By Nelson Belen, Contributing Writer
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Situated between Brazil’s two most famous cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, nestled in the hills of Vale do Paraíba (Paraíba Valley), is the remote colonial town of Cunha. In the last several decades, thanks to a dedicated collective of artisans specializing in high-temperature ceramics and pottery, Cunha has become the creative center of ceramics in Brazil.
Only thirty minutes from its better-known neighbor, Paraty, the lineage of ceramics in Cunha dates back to the mid-seventies when a small group of Japanese, Portuguese, and Brazilian potters and ceramists set up a studio in an old abandoned slaughterhouse. It didn’t take long for them to realize the richness of the clay from the region’s cool climate was perfect for their craft.
“Cunha has a nice mountain climate, amazing scenery and easy access to the various materials we use in our process, such as clay,” explained Giltaro Jardineiro of Atelier Suenaga & Jardineiro, which was opened by Jardineiro’s Japanese-born mother Kimiko Suenaga and her Brazilian husband Gilberto in 1984.
The strong Japanese heritage among that initial wave of potters that came to Cunha, combined with the abundance of wood in the area, led many of these artists to turn to an ancient Japanese technique of pottery using a high-temperature wood-fired kiln that Cunha would soon become well-known for, the Noborigama.
The high temperatures reached from this traditional kiln allow artists to produce rich, lush glazes of varying textures and colors. “The traditional Japanese Noborigama oven differs from other pottery ovens in two ways,” Jardineiro explained to The Rio Times.
“First, the Noborigama oven is built with high-density refractory bricks at a slope, providing higher burning temperatures, in our case coming to 1,400ºC. Another difference is the use of wood as the source of heat, which generates amazing and particular results for this type of ceramic.”
Eventually, more and more potters in Cunha began building Noborigama ovens and adopting this ancient method. “There are approximately twenty existing Noborigama ovens in Brazil,” said Jardineiro. “And Cunha is the place with the highest concentration of them, with six Noborigama ovens.”
At Atelier Suenaga & Jardineiro, Jardineiro’s mother, Suenaga, has been the main force behind the studio since its inception, producing all the studio’s pieces, ranging from ornate centerpiece vases to tiny tea sets, all decorated with traditional Japanese style motifs.
One of the most popular events at the large, spacious studio are the live public demonstrations of the Noborigama ovens, which due to the amount of work involved, only occur about every other month and draw crowds from around the country. The next demonstration of the Noborigama oven at Atelier Suenaga & Jardineiro is scheduled for July 2nd.
Yet the Noborigama is not the only kind of ceramics in Cunha. What started forty years ago as a small group of artisans in a little remote town, has sprouted to almost thirty different potters in the area attracting crowds of tourists and fans every weekend.
Some of the other well-known studios in Cunha include Atelier Mieko & Mario, one of the oldest studios in Cunha with roots dating back to the original group of potters who first came to the area in the mid-seventies, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the recently opened Casa Cunha, where London-trained potter Rogerio David combines traditional pottery techniques with a unique, modern sensibility.
“In Cunha,” explained Jardineiro, “various types of low, medium and high-temperature ceramics are converging to have their own distinctive style where the author of ceramics, the artist, takes precedence over the production of ceramics.”