A Greek pottery master continues a family legacy
Yes, you can call Nikos Rodios a Greek pottery legend, but you can also call him the juggler of Skopelos. When we arrived at his studio Saturday morning in Skopelos Town, Rodios was waiting for a large bowl to dry on his “extra” potters wheel. (He uses a traditional kickwheel for the majority of his work. ) The bowl was slowly acquiring the malleability needed to remove it from the wheel without collapsing. It wouldn’t be long. The mild Aegean breeze flowing through the open doors of the studio would see to that.
At the same time, Rodios was also polishing and finishing a load of pottery that had been unloaded earlier from his brick kiln (it burns olive tree wood) that stands just outside the door behind his studio. The pieces were arranged on a counter… an assortment of vases, animal figures, and bowls. And then some visitors walked in: us. See what I mean when I use the term juggler?
But juggling is the nature of ceramics… it’s a busy, start-and-stop process that requires both flexibility in one’s routine, and a keen eye for scheduling and working a medium that waits for no one and simultaneously takes its own time. The Rodios family knows this routine very well.
Our visit had been arranged by Jill Somer, associate director of the island’s Skopelos Foundation for the Arts, also known as Skopart. Somer interpreted conversations about techniques, clay bodies, and terra sigilattas (slip-like liquids) between Rodios and my husband, Mitch, who is serving an artist’s residency at Skopart.
Rodios and Mitch are each testing the practicability of using terra sigillatas with both Skopart’s red earthenware clay, which Mitch is using during his residency, and Rodios’ proprietary claybody.
Fans of ceramics in general and contemporary Greek pottery in particular revere Nikos Rodios for carrying on a tradition begun by his grandfather, Nikolaos Rodios. In the early 1900s, Nikolaos focused on producing decorative forms reminiscent of classical Greek pottery.
At the same time, he desired that his work feature a permanent, bold black surface. After experimenting to find the precise combination of clay bodies, colorants, and firing temperatures—potters are chemists in disguise, if you didn’t know—Nikolaos was awarded a patent for his technique in 1930. You can view the patent certificate, assigned the number 2981, on display in the workshop.
As the years continued, Nikolaos passed the family secret to his son, who in turn passed it down to today’s Nikos Rodios.
After we spent a short while admiring Rodios’ newly fired pottery, he led us to a large wooden display case hanging on another wall.
It contains a diverse collection of pottery made by the previous two generations of Rodios. Vases of all heights are on display. Some are short and bulbous, others are elongated and elegant. Each alludes to classical Greek forms.
It’s humbling to witness the current members of a family respect the hard work and innovation accomplished by their ancestors. It’s also gratifying to know that the next generation, Nikos’ daughter Magda, is building on the legacy left to her.
At a workbench near the sunny back window, Magda helped her father polish some of the items from the kiln. She adds her own creative flair to the family business with bright, colorful earthenware mugs, serving pieces, jewelry, and decor items.
After greetings us, Magda took a break from her work to retrieve a plastic water bottle that she had filled recently with a mixture of water and a local black clay. She explained that she hopes the mixture will someday soon yield an interesting clay. She brushed a bit of it onto a pottery shard. The watery part of the mixture instantly soaked into the shard and left a gritty residue on the surface.
Who knows? With time and attention, the sludgy, gritty solution may indeed transform itself into a native Skopelos clay.
We then walked across the street to the pottery shop that bears the Rodios name. The shop carries a wide variety of both decorative and functional ware, from wall hangings to coffee mugs and jewelry.
Inside, Maria, Rodios’ wife greeted us and spoke briefly with her husband about the wares he had carried over from his studio. He added a few pieces to the stone-and-glass shelving units, and agreed to motor over to Skopart in a few days for a quick visit with Jill and the artists working there (students from Gulf Coast State College, painter Victoria Phillips from Macon, Georgia, and Mitch).
Then he said his goodbyes and sauntered back to his studio across the street. He had some more juggling to do.