the Foire Aux Tupiniers (Potters Trade Fair) of St. Jean in the old district of Lyon.
In 1986 the Vieux Lyon en Fête association, recreated the Foire Aux Tupiniers every second weekend of September. Attracting 70,000 visitors, the potters’ trade fair demonstrates the dynamism of a traditional profession, adapted to modern demands.
It is early and quiet, the morning sun peeps over the St. Jean Cathedral. Visitors shuffle between stalls, purchasing for their business or home, or simply admiring the uniqueness of each piece.
An American tourist asks, “What’s the difference between ceramics and pottery?”
“Ceramics are various hard, brittle, heat and corrosion-resistant materials made by shaping and then firing a non-metallic mineral, such as clay, at a high temperature,” explains a potter. “‘Pottery’ and ‘ceramics’ are generally used interchangeably, although sometimes the word ‘pottery’ means a more utilitarian type of ceramics.”
The sophisticated stares of Martine Nonnemacher’s ceramic cats catch my eye. “I use glazed clay for these funny, coloured pieces. I play on the clash of ordered bands of designs,” she explains. This can be readily identified in her stripy, fiendish felines. “And for the sculptures I use smoked clay,” she adds.
Annie Poullain’s exquisite jewellery is evidence that if a piece is purely ornamental, the finished look depends solely upon the process and imagination of the creator.
I walk on, a potter smiling at me between bites of breakfast baguette, as I admire her primitive human figurines. Approaching the Fourvière Basilica, which hovers over the Saint-Jean square, it seems the basilica’s golden angel stares down upon the thickening crowd with silent, pious amusement.
The potters trade fair opens from 9am to 7pm Saturday and Sunday, and the potters I spoke to said it is a long and tiring weekend, but business-wise, very profitable. As the morning wears on, visitors can be seen sitting on the steps of the cathedral, resting their tired legs. Built between the late 12th and 15th centuries on the remains of a 5th century church, the cathedral is a perfect illustration of the transition from Roman to Gothic architecture.
I stop at the stall of French couple Bertrand Mazurier and Hélène Crescent, who have a gallery in Valencia, Spain .Their contemporary ‘mini-monstre’ ceramics sit in stark opposition to the ancient stone wall on which they are displayed. Using sandstone or clay, Bertrand makes the shapes and Hélène takes care of the graphics. Influenced by pop. culture, the mini monsters––with their bright colours and defined lines––are great fun. “Where did the name come from?” I ask.
“Mini-monstre is our cat’s name,” he says with a laugh.
The cathedral chimes the midday hour and Old Lyon’s speciality Lyonnais restaurants––the bouchons––start opening their doors. Sizzling garlic, butter and parsley scent, along with the cooking odours of charcoal, spiral from the windows, pots of a different kind clanging from unseen kitchens and, inside the walls of the largest display of renaissance architecture in France, clients begin perusing the menus.
As wine is born in the soil of vineyards, pottery is seeded from the silent earth. Clay is formless, offering infinite possibilities. Flanked by the ageless spirituality of Fourvière basilica and St. Jean Cathedral, the contemporary artists and traditional potters of the Foire aux Tupiniers gather annually on this September weekend, to convey their essence of art to beautify our minds and our lives.
Author Liza Perrat grew up in Wollongong, Australia. She now lives in France with her French husband whom she met on a bus in Bangkok. Find out more about Liza Perrat