Potter’s Heaven or Ode To The Clay

I have a few traditional decorative pottery from Eastern Europe around our Manhattan apartment. Lovely designs. I got them from flea markets, street fairs, and some from the artists themselves. At times their beauty soothes me, I belong to this lineage of artists. But at other times, especially when one breaks because of some agitated clumsy move I make around our tight apartment, I’m in pain. It’s a bad omen. The shards scold me, ‘Have you forsaken us? When will you do us justice? We deserve to be seen and admired. We are as beautiful as the items you see in museums and in fancy shops, where they exhibit items they brought in heavy crates all the way from Asia or Africa. You are to take us and show us around, exhibit us! It is your duty! You disappoint us. You left us behind!’ they sob.
I wish I had strong ships to bring all the beauty I found in Eastern Europe here, but it’s not meant to be as of now.
So, here is one more interview of a marvelous folk artist: Zaharia Bledea. He lives in Baia Mare, a town in Northern Romania. We went to visit him with my high school friend, Cristina Sabo, who lives in the same town. His yard, his home, his workshop, were filled with his creations, some traditional, some modern.
In his presence you contagiously felt that the sky was the limit, though at that time, summer of 2011, everything else screamed defeat into my face.
Anyway, my friend was genuinely excited about what she saw and being inquisitive, I let them converse, without intervening, so what follows is mainly Mr. Zaharia Bledea and Cristina Sabo.

Cristina Sabo: Have you inherited this gift from your family?
Zaharia Bledea: Just my painting skills, I’ve always painted for pleasure. But my wife’s father was a pottery maker and he used the clay wheel during Ceauşescu’s time. But he died, a year after we got married, and no one worked in his workshop. After the revolution… I shouldered a lot at the Research Institute where I worked during communism, my workmates were rather unqualified, I was the only researcher and I had to shoulder their work too, who were just workers, and as soon as it was possible, I took off! ‘Now you can cry your eyes after me, because you just exploited me! Good bye!’ I left promptly the Research Institute. I switched to butchery, whatever I could do as a private business owner, no more research.
But my health problems caught up with me. In ’80, when I was 30 years old, I had inguinal cancer, at my leg. It started from a birth mark on my foot sole, from sun bathing at the seaside. My children were three and four year old, and at the seaside there were some solar explosions and it bothered my birthmark and it spread to my inguinal ganglions. I had ganglion/lymphatic cancer. 

CS: Extraordinary! Who took care of you?
ZB: I went to the Fifth Clinic surgery ward. Doctor Martin was the head of the ward, he made the biopsy incision. It came out it was malignant, ugly, aggressive type, then I did cytostatics. No, actually then we didn’t have cytostatics.
CS: But what did you take?
ZB: Dacarbazine, even that one we brought from Hungary. My brother was General Director at County Agricultural Headquarters and his veterinary doctors that worked along the border brought it, and I took Dacarbazine and went thru radiation therapy to stop it from spreading to my vital organs. But I didn’t give in! No way! I went on and did whatever I felt like it, since they said I had only three more months to live.
CS: That was all the treatment you took?
ZB: Nothing else. And after three years I went for a checkup. Not to Doctor Martin, the doctor that operated on me, because he already died from heart attack while he was operating. I went to his funeral. At that time there was Adrian Păunescu’s song, that patients lived while their doctors died…
CS: Yes, yes.
ZB: I played that cassette while driving to the funeral of the doctor that operated on me. And Lamburghini too, who worked at the Oncology Clinic but after the revolution left for Italy, he died there. When I went for my checkup he asked me which patient I was escorting. He didn’t recognize me. ‘But don’t you recognize me? I’m Oşanu!’ That’s how they called me there. He couldn’t believe. ‘You didn’t die?!’ ‘No.’ And wait, in 2000, I didn’t have any problems with my leg after the operation, I walked on it, but the radiation had side effects.
CS: It’s always like that! Absolutely always! The ones that survive it suffer from side effects.
ZB: I was 31 years old! I was at my peak!
CS: And what were the side effects?
ZB: In 2000 I had my hip dislocated. I’d just graduated from Visual Arts. I was building the second floor of this building. The bone plates got closer and closer, rubbed against each other, the hip dislocated, the femoral head got out of the tibia… I pushed it back with my hand, but it kept on coming out. I tied myself with a belt, that’s how I walked for three months!
CS: You are terrific!
ZB: The doctor didn’t want to operate on me.
CS: Probably it was beyond his qualifications.
ZB: Yes, he said he doesn’t want me to die on his surgery table. Had he operated on me I’d be well now. But now I’m… The diagnostic they gave me in 2000—hold yourself tight, I have the paper in the other room. ‘Sarcoma cancer of femoral head and massive inguinal tumor blockage.’ In 2000! Only one more month to live!
CS: These doctors from Baia Mare are awfully ill prepared, they all failed all their school examinations.

ZB: Yes. Baia Mare. Lady Doctor Puşcă.
CS: Oh, she’s infamous. She is the one who misdiagnosed my best friend. Luckily I told her to go to Cluj. She had ganglion cancer. They told her if she had waited two more weeks she couldn’t be cured anymore. This is Puşcă for you!
ZB: Well, she gave me cytostatics. I was in the hospital before New Year’s Eve, and as I was in my bed, and my wife in another one—I was the one taking cytostatics and my wife’s hair was falling off. [Laughs] I told my wife, ‘I’ll go home now. I have to live one more month. In a month I build my tomb, mausoleum, everything, and I’m done. I’ve managed to survive 20 years after my first surgery, so let’s go home.’ And I called Puşca to take out the… She was about to give me Amannitol for brain decompression. I refused, ‘That’s it, I don’t do it. I want to go home.’
CS: And you didn’t do cytostatics?
ZB: Only 80%. That was it. I made up my mind. I took my walking sticks and I went home. I never went back. [Laughs] 11 years have passed since then! I went to Puşcă recently because the car safety belt rubbed on the radiation place and I had a boil so she ran some tests. Well, what can I tell you: Meanwhile her husband died! Another doctor, Blaj, said, ‘Oh, please don’t come to me, because whomever takes care of you dies!’ [They both laugh unstoppably] ‘Maybe now comes my turn!’
My family doctor died, Cînţă’s wife, if you know her? His wife gave me the same diagnostic. But she died before me.
CS: And how are your tests now?
ZB: Perfect. I’d like to get a hip replacement, but they don’t want to do it, because the two bone plates fused. I don’t have a femoral head at all. My body absorbed it.
CS: Could you afford the intervention abroad?
ZB: I went to Israel, where because of the war explosions they know how to work on fine tissue, but they cannot make lymphatic vessel transplant. In America one guy made a leg transplant. This might work, if the upper part of my leg could be replaced.

CS: Can you work in these conditions?
ZB: Sure. I trained everybody on my team how to make pottery. I even built a church for us. I’ll show you tomorrow if you come back. I’ve painted its inside walls by myself. What happened was that for eight years, until 2008, I refused to go out into the world. I stepped outside my yard only when I went to the hospital. During this time I filed 7 patents, I wrote about 400 poems, I painted big time, scores of canvases, and I built my church. When I sanctified my church I had an extremely large revelation that made me buy this car. In three days I started driving it, and I’ve never stopped.
CS: Fantastic!
ZB: Yes. Everybody was stupefied. They were impressed because before when I’d go to the hospital by car I was horrified by the city traffic, I’d hide my head, as if I was mentally ill. And now to see me drive in this traffic, you can imagine from 2000 to 2008, there is a huge difference!
CS: Indeed!
ZB: I drove up to Austria! After 2008 I built my studio, where I write and paint alone. I’ll take you there tomorrow.
CS: And where does the family work?
ZB: Here. I have 11 people working here. Now let me hear your plans, your thoughts.
Ella Veres: Well, I have to see what you do, to give an opinion. Your work is fantastic, surrealistic, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. So I need to see first… I’ll take pictures; show them around to museum curators in New York.
ZB: Well, I’ll tell you what a Romanian priest from L.A. does. If you come inside the kitchen, the entire house is like a museum, with paintings and ceramics, some small, some large. In L.A. the Romanian community buys stuff on TV, at auctions. So what you’ll show in the museums has nothing to do with what this gentleman does. He buys it from me for € 350 and sells it there for $35-40,000! I’m not allowed to make another similar piece in his territory.
EV: Do you have an exclusivity contract?
ZB: Yes, but only in L.A.. We are about now to negotiate the agreement renewal. They want me to make some very difficult pieces. The first time around I was honest and correct and asked almost the same price with which I usually sold them here locally. He did this same thing with a glass maker. But the glass maker went independently and sold them himself and he became a dollar millionaire in three years. Our agreement stipulates that they have to raise the price each time we renew the contract so that I can be in gain too, not just struggle to survive. I’m a living artist, and I don’t want others to get rich on my back.
Just think of it: I wasn’t able to gather €150,000 for my operation!
EV: So your inventions…
ZB: I’ll show them all to you, including my new technique for ceramic products, of giving a patina thru a secret finishing procedure. I registered my trademark as Bledea Ceramics, and I copyrighted six of my models, so they can’t steal from me. And if they steal my technique, claiming that they created the patina in a different way, I can still hit them with my six models. This includes my artesian water fountains. I’ll ask Tibi to start them, so you see. I have small desk fountains, humidifiers, which when you are hot are extraordinarily cooling. Many lawyers buy them for their offices. I also give quality insurance certificates. [Shouting] Tibi!
Voice: Yes.
ZB: Tell Tibi to come here! I also make traditional ceramics.
EV: I’ve seen the cobalt ones.
ZB: Do you like it? Lili, come here too.
EV: Goodness, Cristina look at those clouds. There’ll be such a hell-raising storm!
ZB: Not here, just further west in Timişoara.
EV: Look at this fountain, Cristina!
ZB: This one has two levels. I also have it on three levels, all of them copyrighted/patented.
EV: This saucer on top of it is for a candle?
ZB: Yes, in the evening, you know….
EV: Goodness me!
CS: This is so very beautiful! Exceptional!
ZB: Take it into the light.
CS: Where are your kilns?
ZB: In the other wing. Everything is on the ground floor.
CS: Can I see your kiln?
ZB: Sure. I have a gas-burning kiln for primary baking, and also wood-burning, old fashioned kilns. The temperature has to be controlled. In the end stage I avoid the oxidant burning of fire flames, and bake them in a reductive medium.
CS: You have the advantage of being a chemist.
ZB: Yes.
CS: You outdid everybody. Were there many ceramic artists here in Maramureş?
ZB: I stimulated all of them. They started to compete with me, but poor things… oh, well. There are about four of them left, the rest gave up.
CS: So practically this is how you make this cobalt glazing?
ZB: No, no, after you work on it, you let it rest for a day, then you layer angova that contains cobalt pigment, then again you let it rest for a few days, and then you hand paint it. Everything, everything, everything is made with a delicate paint pump. We have this relief technique. No one else does it this way. Everyone else makes it flat.
CS: Yes, it’s the first time that I’ve seen such a thing.
ZB: In the angova substance I insert some mineral salt serums that allow it to stay upright, very much like Viagra! [Girls shriek. He laughs] And during burning it doesn’t go limp. Then it gets burned/baked at 1,500° Celsius to obtain this glazing. My glazing, I wanted to copyright it, fearing they’d steal my idea, contains no lead whatsoever and it doesn’t craze, no fine hairline cracks in my glazing, no cracks at all.
CS: It’s perfect!
ZB: Indeed. If you send pottery to England, at the border they put it straight into a hole and break it into pieces. No other way around it. They test it for lead. I have my lead test certificates. If it’s for decoration only, it’s no issue, but I had orders from restaurants, for their dinnerware sets. Last week I finished an order from Oradea for a restaurant, dinnerware for 100 persons, all kinds, over 2,000 pieces. She calls me that they came from the Consumer’s Protection requesting the lead testing, you see here white on green background? [To his wife] Do we still have anything white on green?

Wife: I’ll look for it.
ZB: Bring it. They were questioning everything. The inside of some of the pieces was red glazing, while the outside white, so they wanted to know if I had a certificate for both colors. But they were made at the same time! Oh, well.
CS: Why? Can some of the glazing be toxic?
ZB: Yes, yes. That’s why they can’t go abroad to sell them. They don’t know how to keep the glazing transparent without lead oxide. This is how I got ahead of them. I managed to come up with a kind of feldspar that has 14 feldspar, which allows me this transparence. Traditional ceramics are very complex. From father to son for generations they worked with lead, lead oxide.
CS: Which is toxic?
ZB: Yes, but after a complete burning is alright.
CS: But they didn’t know your technique.
ZB: No! They worked at 800° Celsius, only until lead melted, and only in wood-burning kilns. That’s how I started too, but I managed to raise the temperature to 1150° with complete burning. [Wife brings a sample]
CS: Goodness what a beauty!
ZB: This is how the restaurant order looked like.
CS: So you made the entire dinnerware for the restaurant?
ZB: Everything. Sauceboats, ashtrays, everything.
CS: Isn’t it less durable than china?
ZB: It’s less durable than porcelain, but they have to be careful. What do they want, şi frumoasă şi deşteaptă şi devreme acasa?/both beautiful and smart and home early at night? We need to compromise/ give in/let go a bit.
EV: [More samples] Look at this! Extraordinary! My God!
ZB: This is what Japanese people love! A woman from Romania sells in Japan.
CS: But do you sell here too?
ZB: Of course, I have my own store.
CS: Where can I find them?
ZB: You can buy directly from me!
EV: You’ll get them cheaper.
ZB: It rains now…
EV: That’s why I’d rather…
ZB: Are you in a hurry?
EV: Well, Cristina drives back in town to pick up her mom and child and I’m afraid for her. But I’ll show up in the morning… I didn’t expect you to be so very talkative.
ZB: No problem.
EV: So if Cristina tomorrow has to run errands, can she drop me by 9 a.m. here?
ZB: Surely. Then we ride with my car, no problem. Would you like to take something with you?
EV: I’m not prepared to do that now. Only to create promotional materials.
ZB: There is already lined up door to door transportation.
EV: Surely, but financially I’m not prepared for such an effort yet. I could take something small that show cases your fine workmanship.
ZB: Alright.
EV: Great.
ZB: Great. 

It seems we didn’t leave just then. Probably the thunderstorm was in full bloom and we waited for it to appease, judging by the background sounds. We seem to be in Mr. Bledea’s kitchen, his captive audience. 

ZB: I often envision the future. When I chat with my friends, who work in high places, politicians, so on, they ask me what I think would come next. When we had the presidential election…
CS: You made a prediction.
ZB: I wouldn’t call it prediction, but this is how I saw things: If Geoana, the Social Democrat candidate wins then he sets us back with ten years, even more. If the Democratic Liberal Party wins, then it shall be very hard on us who have businesses. We’d have to be very correct because they’d come down on us, tighten the screws, because we have to align to the countries around us, we can’t keep on stealing from each other. In the end someone has to pay, and who does? Our own people. We can’t compare our country with Guatemala or wherever they die from starvation. We at least have fruits growing in our yard, vegetables, what the devil?! [Laughs] So then when they saw that it happened exactly how I’d said, and that Boc came down on us, my friends said, ‘Well, he must be friends with Boc, since he knew what he would do to us.’ I’m not friends with Boc, I’m not friends with anybody…
Well, since it rains, so we don’t waste our time I’ll read you an ode I wrote to the clay.
But this one is the Chain of the World. I’ll read you a few sentences. If I read it from beginning to end you’ll want to publish it in America, since that’s where the dirty business started. In The Chain of the World I talk about the entire global population. So: I see the likeness between man and the chain of the world, and a strange face that laughs while watching the earth from above, with a strange and bizarre laugher that only our ancestors had, when words got petrified on their lips. Anyway and anywhere we’ll remember, and as far as our destinies would take us, when the chain will rattle, an entire world will answer. The chain surrounds us all though many don’t want it. Powers that thought themselves unshakable, look, the chain link that thought itself the strongest has weakened and pulls after itself the entire world. An entire world collapses, its budgets downhill. For the rattling chain doesn’t stop at one weak link, but other countries too, alas, join it. The pain will be brutal and we’ll recover only after much hardship, as long as on earth money dictates, and all money gather in a few people’s bank accounts. Unfortunately it’s the weak link of this chain that strangles this rich earth. They hold onto the charmed chain with clenched teeth so that other links shouldn’t break here and there, and the entire mankind forgets about them.
Let them die slowly by their own dirty hands, now the moment has come for us to be anew equal, so that the world should not be ruled by dominating countries, but we should be all equal like when we die, and we’re all covered with the same cloak of clay. How sad is the moment at which we’ve arrived now, and how much troubled restlessness was brought onto people. Will there be another Babel Tower on this earth? The heads of the world don’t even know what they’ve already negotiated! With their dirty tongues who would they destroy next, who would they kill next so they hold onto their selfish comforts?
What I fear that might happen next is a multi-national entity plowing the earth and much of mankind won’t be able to survive. As we all learned from history, often mankind led by rotten bastards failed. Seeing what happens now it’s unimaginable. To have wagons of money and shops spilling with goods yet every day we talk about poverty? I think the agenda is hidden and only time will decide what will happen next. For nothing stops them, not even their own hurried thoughts that now and then question them. And what for? Since as time travels in space we understand the void and we receive our loneliness. And life and its beauty, the passion’s thirstiness, are lost in polemics and in absurd speeches made by you, the candidates, who instead of sustaining us you rather bury us deeper.
How sad is the tyranny of absurd capitalism. If you are not in power, you’re both deaf and blind, and we have to keep our beaks shut, unable to say what we need, and just float along with whatever they say.

CS: Very beautiful.
ZB: This was while we were going deeper and deeper into the present financial misery.
EV: You said you’d read a personal one.
ZB: Do you want the Ode to the Clay? Very beautiful. It compares the woman with the artist that creates from clay.
EV: Yes, yes. Is it personal?
ZB: No, because I dedicate it to the clay. I write sonnets, epigrams, essays…
CS: And you’ve never published anything?
ZB: No. Let my children do it. I wrote many love poems. I wrote The Saint Mountain when I went to Jerusalem. Let me see where that one is. [Shuffles thru his notebook] The Commandments Tablet that nobody understands. I wrote Destiny, my personal poem that has six chapters, At Life's Tipping Point, this is about my health problem, then The Chain, here it is, Ode to the Clay: Among dusty shelves and crowded tables, my thoughts take me back when I was tied first in the yoke of art. I have a picture. This wagon [He points to a wagon full of mugs in his yard] was in a store and my head and neck were shackled in its yoke… My wife didn’t want to join me, so I did it with my daughter, and I put it on the internet too. I called it The Privatization of Romania. [Cristina laughs gently] So: Among dusty shelves and crowded tables, my thoughts take me back when I was tied first in the yoke of art. In the folk art of a traditional flavor in which people work since hundreds, even thousands of years, coming down thru generations, taking further on the modeling of eternal earth, on a wheel that twirls on a wooden leg, on which I place carefully a clay clod and I start giving it life with passion and thirst, to give it a shape that will last thru times, eternally. It’s hard work but full of pleasures, like the mother woman that gives birth in pain, but out of her deep desire to make a child she surpasses torture and forgets it soon, holding her infant in her arms, looking at him and laughing.
How big is the pleasure of being able to give birth, the woman, holding her infant, myself, my vessel in my arms. A vessel with lithe shapes, carefully decorated, gives you much pleasure when admired. I made many vessels, tens of thousands, out of the clay that for centuries slept under grass, for 18 years,
now 21, but when I wrote it, it was 18, I keep on digging it up into sunshine and knead it like bread and then shape it carefully following what my mind created. In my short suffering I’ll shape a being with cold shapes but full of warmth, from now into eternity.
CS: Beautiful. Very beautiful.
ZB: Well, this is it…
EV: Will you tell us the one that is personal?
ZB: Sure. Human Chemistry. I wrote it when one of my workers died. I have another one: I’d Like To Get Inside Myself To Get To Know Myself Better.
CS: How beautiful.
ZB: Yes. Human Chemistry. In blue flickers and silvery groves, we live our path that only we know. We know it thru our suffering and self-knowledge hidden in our heart. How hard it is to bear its pain. The suffering on the altar of pain doesn’t have boundaries, the cruelty you are submitted to. Could it be that the life chemistry that works in us when its dosage is not carefully measured produces large errors? And the life evilness born out of errors hangs on the thread of evil making?
Because while you feel pleasure, you, people of faith, are making a being destined to straighten this flagellum.
This is a metaphor I wrote at the moment I had some problems with the crooks at the mayor’s office who tried to pull me down.
EV: But what did they do to you?

ZB: Well, I had a lot, a lot to deal with. You know how things go here. Right at the moment I had my crucifix blessing service, a weird phenomenon happened. It was beautiful weather and suddenly a cloud came and it started raining. After it was blessed the sun shined again. I asked the priest, ‘What has happened, Father? The angels are crying!’ I wrote this poem. With reddened eyes I look upwards to the sky bathed in blue purple, and I feel alone. Could it be an omen? In the blue purple is something happening today? And look, to my bewilderment I recovered! Look the stars got clouded and the blue angels start crying. But they cry of happiness, gathered around me, they sanctify the crucifix with their tears. Namely the rain that happened outside. Now, you shouldn’t think that I’m Adrian Păunescu!
CS: Beautiful. It would be a pity not to publish it.
ZB: Well, I’ll tell you a love one.
EV: Alright.
ZB: On Your Birthday, My Love: On your birthday, my love, I gift you nymphs made of stars that shine on the sky of my mature age. I give them to you with all my heart. Take them further on so they light the road you’ll walk on. Never forget the past that we lived together. May they be your guidance when you’re left alone. And at each anniversary if I’m not among you any longer, light a candle for me. On your birthday, beloved, I wish you all you desire, together with the children you have.
CS: You make me crazy!
ZB: Well, [Laughs pleased] I have racier ones, but that’s why I said they should publish them after I’m dead.
CS: While you wrote these poems were you also that frenetic with your pottery?
ZB: Well, what happened was that I learned how to make traditional art very quickly. So to be able to get ahead of the traditionalists—of course I went for quality, I took out the lead, so on—I said I should create some unique ceramics. But it was very hard. Imagine after centuries of it, after so many generations of potters, how to come up with a new brand?! I thought about it. Well, after the revolution, everybody was building, everybody would bring stuff from abroad, everybody would twist into a pretzel to show off their wealth, and indeed it happened that way. So I said I have to come up with a most pleasant ceramic design, push it towards rustic, more antique, more medieval. I was thinking about the new billionaires, the sham newly rich, but without much brain power, who would create an extreme opulence, so surely they’d buy anything opulent. So then I switched to patina finish ceramics. I launched my brand and when I saw that it worked, I hiked the price. You can’t put in a house that you’ve invested €1 or 2 million, you can’t fill it up with 25 lei pottery pieces. [Cristina laughs] You’ll see at my other studio. These ones were ordered by a fashion clothing line, the Cătălin Botezatu collection. He had an exhibition in the Arabian countries, and I made 14 works on pedestals, they had to be 1.20 meter tall along the runway where the models paraded. I couldn’t make them that tall, so I created the pedestal, which in itself was a beautiful piece. Well, I made good money on those.
But it was so much work, a lot of work.
CS: Very interesting pieces. The clothing was Middle Age style, wasn’t it?
ZB: Yes, everything was medieval.
EV: Did you manage to sell successfully this type of ceramics in Europe?
ZB: But of course. I had large orders. They took my work to France… I don’t want to make more than €10,000 a month.
CS: Why?
ZB: I don’t want to saturate the market. I have years in which I produce a lot of patina finish ceramics and I thus raise the market demand for traditional products, then the next year I launch new products in new shapes. The other potters copy my work, they plagiarize it, my decorative drawings and all, because they see it sells. So we come out with new designs. We work very much from museum album designs. An ethnographer, a friend of my wife, bequeathed all her literature to her. She knew we are a real creation center that focuses on quality.
CS: Did it ever happen to have the pieces come out misshapen?
ZB: The biggest risk is when we dry them. We do it slowly. In these 20 years I found a clay paste that has to be elastic, so I can shape it, like butterscotch. I keep the paste clay for three, even seven years, I macerate it, within 5°-20°. I seal it in plastic foil to age, like wine bottles. And then it becomes what I need. During that maceration time it becomes homogenous. Its water particles mix with the solid particles of kaolin, actually it contains red clay that is used to wall plaster, then bentonite, then we end with kaolinite. Bentonite is good only for this white Angove. The kaolin containing iron carbonate has a red hue, and the kaolinite, if you know how to mix them, in fact are porcelain but contain iron carbonate, which during burning turns into iron oxide, or if the burning is high then in trioxide. And then the iron is burned out.

CS: Do you have any serious competitor nationally?
ZB: No. They respect us very much. The ceramic artists themselves buy from us our products for their households. I also sell in stores in our county, and then thru museums all over the country.
But with my patina finish products we had a problem. A reticence. The museographers were mainly older people and they’d all want the traditional flavor. It bothered me. They’d say, ‘No, I can’t buy those ones. So-and-so will pick on them!’ but when it was to buy for themselves, they’d buy them for their homes. It was laughable. The head of museographers from this and that museum, would come into the store and say, ‘Lay away this vase and that pot.’ Not even one traditional item. They had enough of dealing day in day out with traditional pots and crocks.
At the Peasant Museum, where they all gathered for their annual meeting, they accepted seven of our products, a flask, and all kinds of storing vessels. Ceramics is not that good for preserving things, its pores are wider, but my vessels are such that if you place a vase on the table, no drop of water leaks on the table cloth. I can’t tell you what technique I use, it’s secret, but you can put whatever you want in it, nothing leaks. See, if it has even one tiny pore, it sucks in all the water, and then suddenly the plate is so very heavy, soaked in water! [Laughs] It absorbs like a sponge.
CS: Extraordinary!
ZB: See, what happens is that the housewife using it every day handles it less carefully, washes it, and then they call me, ‘The white is flaking off.’ ‘No, it’s not flaking off, you chipped it, you hit it on the table, what not, and if a chip falls off…’ It was a soup tureen. In order for it to exfoliate, a glazing that was made at 1,150° can’t flake off. ‘Well, we’ll fix it. It’s alright,’ they say. Do so, with Duco, spray paint, what do I care. But I told them I’d always be ready to make new matching pieces if their dinnerware sets get destroyed. It was a soup tureen. I didn’t paint it inside, only on the brim, like a ribbon, because they use it daily so they have to wash it properly.
EV: So they had a traditional restaurant? It was costly for them?
ZB: Sure, in Oradea. They all do it on E.U. grant money, don’t worry. They sent me a picture. My God! They had ceramics on the walls, on the floor, on six-seat tables, each with 38 pieces on. A piece of jewelry. They had 20 tables for 100 people. They decorated the walls, incredible.
In Bucharest, at the Roata Morii restaurant, I made dinnerware sets in medieval style. The inside was glazed and the outside had a patina finish. For beer, wine, plum brandy, pitchers, candle sticks, all kinds of glasses, ashtrays, sauceboats, olive bowls, flower vases, barrels. I don’t know if you’ve been there, but the owner, Popescu I think is his name, he enlarged it, added also a wine cellar, he told me, ‘Tomorrow we start decorating, and in two weeks, a month to the most, we open it.’ In a month I called him to see what the effect of my work was. ‘I didn’t open it yet.’ ‘But why’s that?!’ ‘Every day I sit alone two, three hours at a table and I look around. I just can’t open it!’ [Cristina laughs] To let people in!
EV: It’s so beautiful that…
ZB: He loved it so much that he didn’t want to open it anymore. For two weeks he just sat alone in it looking around! He said such beauty he never saw in his life. He’d invite a friend at his table and he’d show him what beauties he owned, as if he was in a museum. I also made a series for Bellaria in Iaşi, Hotel Bellaria, then Onyx. I made thousands, thousands of pieces.
CS: How much time does it take you to finish an order like that?
ZB: Dinnerware for 100 people takes 60 days. And in parallel I also make pieces for exhibitions and for myself, because we work in cycles. There are periods when the kilns are slower because the small ones run on electric power and it takes days to bake them in those. I might have to buy another one. For example this kind of plate here I can fit only 7 pieces in a kiln.

CS: How long does it stay in the kiln?
ZB: Eight hours. They are computer run. The fuller the kiln is, the longer it takes to burn them. And I can’t intervene. This one also has a layer of milky gray, I can’t stop its baking. I made my tests, so I just program them and it works without a hitch. I’m a stickler for quality. I wouldn’t have stayed in the profession without quality work.
EV: Will we go now, Cristina?
ZB: If you open a store in New York…
EV: That’s my dream. I was listening to you talking about restaurants. That’s my dream too. To have a center where I have traditional art, exhibition, theater, concert area, a bistro, a shop. But the road is long …
ZB: Just keep at it. As long as we’re still alive, the very few of us…
CS: We are amazed how complex is your personality. We came to meet a potter, crocks and mugs! And look at you!
ZB: A simpleton potter, hey?
CS: No, no, with deepest respect we came, but I didn’t know our jaws would drop! It’s like a secret world opens up. You’ve created something so shocking both for the traditional ceramists and for us, who were used with the old type of work.
ZB: I always tell them, ‘Alright, we appreciate our ancestors and we keep their art alive, but what about us?’
EV: Yes, indeed, with what are we contributing?
ZB: Let me say, me, not us, where’s my imprint for the third millennium, since I was the generation that stepped from the second into the third, where is my imprint, the ceramics of third millennium, where is it? Cu smaltul ei subţire, rămasă de la dragii drepţi amintire/With its fine glazing, inherited from our beloved righteous ones. I still guard the ones glazed centuries ago, they are still here, but where’s Bledea? Well, Bledea is the one who wants to step in the third millennium, and in another thousand years, when we’ll cross in the fourth, they should talk about it, not only about those two thousand years old.
And let me tell you, when I entered this field, I found such stupidity. [Cristina laughs.] Oh, please, goodness. They’d come the poor schmucks with suitcases on trains. I went by car, everything secured in my trunk. I’d set my stand, and well, the pottery makers showed up with a small table. Here was Orosz uncle from Harghita, another one was from Moldavia, another one from Oltenia. I’d tell them, ‘Please move your table further on.’ ‘Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! No way! We’re old, we have seniority.’ Alright. After a year, they were really in my way. I’d ask them, ‘How much is your merchandise worth? I’d like to buy a few pieces from you.’ ‘Well, 3 lei, 2 lei, 10 lei, 20 lei.’ ‘How about the entire stock?’ ‘2 million.’ We were during inflation, you know. ‘Alright, here, take 2 million, put your crocks here under my stand and go home.’
By the end of the fair, the museum director, Graur, would come from Cluj. ‘But where are the folks?’ ‘They left home.’ ‘They sold everything! See, I told them they’d sell everything!’ ‘Indeed. I bought everything. If you want to buy, here they are.’ ‘What?!’ ‘Well, I have a museum myself at home and I want to have samples of their work. But please, help yourself.’ I often didn’t know how much it cost one of their items. It was an honor system. They picked for their museum store thru me.
So it was so much stupidity… I don’t say it in a mean way, but they never wanted to give anything from their own selves, only what father made.
When I started working with my wood-burning kiln I had to gradually raise the heat, stoke the fire so that slowly, slowly the air warmed up gradually so it didn’t crack the pots. The embers had to be spread under the hearth. Some potters placed wood between pots. Good grief! It was an enormous amount of work. I was exhausted. My kiln had 3 fire burners. I had to keep on walking around the kiln because we couldn’t put thin green wood, only thick dry ones. So I nicely went and brought a butane tank, I brought in a table and a softer chair, I brought three pipes and hoses and I turned the gas on all three burners, and from time to time I’d turn the gas higher and let it burn until I couldn’t touch the upper part of the vessels, this being the heat you wanted to have, so you knew for sure hot air was circulating in the kiln. The first batch was more tragic because I didn’t know if they’d crack or not.
And I used one gas tank for 80 burnings, my lady! None of all that exhausting work! I just sat for four hours nicely on my soft chair! I don’t smoke, but I’d savor a soft drink or a beer, and I’d just sit. When it got too hot, I’d place pieces of wood on the gas flame, I’d turn off the gas, pull the pipes out to cool off, and I’d let the wood burn. I’d gain 4 hours of burning time. But after four years, in ’95, I said to myself, ‘If I don’t build a gas-burning kiln, if I don’t totally switch to gas, then I won’t work anymore.’ And so I made my third baby, my kiln.
CS: And this is your invention?
ZB: Yes, it is. But I didn’t patent it, because my wife sold me out. She let some visitors come in and see it.
CS: So now probably there are more like yours.
ZB: Yes, but they couldn’t see that inside I have about 36 shafts that are not visible. I made a compromise. The modern kilns have a basket inside and diffusing burners. Mine is a combination of traditional kiln with burning in the hearth but in the shape of a modern one, with a basket. So I load the basket shelves [Talks to a family member] Did you go after the child?
Voice: No. It was lightning.
ZB: Take the rubber rain coat. So the pots stay on the shelf without touching each other, I slide them in and out safely. I put in that old kiln plates on top of each other, or pots, mugs, I’d grab one but I’d get five of them, glued as they were together! So when they cooled off I had to tear them apart, and where they were fused they were defective. Like those folks in Horezu, I’d fix them with stone lacquer, which was patchwork. Shoddy. What you see here is unblemished. Perfect.
I also tried to paint on ceramics, look at this one! I made vases, plates, but it wasn’t attractive for customers. A lot of work and you couldn’t sell it for its worth!
EV: The rain almost stopped now. Shall we go?
ZB: Where’s your car?

CS: One block from here, by an orange house.
ZB: Oh, wait a minute then, you can’t walk in this rain. I’ll have my worker drive you there. 

The next day he took me to his studio downtown. Lots and lots of detailed ceramics pieces, and his paintings covered the walls, a potter’s heaven. And so Mr. Bledea talked:

EV: How have you patented your work? Tell me about those spies who steal your secrets.
ZB: Let me tell you how I arrived at the need to patent my work. Initially, after five years of working in traditional style, I realized I had to learn a lot of things that I didn’t know, not working in the field since I was young, and knowing about it only from history books or from visiting other potter’s workshops, but I didn’t know the details of it. My father was a stone carver, my mother was a seamstress. They had nothing to do with pottery, only my father-in-law did. But we barely married and my wife was pregnant with my daughter when my father-in-law died. So no one worked as a potter, all my wife’s siblings had a different profession. One worked in constructions, another one was a tailor, one of her sisters was a secretary at a hospital, and my wife was an accountant. Period. So that was the end of pottery tradition in this house.
In ’89, after the revolution, when we privatized, I started a dearth of things, butchery, so on. Some of my colleagues that were better off, received their inheritances back from the state, got back their land and became extraordinarily rich. They knew I had a quick mind, and wanted me to join them in their business ventures, like the Bucharest Hotel, where a friend wanted me to work with him. I told him, ‘Look, man, you have money, I don’t. What would I do this for? Mess up my children? You want me to be your slave?’ I refused him, I didn’t go. That was in ’92, when the state gave incentives to privatize, in this case the hotel could be bought by anybody that could pay in installments stretching over 20-30 years, and could put as collateral the hotel they bought, or money. In ’92 after I refused him, another one wanted me to join in managing the Carpaţi Hotel. There I gave it a bit more thought, but meanwhile I started with ceramics in ’90. I refurbished my in-laws workshop, I revitalized it. We gave it a thorough cleaning, I fixed the kiln, I repaired the machinery that was defective, while I still worked at the Institute. We had a metal workshop so I could have various items/bits made there on the lathe and replaced the defective ones.
So I relaunched the workshop.
My wife had a brother. Petre was his name. He loved to drink, he’s dead now. He just left his workplace and was spooling/coiling/winding engines at home. I talked to him, ‘Look, Petre, let’s start the workshop. Would you work on the wheel? My wife will paint, and I’ll see what I can do myself, I’ll manage the workshop, I’ll bring wood, feed the fire, we’ll see. So we can progress a bit, and we go half-half.’
He agreed and we started.
Even now, 20 years later, we still argue that had I not taken that step, no one in their family, including Cornel Sitaru, my wife’s brother, who now gives us grief, none of them would have worked as potters. He didn’t even take interest in the workshop. They let it go to ruin. I tell you, I cleaned two trucks of rubbish out of that workshop. I had to build two corner shelves outside so we laid the pots to dry. We’re now arguing that had I not taken that step then, the youngest brother would have demolished the workshop altogether, made his garden wider, and no one would have worked in the pottery field. But I excited/provoked them/gave them the itch. When they saw that we started making pots again, they came by and saw how clean it was, that’s how I am, I love orderliness, cleanliness, I decorated the walls with plates and vessels, nice. They started to come in the workshop too! They asked us to split the work time, in the morning you use it, in the afternoon us, whatnot, so in the end it was rather crowded. Slowly, slowly the cuckoo effect was produced. Do you know it?
EV: A stray cuckoo chick throws out the rightful owners of the nest?
ZB: That’s exactly so. They came in the workshop, two of the brothers made a team, and we, my wife being respectful by nature, didn’t argue with them, so slowly, slowly they pushed us out of the workshop in a small side room. We fixed that one from scratch too, then we rented a house that was scheduled for demolished, but its owners still lived in it, and we moved out. It put me in a tricky/precarious situation, because I had to build from scratch yet another workshop! After I’d fixed theirs. I moved out and we paid rent, I had to make wheels so we can work. Then it was not like now that you go to specialized stores where you can buy potter’s wheels. You can go to Hungary, you can go wherever you want and buy yourself. Everything was muddled up, it was unclear which way we shall go, not that we know nowadays any better, but you didn’t have supplies, pigments, colorants, it was a problem.
I made shelves at the Institute, and I thought out a new technique of connecting the wheel, because the wheels that my in-laws worked on had 3 meter long belts, like mills. It was a dated, awkward technique, I couldn’t work with it! And didn’t really want to. So I made a 25 centimeter tall device that connected to a 2.2 kilowatt engine. Very high consumption, so I made it for .64 kilowatt, under one kilowatt, and I made two wheels. Because it was time for me to learn how to work the wheel myself.
So I bought some tin walls and built a hut at the rented place. I built my kilns from scratch, a large wood-burning one and a smaller kiln for quick things when we went to fairs. This was while I managed the butchery, I brought in cattle, I brought pigs, slaughtered them, whatever I could do until it became clearer which way we would go. Same time the restaurant proposition came about, which now I regret I didn’t go for, having in mind its evolution after 22 years. It would have been an easier life and I would have been already the owner of half of the Carpaţi Hotel and Restaurant, I would have been well off, without much work. Well, sure it would have required work too, but just managerial work. Well, after we finished setting up at the new location, my wife’s brothers went to instigate the owners to kick us out!

EV: Why?
ZB: Because we were competing on the market. I started to be much more knowledgeable, started to use much more advanced techniques, since I’ve been in research for 21 years, I had a different vision about the future, a different vision about what we worked. I was a real competitor. They started to be afraid of me and started to stab me in my back. My wife, when my mother-in-law had died, had signed away her inheritance in the favor of one of the brothers that now owned the old place, so we were in a delicate/tricky situation.
Well, in ’95 on May 1st, they gave us an ultimatum to leave! Can you imagine after we built everything there and the woman had promised to sell the house to me! That’s what we agreed upon, that after a year I’d be buying the house, and after a year and eight months she told me I should leave. On May 1st 1995 I had to leave the building. After that I tried to buy another house, and whenever I’d go and inquire and negotiate, I don’t know who and how but they’d always persuade them not to sell me the house, so we never closed the deal. I found this location now. It was in the paper, ‘Bread factory neighborhood, I sell a property made of two buildings in one yard.’ It was thru a real estate agency. Actually there were three buildings in the same yard, but he had the approval only for two of them, and from the outside no one could tell there were three buildings. So we went to see it with the real estate agent. I told her on the spot the owners should not know who the buyer was. Everything should be done thru the agency. I paid 200,000 Lei down-payment, and in August we received the first installment from the bank, we gave them 5 million, the house being 10 million, and on August 1st they moved out and on August 30th we had the second payment. I had at the beginning of August 12 millions, but I gave only 5 million, according to the agreement, and with one million I went and enrolled at Caritas, a Ponzi scheme, and with four I started fixing fences, refurbishing, and on September 2nd I was due to receive the second money installment from the bank, 14 million, the house being used as the collateral for the loan. They signed the house over to me. I gave them the rest of the money. Meanwhile I fixed the place, demolished some walls, so I could bring my equipment from the old place, so slowly we settled in here.
The most problematic was the kiln. At that point we never saw a room-size kiln. A guy, who brought me glazing from Germany, inquired for me. It was about 15,000 DM. He said he can bring it to me, since he took a shipment from Baia Mare from a clothing factory to Germany. There was a factory on a side street nearby here, now it’s a restaurant, so he’d take the clothing to Germany, and back he’d come empty.
But that kiln was too large. I gave up and I said I’d build one myself, as I told you, with traditional hearth but in the shape of a room. I built it brick by brick with my own hands. I never built anything before, so I made mistakes. Well, it was a matter of air movement/circulation. Bread ovens work only up to 280°. So in the morning I went to the institute library, I’d research ovens, air movement/circulation, volume, capacity, gas consumption, I studied in detail. Mornings in the library, afternoons in the kiln. Three months I worked at it. At its 4 cubic meters I had to make the chimney 13.80 meters, 13.60-13.80 meters. But how to place such a high a pipe above the house? It would have stuck out too much. So I made an improvisation inside the chimney to lower it.
EV: You made a maze of pipes so the smoke could move around in it?
ZB: Yep. I made a few breaking spots, this way I lowered it at house roof level. ‘If it’s not enough, I’ll add another pipe,’ I thought. But nothing else was needed. It had such a draft/air pull/movement that I had to insert a stoppage/plug to lower the air drafting. I started firing it. At first it didn’t bake my pots. The humidity was very high. I fired it several times until I adjusted it. I kept the doors locked, the key in my pocket. I didn’t let anybody near it. Well, after the kiln worked, everything was solved.
What I forgot to tell you is that while I was at the rented location on 114 Eminescu Street I’d learned how to work on the wheel and I produced my own ceramics. But I figured that if I worked on the wheel instead of doing what I knew better, organizing, design, marketing, selling, I’d make a mistake. So I hired another potter. They all made what I told them to. I made the first piece, and asked them, ‘Now you make a hundred of this one. But this is the shape you’ll give to it.’ Handles, every detail I wanted it my way, so we could go on the market with it. It was my traditional period. [Shouts at his assistant] Lili, while I talk to Madame, take the keys and go fetch mom from Aurica. By the time you arrive we’ll be done and so she won’t stay alone at Aurica’s. I’ll give you some money, if you guys want to buy anything. Ring the bell, the masons are there, they’ll open the door. Buy some snacks so she can munch on them while we drive home.
EV: I’ll buy them before I pick her up.
ZB: Sure. So I learned the techniques, one by one, and I got prizes upon prizes. I have over 400 prizes. At fairs, presentations. First Prize, Grand Prix, Excellency Prizes, by the truckload. Golden Mark in Romanian Industry. I received Gold Medals too, everything, everything, but in parallel, due to our family quarrels and crisis with her brothers, I thought about switching to a different style of ceramics. I have pictures and samples from all the stages and steps that took me to the ceramics I make now. I made pieces that had a brown and black finish. I dipped them in various solvents, stains/lacquers and made them in various colors. Anyway I started experimenting in ’96, until 2000, until I arrived at this stage. I put on the market my new products and saw that people bought them in enough quantities so I could develop my assets, and it was worth it, so I kept at it. Otherwise I would have been forced to switch lanes, because I had two small children. My kids were 12 and 13 years old then! I had to hold them up, I was by then 46 years old! Plus above my head was hanging my health Damocles’ sword.
But many people would say, ‘I can’t believe that a man like you works in this field!’ as if I lowered my social status. Many people asked me at fairs, ‘Really, do you make such stuff yourself?’ Because they saw the other potters next to me, who were more like our parents, closer to the countryside, peasants. I’ve always been an elegant man by nature.

EV: And what did you reply to them?
ZB: ‘What’s your problem?!’ I was part of the pottery circles. Potters would come and ask me, ‘Mr. Bledea, how is this? And how about that?’ I’d make colloquies with them after the fair closed. We’d talk things over while drinking beer. I never liked getting drunk, or smoking, only when I was young and wanted to fit in, but I never practice these vices, because my father practiced them, and I said I shall never do like him. So if I didn’t attend a fair the potters started to miss me. We were very close. They were dear to me. I didn’t tell them everything, but I advised them. [Imitates their voices, choking with bewilderment and a tinge of envy] They’d ask me, ‘How do you manage to make this color?! How do you manage to do that one?!’ They couldn’t make it in their wood-burning kilns. Plus, my kiln using burning on the hearth had several temperature levels, a wide range, thing that some of them don’t know even at present. I placed the colors depending on the temperature required. My colors turn so beautiful because I know where to place my cobalt, where to place my green, where to place my white, and where to place my red! What bothered me most, when I started working in this field, was that they worked with litharge! 100% litharge!
EV: What is that?
ZB: Lead! Lead oxide. 100%! All of them! Some still work like that even today! Coming from the chemistry profession I knew it was toxic. ‘What are we doing? Ruining my health?! Don’t we have enough lead in the air, I should produce some in my home too?!’ I implemented rules of safety for my workers, everything.
If you can imagine the primitives before us would test the paint finesse on their lips! To see how fine is the litharge! My mother-in-law, I remember, when I courted my wife, how she made glazing. She had a stone grinder and she’d turn the handle with her hand and put a spoon of lead oxide and a spoon of water. I remember once she made me turn the grinder handle, whomever she could catch, kids playing outside, would make them push the damn handle! That grinder was made of two stones on top of each other, you can still see them in museums, one was chipped, the bottom one had like a collar, and the top one circled above it, and between them the glazing was rubbed, it was fine grained already, it was sold as a dust, so it just mixed it with water, it was like an emulsion. They didn’t know it, but that’s what it was, an emulsion. And she tested its texture, as I said, on her lip, the bottom lip being very sensitive, she tested the litharge density, if she needed to add more water or powder.
EV: What did she die of?
ZB: My father-in-law died of cirrhosis. He drank a lot of vodka. He wasn’t a drunk that made a show of himself on the town streets, but he was constantly drunk. While he worked he’d take a swig. It ate his liver. My mother-in-law had a vascular accident. Her saturnism was about 50, 60. Instead of 13, 12 that was the norm in town, she had 50, 60. So her blood was hampered/moving slow, burdened. She bent to pick up something from the floor, she was 64 years old, and she had a vascular accident that caused her death. She died, my father-in-law died in ’75, and my mother-in-law died after 6 years.
EV: I’m not familiar with saturnism…
ZB: Saturnism is lead poisoning, a professional hazard, and it also denotes the amount of lead in organism.
EV: So hers was four, five times higher?
ZB: This is what she said, but who knows actually how high it really was. They’d go once a year to detoxification. They’d do a round of perfusion and that diminished it a bit. Saturnism doesn’t get out of the body. Very, very slowly.
EV: It’s similar to radiation?
ZB: No. Due to its weight lead stays stocked/warehoused in the body. The organism can neither process it nor eliminate it. Blood loves it and retains it in the body. But nowadays there are medicines that precipitate the lead in the organism. You have to be cautious with your kidneys, but the elimination of lead is quickened thru urine and sweating.
EV: Can we say that potters suffered from this illness without knowing?

ZB: All of them! All of them! What happened was that if you managed to grow old, 80 years old, the body adapted to it, so to speak. But their children died. Since they didn’t know about it, the children would play in the workshop. Saturnism in children is extraordinarily damaging, because it invades the liver, the kidneys, the brain, most of it in the brain, up to 20%, 30%, and the rest in the muscles. In children saturnism causes a strange illness, the members are twisted, the neck, the jaws, and in time, being a degenerative illness, leads to death. Many potters’ kids died under 10 years old, and they didn’t know why. Even if they didn’t work directly with the product they touched it with their little hands. That dust settled everywhere in the workshop, they touched it with their hands, and like every child, they stuck their fingers in their mouths, and swallowed it. My mother-in-law protected them, only she alone tended to painting. Each of them had precise tasks: the boys worked the wheel, the girls, my wife painted, and one of the girls prepared the kaolin. And only she dealt with litharge. She prepared the glazing. They helped her load the kiln, but she made them wash their hands.
But let’s quickly switch to talking about the new technique that I started to output on the market. Until 2000 I made market research, I sold here and there a bit to see the demand. In 2001, I had the trouble with my leg, which was misdiagnosed 100%. I realized that when they scanned my hip the machine read the necrosis that was a result of my cancer treatment back in the ’80, it read those necrotic cells and the doctor didn’t interpret the scanning correctly, and gave me an unsettling diagnosis. ‘Sarcoma cancer of femoral head and massive inguinal tumor blockage’ was a terminal illness. I had a month or two and I’d be finished.
But what bothered me most of all was that after I came back from Cluj to Baia Mare, Dr. Nemeş, who used a tomography machine here, didn’t question the Cluj diagnosis, and didn’t follow what the tomography machine said. A tomography machine scans the body in slices and he should have interpreted differently my scanning. I reproached him this, eight years later, ‘How is it possible such a mistake? Shame on you!’ He put me on cytostatics, but I didn’t want to stay.
During this period many friends visited me, hearing that I was on my terminal stage, so they came for a good-bye visit, among them also a judge. He has a daughter in America, he travels a lot. He said, ‘Zaharia, why don’t you patent your inventions? I’ve never seen such products like yours anywhere else. And even if someone else would make pottery like yours, he can’t make it the way you make it. It’s something that comes from you. It’s tied with your life, your personality.’
I said, ‘It’s costly. I’ll inquire, because it’s a good idea.’
So then I consulted a specialist in intellectual copyright and she made the first steps, she researched it on the internet. So in 2003 I had my trademark, then I registered my product samples, then I said, ‘Let me patent my work technique, my patina finish.’ Here it is. [He shows her a certificate] Then I patented 15, 20 products, depending how much money I could spare to pay the registration fees, less than I wanted, since I had many more products.
EV: What is this inability, or whatever it is, here in Romania, or even in Eastern Europe, of legally dealing with plagiarism, with stealing? They seem to think stealing is absolutely acceptable!
ZB: Here behind everything there is a mafia, even in politics. Often a politician calls a judge and says, ‘Listen, let so-and-so free!’ ‘But wait a minute, he is…’ ‘No, no, just let him go.’ Just think that I had my first law suit dragging for four years! And he got away with it on the grounds that, ‘We stop the penal procedure since the defendant committed no further law breaking offence. And because it was just on one count.’ This was the answer we got after four years of litigations. The prosecutor temporized/dallied/delayed until God forgot about it. When I got the news… Oh, let alone that no one informed me officially. The verdict was given in January and I found about it in May or June. After which I went back to the court and filed an appeal, this time on three counts. In the end they declared me guilty that I caught those who plagiarized me!
At the time of mayoral elections in Baia Mare, I wanted to put myself on fire on the stairs of the Justice Palace as a protest, to call attention that author rights in Romania have to be respected. But while I was readying myself to do this, they menaced me, since I talked about it and the whole secret police and police force found about it. They came and told me I should sit tight and it shall be settled in my favor. The settling was done again by myself. I went and talked to the person who plagiarized me and I asked him to sign a paper declaring he’d never ever make again pottery. And he signed at a notary that he shall not work in the field again and I then withdrew my complaint.
That was the settling.

But now I have another one I sued, it’s been since 2009, and look what happened.
Just ask any legal advisor in America if such a thing is possible: if a file is registered under number 501 for two years, and then after the power pressure starts growing, the prosecutor is replaced, the file number is changed, and it’s sent back to the police, without letting me know at all. My lawyer told me the new prosecutor was buying time. Now the file ended up with a different policeman, the ones that were involved with my case were moved about, and when I call this policeman he says, ‘Sir, call your lawyer.’ And the lawyer doesn’t know anything new for the last three months.
EV: But what do they plagiarize specifically?
ZB: My designs and the patina finish. Exactly what I patented. Each year I pay my fees to OSIM to maintain my patents, every year, or five or ten years, I pay my fees. What for? For protection rights.
EV: How much does this cost?
ZB: A bundle. About 2 billion.
EV: You have to constantly do this?
ZB: Indeed. And after 25 years I have to patent them for my inheritors. The inheritors have to renew them from scratch.
EV: Why do you think is this thieving tendency?
ZB: Out of lack of knowledge. People don’t use their brains. When I write in my poem, ‘What my mind shall create!’ that is what I create. I signal with my scream as a creator, as an inventor of new techniques, if I made them it means they are mine. I can’t make a child and the neighbor just comes and takes the baby from me! Like I told them in court…—But do realize that the justice system is not prepared for this issue! When we went to court the judge had endless discussions to clarify what my lawyer was talking about.—It’s as if you invite a friend in your home and while you go to buy cigarettes he rapes and screws your wife! This is how exactly this theft is! It violates your ownership rights! Alright, your wife is not your property, but it’s your lawful wife, and you come and find her raped by your friend! This is going on in this case too. Because look what they do: they steal my workers, they bribe them, and banu-i ochiul dracului/money is the devil’s eye/root of all evil, so the worker tells him everything and then denies that he said anything. Since I can’t keep everything secret from my workers.
Well, in Vama village… I had so many orders that I wasn’t able to keep up, hundreds of pieces, thousands, so then I went to Vama, not in Baia Mare to make sure I don’t get more grief, and I talked to a potter and I said, ‘You make me just the raw items, I’ll do the burning.’ I told him everything, my patina finish technique, everything. I made him swear on the Bible that he wouldn’t make any of my items for other customers. Only to see that he makes an entire exhibition and furnishes a restaurant with my products. How far can one take this brazenness? Sitaru made a fortune, bought himself an Audi Q7 on my ideas. I tell you, no one could have his life style churning traditional pottery. To buy Q7s and villas! Or I, to get my Mercedes, would have been impossible. I’d have stayed with my rattletrap Dacia like others who have no clue about my new ideas. All of them, for the last ten years, stole from me and used my technique. That’s how money was made. Since, as I told you, I thought it all out about the new owners that would get back their properties from the state and they would build villas and would want to furnish them with expensive ceramics.
Now, let’s take it ethnographically. To come up after 3,000 years, after 2,000 years to start a new product in ceramics field, while Chinese people made, oh, dear, my head aches, they had such an evolution in ceramics it’s hard to imagine! And for me, to come out with a new brand! Simply, they were all afraid to acknowledge my inventiveness and they tried to write me off as kitsch. Just think of it! They tried to hide my work under kitsch! But they couldn’t because the work technique was on potter’s wheel. It was made manually, artistically!

Alright, if you must put it under handicrafts, alright, but to take it as far as kitsch meant they tried to push us out of the ethnographic sphere! To put us under mass production heading, wholesale, to label us as industrial, not manufacturing, I didn’t agree. I went to symposiums, and had discussions with them. I invited them to see for themselves in my workshop that everything was just the same as in the old days. The only different thing was the closing of the pores thru this patina finish technique that as a creator I chose to do it wherever I wanted, be it on the surface or in the details. If you are a popular creator, or an artistic creator, isn’t creative freedom just the same?
As I’ve told you, after I presented my product, even now, after 2010 when I started to blend traditional ceramics with my own Bledea style… Look at my plates, vases! It’s much more difficult, because I have to follow the traditional technique, then I have to apply my Bledea technique. Finally only now, when the political structure changed a bit, and other specialists appeared, they seem to accept my brand. In the end it will take its well-deserved place. I was constantly afraid that I’d end up like the Cucuteni ceramics. The Cucuteni ceramics was very old, made in Moldavia, I don’t have a sample here, but even today museographers don’t want to include it in the traditional Romanian art.
EV: On what grounds? Authenticity?
ZB: Because it was during the migration waves’ time. During that time several migratory people settled in Moldavia area and I suspect Rusniaks, or how you call them, Slovenians, settled there, and they don’t want to acknowledge it as pure Romanian. That would be it. I explained to them that our Maramureş area was shielded even from Romans, not even Romans set their foot here. They came as far as Ţara Moţilor/Moţi Country, but that’s it! In our area, Maramureş area, it’s pure Dacian area. We are the descendants of Dacia inhabitants without any further ado!
Outsiders were afraid to come here since we had these mountain depressions surrounded by the Carpathian chain. Not even during the World War Two did they come here. They only passed over us with airplanes, they were afraid to come between these mountains.
That’s why I didn’t want to sell my brand, though I was offered big money. For my glazing I was offered €1,5 million, I mean I asked 1,5 million, I was offered 1 million. I didn’t accept. I don’t need money, I don’t collect money. Money is just so I can live and take care of my family, that’s enough. When there is too much money hatred and scandal ruins the family. You need just enough to keep on going, keep a straight level thru times of crisis like now, even if society’s level climbs and then drops dramatically, just keep a steady horizontal level. When you make good sales put money aside, when it sells poorly, take from your savings, this way you keep a steady level. This is how I taught my children too, to work and not make easy gain out of games and stupid things.
But regarding your question, indeed in all civilized countries surrounding us, the intellectual property, like the treasury, in one hand you hold a pen, in the other a pair of shackles. If you are not honest, the shackles shall tie you up. Same with intellectual property. I know it from Germany. OSIM, The State Office for Inventions and Trademarks, knows how many new inventions and new work techniques are patented there, 3,000 even 4,000. While in Romania 12, 13 new patents that are already used in production. Because here they are not acknowledged. Many have inventions but don’t have the money to patent them. I had the luck to be able to patent mine. But when you end up in a law suit they don’t know how to proceed.
EV: For lack of experience.
ZB: Indeed. I am the first to do this in Baia Mare, and that turned them upside down. But one day they have to learn that author rights… And let’s not even mention the offensive words hurled upon me from my opponents! Oh, Lord, several came together to harm me! Alright, you can say what you want, I have my documents and you are just talking empty words to the air.
[Phone rings, interruption, then on we go]
ZB: I sense quickly if I can collaborate with people. In the instant I feel that the person has petty intentions, or a hidden agenda, then I pull out. If you want to buy, you’re welcome to choose your merchandise, or make an order and we make them for you, but that’s about it. I don’t get involved.
EV: Well, let me ask you my question, alright? Would you please let that phone aside?
ZB: Does it bother you?
EV: Yes. It’s been on my mind since yesterday: how was your creativity tolerated by your wife and those around you? Inventiveness and experimentation can scare people, because, as you said, you had some flops until you arrived at something valid. And how did their reactions impact on you, and how did you work around them to be able to go on?
ZB: In my family I’ve always been perceived as a man who doesn’t do reckless things, just for the heck of it. I’ve always analyzed what I was about to do. And they knew me well. I never had any opposition from them, plus, with the health problems that I had, they encouraged me to get busy, so I keep my mind off of them. Even more, wanting to keep my family together, I’d tell them, ‘I take it upon my shoulders that you’ll have everything you need.’ It was damn overwhelming to take such responsibility, to promise them a safe future, and all of my help. I’d tell them, ‘I’m a well-prepared, scientifically well-read, mature man. It would be a pity not to use my knowledge. Alone you’d need an entire lifetime to reach my knowledge level. I might have my days shortened, I might have my years shortened, so take advantage of my knowledge in this very brief time left.’
There is the law of compensation, when people reach their terminal life stages would like to cover several things in a very short time, travel, or do something that they wanted to do but couldn’t until then. It’s a good thing that we don’t know when we’ll die, for then people would go berserk. So in eight years I achieved what I didn’t achieve in my entire life before. I created a brand, I registered with OSIM, I patented my inventions, I started to write poetry, I painted big time, I built my church. The carpenters made everything, everything the way I asked them to, from nails to its final shape. Upstairs, in the attic, is a library. On its terrace you can fit a coffee table with two armchairs, and if you take a book and read it, you face the crucifix. No discotheque, no drugs, just be in a spiritual aura that could slow down a grandson, or one of my children, whoever goes there, be surrounded by a peaceful aura.
About my branding: After my wife went to fairs and she saw how it sold, we started to manufacture it in diversified shapes and products, to experiment, to produce as many and as sophisticated as the demand was. People came and ordered.
For example this boot, it arrived to this enormous size! From a small baby toy boot to give on Saint Nicholas as a gift, we arrived at an artesian fountain boot! That’s how far we got! And think of it, to make a good artesian fountain, a humidifier, I worked on them for three months. The problem was that the clay paste was not well made. You saw mine in the yard. It has been there for five years now! And the clay doesn’t give in anymore. It’s been in water for five years and has no deterioration. So to create such a clay paste for ceramics, it’s a chemistry achievement from molecular structure point of view. If you don’t know what to do to seal its pores… If you make a bowl, a mug, and the water drips thru it, what can you do with it? You can’t put it on a table! But I verified and water doesn’t sip thru my fountains. I thought things out very clearly. That small fountain there, it services a room like this with no air conditioning. You put a few cubes of ice from your fridge, the water becomes cold from it, and the air… [Bloody phone rings, interruption again, then we march on]
EV: So I understand you became inventive because it was necessary, both to raise your children and you wanted to make your mark in ceramics art.
ZB: My fingerprint. Yes.

EV: But were you inventive before you met your wife who created these conditions for you, fostered your inventiveness?
ZB: Sure. Even when I was at the institute I was a co-author. At the institute you couldn’t be an inventor and own your patent, because you were work for hire. I had several discoveries in several projects because I worked in unconventional, new technologies. This is what our job at the Research Institute was: finding new technologies. In microbiology for example we worked on recovering the useful substances out of rare ores. We grew bacteria cultures that in the case of gold in pyrites with high arsenic content, there was a trivalent bind between gold, sulfur, and arsenic. If they ran the pyrites thru smelting factories, the arsenic went out in the air and landed on people, and that was forbidden, and it was a lot of it, 14 grams at a ton of gold in pyrites! So we used this technique in which the bacteria ate the sulfur, and after it ate it all out, it freed the gold and arsenic from the trivalent bind. The arsenic being lighter would float on the surface, the gold being heavier would sink at the bottom of the dish/vessel. It was a slow movement, in large basins with lent agitation/stirring, in which the bacteria digested/ate the sulfur and then together with the arsenic flowed out thru one vent/pipe, and the golden mud thru another. The gold mud was extracted thru the bottom of the vessel, and the overflowing liquid carried the arsenic. This way we managed to separate the arsenic from gold, and the pyrite mud was filtered, and containing a much lower arsenic content, we brought it down to almost zero, and only then was sent to smelting factories.
We took out the arsenic, but since the arsenic stayed in the water we had to apply yet another work technology, because you couldn’t send it in the fluvial flowing waters because there you had fish. So then we made another unit for arsenic precipitate, obtaining arsenic carbonate, which arsenic carbonate is used in pharmaceutical industry! Thus we also created a revenue stream. We received money for the gold from the Chemical Factory, and for the arsenic carbonate from the Cluj Medicine Institute, so we brought money into our institute. All this had to be thought out, but overall as a rule those who planned and thought all this out were left out, ignored, the last taken care of, and so I had enough of it.
EV: Inventiveness was needed but not taken care of.
ZB: Yes, it was needed but in the moment they saw you had a sharp mind, you were constantly under secret police surveillance, wherever you went, whatever you did.
EV: They preferred abulia. You mentioned gold in connection with local gold mining tradition?
ZB: Yes. Gold pyrites had to be sent to metallurgy, but they couldn’t because the arsenic content was too high! From time to time they’d let one, two loads go thru, and cows, people got poisoned with arsenic. Arsenic is very, very toxic, carcinogenic. So they stopped production and sent it as homework to us, to the research department, as research projects.
I wanted to buy the entire lab equipment after we switched to privatization, but only if they sold it as scrap iron, not as brand new! They were asking more than a million lei for it and I didn’t have a million lei! They threw it to scrap iron.
After four years they came back to me saying they’d sell it now. Go away! By then I was doing something else. Many of my colleagues continued in the field, but went abroad. I, with my health problems, had to be more cautious. 

As for inventiveness, there is one more thing: along the years, many people that worked with me, strictly as executioners, along the years they started to think that it was them who were the initiators! That’s how retarded people are here. They really end up believing that they invented it! Alright, let’s say we have to put a decorative layer on a product and he asks me, ‘Shouldn’t we put some chains here and here?’ ‘Okay, put some.’ I gave the approval to put it, and he is the initiator who proposed it, so there are some things that they contributed, but as I always said, ‘Ford made the Ford car. It’s him who will be the one, not the workers that put together the car parts! That would be like the mason who builds your house owns a part of it. Come on, guys, get real!’ For twenty years I taught my workers how to model my clay and we signed confidentiality agreements with every one of them, so they can’t work using my technique anywhere else, but if they get these ideas what should I do now?! Work in their place, since I’m the one who created and thought out that technique? No, now I’m busy with creating a different technique, like they do in the West. I develop one brand until it reaches its apogee while I work on another one in parallel, because the first one can fail, flop, and have no demand on the market, and then what will I be left with? Die next to it?
This one here with the medallion, goodness, when I first got it on the market it flied off the shelf like hot bread. I have another technique I’ll be out with, I’ve released a few products, to test it; then I broke them. I saw that it works, great. When I’m 80 I can die peacefully and leave behind me another work technique.
EV: You’re keeping it secret?! You’ll end up like the jeweler who made such beautiful jewelry that didn’t want to sell it anymore!
ZB: Well, I just withhold it for a few more years, maybe 10, maybe 20. It’s the same basic technique, but… Take this boot, it will be the same boot, but it will look totally different! It’s the easiest work technique that I created up to now! Glazing is the most difficult, then comes this other one, easier, but costlier.

EV: Well, Mr. Bledea, there are many things to ask, many things to talk about, but time is short, so should we take pictures of you in your baroque environment?
ZB: As a rule I liked in the arts the baroque style and in architecture Brâncoveanu style. All my life I wanted a house in Brâncoveanu style. But my son, well, this situation that happened with my leg, and I kept my children close to me, he wants modernism. I wanted to have a terrace with columns in Brâncoveanu style in my yard, so I can stroll on my large terrace with a large table, lots of fresh air, lots of paintings on the walls, but now they keep on shutting everything up with those damn thermo panes, but in my paintings you can see how I reconnect man and nature, whether he likes it or not.
Take this painting I have here, the tree is split in two branches, which is a man and a woman. As the two meet, the seeds appear. Here I painted them in an erotic pose, but they’re older and with a forest full of trees. Their seed spread on the land gave birth to a forest. Here, the waterfall with these two rocks, trees growing between them, a man and a woman. Up there I have a woman that shows up from the skies. Adam and Eve, in my imagination. She gives him the apple but also a clay pot. Adam and Eve didn’t know back then about clay pots.
EV: The Potter’s Heaven. [He laughs] What do you think the future would be?
ZB: I hope that my children would be alright, that they continue my work, otherwise it was all in vain. If they do, then everything will be great. I see my son follows in my footsteps. I separated him from the family so he could study. My daughter might follow her son who is a mathematician at the tender age of ten. If he goes to further his education abroad, he’ll need his mother near him. We’re a very close knit family. It’s good and bad to keep a family united. It’s hard for the one that leads it, the tribe chieftain; it’s hard for me because I have to be impartial. Children have the best judgment, and if they decide what we do is right, then the road is right. I taught them this craft, and it shall stay with them even if they decide to do something else. They’ll know how to use the potter’s wheel and my techniques. I’ll record everything on CDs.
EV: Sound or written?
ZB: Both. Sound recording but also I wrote a book about my pottery techniques. I don’t want to publish it because that would mean to take away the bread from my mouth/sell the shop. But they will be my inheritors. They shall be the ones to publish my poetry, sell my paintings, after I disappear. Then my imprint will be heavier, carry more weight than if I do it now. I thought it all out very well. Right now I study Brâncuşi, the inventor of modern sculpture. I’m the inventor of modern ceramics. It’s hard. Brâncuşi’s life was hard, and so is mine, but I’m trying to make it as pleasant as possible.
EV: There’s this beautiful store in New York where they sell traditional art from all over the world. I’ll show them the picture of your pottery. But then you know how people go crazy about Dracula and crap.
ZB: Well, that is something that I’m uninterested in. They think we’re a country of crazy people. They should have gone for a totally different country branding. But this is how they decided back then…
EV: It’s difficult to fight it because it’s already known.
ZB: I don’t say they should have fought it, but ignored it. That’s it.
Look at this one: It represents the five continents. It’s very risky to make such a large piece, it can come out of the kiln broken. I made it for Gigi Becali’s Palace. I didn’t work directly with Becali, but with his architect. The guy fell on his back in admiration when he saw it. He gave me €1,000 a piece, though I asked only €350.
EV: Did he ask you to break the mold?
ZB: No, no.
EV: I thank you for your generosity.

My thanks go to Dr. Nicholas Andronesco who made sure no mistake has been left in this text. He also called my attention that Cucuteni ceramics belong to the V – IV millennia BC. It has nothing to do with migration.

New York
June 12th 2013

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.

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