Marek Cecuła is a world-renowned artist, ceramicist, educator and curator. He is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards.
Cecuła spent his first 16 years in Kielce, Poland, before emigrating to Israel. He moved to Brazil 12 years later, followed by a move to New York City in 1976 where he set up Modus Design Studio and the Contemporary Porcelain Gallery. From 1985-2004 he was Head and Coordinator of the Ceramics Department at Parsons School of Design in New York and from 2004-2010 he was Visiting Professor at the National Academy of the Arts in Bergen. In 2012 he opened Design Centrum Kielce and a year later, the Ćmielów Design Studio. He currently holds the post of Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art, London.
Since 2013 Ćmielów Studio, together with Modus Design and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, have been organizing student workshops, called ART Food Project. As a part of this project students from prestigious universities from all over the world come to Ćmielów to ponder upon the issues of the contemporary ceramics. The goal of the workshops is also to develop future cooperation between students and the industry. Art Food Project results both in actual products themselves and in accompanying exhibitions. Art Food Project was shown in New York, at the Pratt Institute and in London at the Saint Martin’s College. Ćmielów Design Studio also runs a program for artists in residence. One of its most interesting outcomes is a porcelain set for snacks, created by Kabo & Pydo. This geometrical set consists of several plates of different sizes and is a fresh take on dishes for ever so popular tapas.
Marek Cecuła is an autodidact with the title 'professor'. 'I never attended a school long enough to get a diploma. And in those days, I never thought I’d be teaching others,' he says. His life story is spread over several continents where he's spent over 50 years gaining experience in ceramics. The fruits of his education - gleaned from numerous production plants, kibbutzim, communes and his own studios - in now shared with students at prestigious art schools.
Cecuła comes from an assimilated Jewish family. Had it not been for the war, he would have been given his father’s name, Motel Kohn. In one interview, he stated:
For me there was only ever one surname: Cecuła. When I was a child I heard that my parents had assumed the name during the war, but that was a taboo subject. Until one day […] I received a letter from Germany, from a Mrs. Justyna Cecuła, who was researching her family tree. She had read about me in the newspaper and was surprised that she’d never heard of a Marek Cecuła living in Israel. She remembered there were distant relatives, two Cecuła brothers. The younger died during the war and the older brother had passed his documents on to a Jewish friend. Thanks to which my father was able to escape from the ghetto; he has been called Stanisław Cecuła ever since.
This new surname allowed the family to survive the Holocaust then the Kielce pogrom in 1946. During the 1950s, the Cecuła family planned to leave for Israel, but the death of Cecuła’s father prevented this. So Marek, then 16, decided to go on his own.
Israel – Brazil – New York
The most important reason for going was to try something different. I had been looking for my own place in the world, and the world seemed to be outside Poland. I went travelling around Europe first, explored a little, but I didn’t have any money and I didn’t know any foreign languages. Not wanting to return to Poland, I got on the boat to Israel.
In Jerusalem he ended up at a school for Jewish children who had survived extermination in Europe. There, at the Havat HaNoar HaTzioni School in Jerusalem’s Katamon district, they could live and get an education. This place is where he first came into contact with ceramic art. But his young apprenticeship at the potter's wheel was interrupted by compulsory national service, lasting for almost three years.
Cecuła then lived on a kibbutz in Galilee, near Nazareth, where he built his first ceramics studio. Here he taught others while at the same time attending courses run by renowned Israeli ceramicists Gdula Ogen and Jean Mayer. Next, he co-created a commune for artists in Binyamin that would feature a range of activities like theatre, painting, ceramics and jewellery making. As a result of ongoing martial law in Israel, the commune moved to Curitiba in southern Brazil.
We lived there for two years. I devoted all my time to ceramics, I collaborated with ceramics factories. But the entire time I felt that my world was elsewhere, that important things were happening further afield.
In 1976, Cecuła moved to New York City, where he opened the Modus Design Studio, which continues its operations to this day.
My studio in SoHo, which later relocated to Brooklyn, was situated at street level, so my wife and I opened the Contemporary Porcelain Gallery. We wanted to showcase contemporary porcelain, because at that time porcelain was only to be found in factories, not in art studios. We invited European ceramicists to collaborate with us.
Soon after, U.S. and European newspapers began running articles about the gallery. The studio created new patterns while designing and producing new alternatives in the field of functional and decorative ceramic goods. When large stores began to clamour for orders, industrial production began. “After so many years, that is what took me back to Poland. We produced porcelain in Poland and exported it to the United States.”
Return to Poland
At the end of the 1990s, Cecuła brought his Modus Design Studio to Poland.
I began to see creative possibilities in Poland. I saw Kielce as a dynamic place, as a developing city, where my experience could be of some use. The city invited me to build and run a centre for design, which I did.
Design Centrum Kielce was opened in 2012 in a building that once housed a prison, as an exhibition and educational space. A year later Cecuła resigned his post there due to a restriction to his autonomy in creating programmes. The official political decisions destroyed any real chance Kielce had of becoming the unique centre of design in Poland.
As a result of collaboration with the Polish Porcelain Factories Ćmielow and Chodzież, Cecuła opened the Ćmielów Design Studio in early 2013. This studio, which welcomes young and recognized artists, is where art and industry meet: The most innovative technologies and experimental production techniques are used to create functional and decorative ceramic ware.
As a ceramicist, Cecuła has entered the annals of handicraft history. He is one of the prominent artists who since the end of the 1980s has opposed commercialised mass production, seeking instead to combine functional and decorative art. This bridging of the gap between design, craft and sculpture has been the defining characteristic of Cecuła’s work.
At the beginning of his artistic career, Cecuła was fascinated by the work of artists like the Memphis Group in Italy, the postmodernist, asymmetrical and colourful traces of which can be found in Cecuła’s Colorware Dinnerware Set (1990). His work also incorporates styles from traditional Japanese porcelain, Bauhaus and the Soviet avant-garde, to art deco and pop culture. His Interactive Set teacups and teapots with geometric designs look as if they are sinking into the tray. Zig Zag Teapot consists of two small mugs and an enormous black-and-white striped teapot with a disproportionately large spout and handle. The bowls which make up his Criss Cross set can be used to play a game of noughts and crosses. He has also created Crumpled dishes, Random mugs with three-digit numbers on them, sugar bowls resembling tree stumps, and porcelain dinner-service trays that look like stones.
Cecuła had initially been designing a porcelain table reflecting his interest in ritual and ceremony connected with mealtime, described as the essence of this work. In later years, he left this self-titled Table Landscape behind and move to works that were conceptual in character.
I took up ceramics because as a medium it can be something practical and also something artistic. You can set a plate on the table and it fulfils its practical function, or you can hang it on a wall and it becomes a piece of art.
Examples of this include Scatology (1993) and Hygiene (1995) series, which came about as a result of a conviction about the unique aesthetic qualities of ordinary everyday objects. Porcelain sinks and toilet bowls combine with human anatomy to create a series of dysfunctional hygiene items. Sculptural pieces such as these touch on the question of disease and treatment — particularly relevant because they were conceived during the AIDS crisis. They also contain an erotic subtext, present in other pieces in the artist’s Erotic series (2000). In these abstract sculptural pieces, Cecuła attempts to evoke sensual feelings through the high sheen and pristine whiteness of the porcelain.
Cecuła is a renowned observer of reality. A year after the death of Princess Diana, he produced a broken plate bearing her portrait: Diana (1998). On his first visit to Poland since emigrating in 1960, Cecuła was strolling on a beach when he came across a broken piece of plate with a swastika on it and decided to reconstruct it for Shard (1998). Both objects come from his Violation cycle. After the events of 9/11, Cecuła constructed Podium from thin, broken fragments of porcelain. This piece is an homage to the anonymous heroes of the tragedy and to their symbolic position in culture.
Cecuła frequently invites spectators to play an active role in his installations. In Look Into My Mind (2001), a set of porcelain heads with a hole, members of the public are encouraged to take a peek into the mind of the artist.
Marek Cecuła from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
Archaeology of the future
One of the first artistic projects for which Cecuła used ceramics was Art Project 79 (1979), completed during his stay in Brazil. It was also the first piece made outside his studio, inspired by the land art of Robert Smithson. For this project, Cecuła extracted clay from a nearby mountain, which he then used to date-mark brick; “he then placed the brick at the site from which the clay was removed. Strictly speaking, all he had done was transform the clay by a process of civilization.” This action, which he dubbed Archaeology of the Future, is a reflection on the ceramic medium as a substance of extraordinary durability and resilience, which enables humankind to store precious information.
Another work from this cycle is Klepisko (2008). In his gallery, Cecuła took clay soil - the kind bricks are made of - and poured and levelled a layer over half a metre thick. This kind of floor was once common in rural dwellings. And, in walking across the floor, one is able to peer into the cracks revealing the hidden contents of the earth. The visitor tramples on these elements of our culture - dishes, fragments of architecture, books - gradually wearing away the surface.
Cecuła’s Seeds (2012) project straddles the borderline between art and social anthropology, combining elements of archaeology and futurology. It comprises several dozen ceramic containers, or “grains”, which contain a survival kit: basic foodstuffs, utensils and essential knowledge. Each of these time capsules is the shape of an egg, the most resilient form in nature. The containers will be buried at selected locations around the world, in order that they may form the beginnings of new civilisations. In a perverse way, the Seeds project connects past and future, creating a specific Archaeology of the Future.
At the beginning of the 2000s, industrial porcelain and waste from mass production provided the raw material for Cecuła’s artistic work. His projects came about in three stages and with each stage the artist used a different element of nature to destroy or change the function and aesthetic of classic table porcelain. Wind, fire and water have been employed as creative forces, radically affecting the material’s form and purpose. In an interview on the Szabaton website, Cecuła says,
I attach great importance to restoring value to something discarded and unwanted; I try to create something new and valuable from it, changing the view of material and ecological values in today’s art production. My 'ready made' concept does not just come in the form of physical objects. The 'ready made' idea often becomes the content of my works, e.g. The Last Supper and Porcelain Carpet projects.
Porcelain Carpet (2002) is an installation comprising several hundred dinner plates from porcelain factories in Ćmielów. Each plate is covered with a ceramic replica of a Persian rug. When placed side by side, the impression of a gigantic carpet is created: a carpet you cannot walk on made of plates you cannot eat from. The work is a combination of craft, art and technology - the original carpet was scanned into a power computer printer, which had never been used in Poland before. The industrial sector played a significant role in the project, producing an enormous number of the essential elements (plates) and creating the digital copies and reproductions used in the installation.
In his In Dust Real project (2005), Cecuła used a collection of classic porcelain from various European factories. He placed it in a traditional Japanese anagama wood kiln, where ash burned and changed the glaze and colours on the plates, without intervention by the designer. The identical, mass-produced objects were transformed into a unique series of widely varying patterns. The key fire element plays a role, which is both creative and destructive.
Beauty of Imperfection (2006) is the third and final work in the industrial interference series. The artist took unfired Chinese biscuit porcelain and subjected it to water. This created holes in the dishes, thus depriving them of any practical use.
The Jewish question
Initially, I really didn’t want to live here. I only intended to make my porcelain in Poland, but I saw that Kielce had changed to such an extent that it had become a different city. I didn’t get the feeling that I was returning to a cursed place, quite the opposite. The history of my surname is full of extraordinary, almost mystical, events. For me this is an incentive to discover the past and to create. - Interview with Magda Brzezińską
On the 65th anniversary of the liquidation of the Kielce ghetto, a monument commemorating its murdered inhabitants was unveiled as an initiative of Bogdan Białek and the Jan Karski Association. Cecuła, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, was its creator. The sculpture, Menora (2007), is a candlestick set into the street located on the site of a former entrance to the ghetto. The piece is tilted and whether it will right itself or fall remains uncertain. “I give people a number of interpretative possibilities. For some, Jewish culture died; for others, it began to be born in new conditions.” A stone cube placed near the monument comes from the pre-war cobbled streets of the ghetto.
Cecuła is a supporter of a form that arouses emotion without being shocking. The artist believes that the tragic past can exist in the present in beautiful aesthetic forms. In another project, a communal grave for those who perished in the Kielce pogrom, located at a cemetery in the city’s Pakosze district, Cecuła does not use the language of martyrdom. He recorded the events in his fractured Star of David (2010). The broken plaque depicts the sudden interruption to the lives of the those interred.
Cecuła had his first exhibition in his hometown in 2009, at BWA Kielce. The installation, Fragmentation (2008), looks at four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Compositions were made from the remnants of functional porcelain, subjected to artistic recycling and transformed into art of a purely spiritual nature. In an interview featured on the Szabaton website, Cecuła says:
The exhibition comprises four works on the topic of monotheistic religions I have personally encountered. […] until I left Poland in 1960 I was brought up in a Catholic environment […]. After I arrived in Israel, I began finding out about the Jewish side of my heritage, getting to the very heart of a religion which still fascinates me today. The kibbutz in Galilee was situated between Arab villages — and this is how I came into contact with Islam. I got to know people, their traditions and beliefs. Later on, I became fascinated in Eastern philosophy and I joined a Buddhist movement, the Guru Maharaji group […].
Cecuła created the Kielce chronicle in 2011, an installation in the form of a table laden with hundreds of porcelain fragments. Printed on the fragments are photographs of the city, the ghetto, the pogrom, the May Day march; there are also photos of the artist’s family and photos of both Christian and Jewish city residents. These pictures merge the past with the present, the good with the bad, and the sad with the joyful. One can sit on special benches in Kielce and create one’s own collage from the events of the last 60 years of the city’s history.
Cecuła sees himself as an artist above all. In an interview for domosfera.pl he explains:
No doubts I am an artist! Working as an artist is about freedom and no compromises- even in design you need to adjust to some kind of functionality. In art your imagination is the limit. That is why shaping an artist requires one to skillfully build one's imagination: you need to see what is NOT there more than what IS there. Secondly, I am an educator. Promoting creativity and courage in thinking is extremely important and needed in the contemporary world. I have been lecturing at many schools in many countries and I have shared, I am sstill haring, my knowledge and experience. The more creative people we have out there, the better the world will be. (http://ladnydom.pl/wnetrza/1,123942,17693109,Bezwzglednie_jestem_Artysta___WYWIAD_Z_MARKIEM_CECULA_.html).
Artist's website: http://www.ceculamarek.com/
Unless otherwise stated, all quotations in the above text come from an interview by Agnieszka Sural.
The work of Marek Cecuła can be found in the following collections: Le Musée Royal de Mariemont in Belgium, Smithsonian National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., Newark Museum of Art, Mint Museum of Craft and Design in Charlotte, South Carolina, Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum in Trondheim, Norway, American Craft Museum in New York City, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
2016 „Marek Cecuła – Polskie Projekty Polscy Projektanci”
2013 - Etapy (Stages), BWA Kielce
2012 - Seeds – sztuka przetrwania (Seeds - Art of Survival), Gallery of glass and ceramics, BWA Wrocław
2011 - Kronika kielecka (Chronicle of Kielce), Centre of Polish Sculpture, Orońsko
2010 - Winda (Elevator), Gallery of Modern Art, Kielce
2009 - Fragmentacje (Fragmentation), BWA Kielce
2008 - Fragmentacje (Fragmentation), Gallery of glass and ceramics, BWA Wrocław
2007 - Garth Clark Gallery, New York
2006 - Garth Clark Gallery, New York
2004 - Garth Clark Gallery, New York
2003 - Racine Art Museum, Racine, Wisconsin
2002 - Grand Arts, Kansas City, Missouri
2001 - Garth Clark Gallery, New York
2000 - Galeri Ram, Oslo
1999 - Higiena (Hygiene), Mass Production?, CSW Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- Garth Clark Gallery, New York
1998 - Periscope Gallery, Tel Aviv
1997 - Galerie Karin Friebe, Mannheim
- Modernism Gallery, San Francisco
1996 - Garth Clark Gallery, New York
- Revolution Gallery Project, Ferndale, Michigan
1995 - Modernism Gallery, San Francisco
1994 - Garth Clark Gallery, New York
1993 - Garth Clark Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri
- Gallery Maas, Rotterdam
1971 - Chemierynski Art Gallery, Tel Aviv
Selected group exhibitions:
2015 Art Food, Pratt Institute, New York
2013 Art Food, London Design Festival, London
2008 - Second Lives, Museum of Arts & Design, New York
- Conversations in Clay, Katonah Museum of Art, New York
2007 - Scripps College, 63th Ceramic Annual R.CH.W. Gallery, Clermont, California
2006 - Drud & Køppe Gallery, Copenhagen
2005 - 3rd World Ceramic Biennale 2005, Korea
- Le Musée Royal de Mariemont Belgium
2004 - Corporal Identities-Body Language, Museum of Arts and Design, New York
2003 - Formed to Function, John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin
2002 - Groundswell, Garth Clark Gallery, New York
2001 - Handmade by Design, American Craft Museum, New York
- Ceramic National 2000, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York
1998 - Fundacion Luis Seone & ECWC, Coruna, Spain
1996 - National Ceramic Competition, San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, San Angelo, Texas
1995 - New York Clay, Rogaland Kunstnersenter, Stavanger, Norway
1993 - 29th Ceramic National, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York
1992 – More Than One, American Craft Museum, New York
2009 - III International Festival of Design, Contemporary Porcelain Section, Johannesburg
2009 - Object Factory II, Museum of Arta & Design, New York
2008 - Object Factory I, Gardiner Museum, Toronto
2004 - The Third Biennale for Israeli Ceramics
Awards and Distinctions:
2013 - World Intelectual Property Award in the category of Industrial Design, Switzerland
2002 - International Ceramic Research Center, Guldagergaard, Denmark
2001 - Grand Arts, Project Grant, Kansas City
1999 - Luis Comfort Tiffany Fundation, Fellowship Award, New York
1998 - European Ceramic Work Center, SíHertogenbosch, Holland
1995 - New York Foundation for the Arts, Fellowship Award, New York
- Empire Craft Alliance, Fellowship Award, New York
1993 - European Ceramic Work Center, SíHertogenbosch, Holland
1992 - Abington Art Center, Best of Show, The Clay Cup, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania
1991 - New York Foundation for the Arts, Fellowship Award, New York
- Empire State Craft Alliance, Grant 91, Saratoga Springs, New York
1990 - Wichita National, Award of Excellence, Wichita, Texas
- Kraus Silkes, American Craft Awards, New York
1987 - Product Design Excellence Award, Accent on Design, New York
1982 - Kohler Industry, Art-Industry Program, Kohler, Wisconsin
Author: Agnieszka Sural, 26/08/2013. Updated, July 2016 by AM.
Translation: Garry Malloy