Štefan Zelko Pottery

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Štefan Zelko comes from a village called Pečarovci in Prekmurje. Pottery has been his family’s business for at least 130 years and was passed down to him from his father, who entered into a teaching-learning agreement with him once he completed primary school. “It started the usual way, you begin at the bottom. Then you get to make plates, ashtrays and similar. A bowl here and there, and flower pot saucers.” The most difficult part came after some two years, when he had already mastered the basics, “but could not yet do anything serious — you want to make something better, closer to perfection.” But he persevered.

“It started the usual way, you begin at the bottom. Then you get to make plates, ashtrays and similar. A bowl here and there, and flower pot saucers.”

Štefan got married and settled in Lemerje, where he set up his own workshop. At that time the Chamber of Craft started to evaluate products and producers, so he applied and registered his home craft business. Today, with more than 40 years’ experience, he is one of Slovenia’s best traditional potters. Initially, he sold most of his pieces at fairs, but for the last ten years he has largely stayed away from them. There is too much red tape, they’ve become too expensive and no longer attract buyers as they used to. His craft is now his own, personal side-line.
More than making and selling pottery he is now involved in sharing and passing on his valuable knowledge and skills. He takes part in various pottery festivals in Slovenia and Hungary, regularly works with schools and kindergartens in Slovenia and beyond, builds kilns, and runs pottery courses and camps.

It all starts with clay. Štefan used to dig clay in Puconci, but that excavation site closed, and in Kuštanovci. The clay is then aged at home for as long as 15 years, if necessary, as it greatly benefits from being subjected to the weather. Štefan begins by machine-grinding and kneading the clay. Then he starts working the potter’s wheel, for he makes all his pieces on the wheel, and proceeds with different finishes. He air-dries the products, often in the sun, which requires constant presence, as they have to be turned to dry evenly and retain their original shape. The ceramic ware is first bisque fired, then glazed and fired again. Another method is so-called black, reduction firing, where ceramic ware is only fired once. Štefan Zelko is a master of black firing. “This black reduction firing is said to be characteristic for the entire pannonian region — Hungary, Ukraine, Moldavia, Slovakia. Still, I hardly ever see it when I visit festivals.” This firing method requires reducing the amount of oxygen in the kiln and firing with resinous pieces of wood to produce a black colour on the pottery. He always makes the kilns himself. He built a portable reduction firing kiln that he uses for demonstrations and workshops.
It took him about two weeks to make enough products to fill the kiln and fire them together, during which time he would spent entire days in the workshop. He used to fire once or twice a month, but he fires less frequently nowadays, and has an electric kiln for smaller items.

Štefan Zelko makes traditional products: potica cake moulds, bowls, milk jugs, wine jugs, whistles and similar. “Black fired pottery largely consists in the Prekmurje water jug, called a pütra, and traditionally shaped pots, of course.”