Gaetano Di Gregorio: Conversations on Art, Design, and Pottery
Gaetano di Gregorio
When walking towards Arsenale, before the small church of San Martino, there is a small studio, not so visible and not screaming to be noticed, characterised by a silent type of aura. Well... that space is called Spiazzi and gathers several artistic and cultural initiatives. There, I met one of the founders, Gaetano Di Gregorio, and wanted to learn more about his work, the studio's activities, and mostly, about his recent production of beautiful pottery, part of which was also selected for the 'VeneziaViva-VivaVenezia' initiative hosted by the DFS group inside the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Here below our brief conversation.
Originally from Catania, you moved to Venice to study architecture and decided to stay. Tell us more about yourself.
I have been interested in drawing since a small child, so it seemed natural to enrol in architecture. It was my father who suggested me to choose Venice, which in that period had many international students and allowed me to create lovely memories. I eventually decided to stay to work and soon the adventure represented by Spiazzi began. Currently I work as architect, potter and designer and I also teach interior design at the IED Institute of Venice. I always try to maintain a tie with my native land, experimenting the happy condition of feeling at home in two cities.
What challenges does living in Venice present to those who work in creative fields?
Venice can actually be congenial for creative minds, as it is a city that offers constant stimuli, and I also believe that there is something deeper in the city's ability to inspire, which lies in the fact that it is unnatural, that it required huge efforts to be built and cannot be compared to any other place in the world. The reflection of these efforts, the need to constantly find new solutions and its resilient nature, permeate the air, and I feel this condition strongly and see it as a resource rather than a limit. The downside of living in Venice is having to go up and down bridges carrying a trolley with heavy bags of clay... Also, once past summer, Venice obliges you to long silences and to look inside yourself and focus on all that surrounds you. I think I have absorbed this unique lesson that the city teaches us, because after all, creativity is exercise, method, and ability to transform a problem into a solution.
You are one of the founders of Spiazzi. Would you like to introduce us to this reality? What was it initially and what is it now?
Spiazzi is a cultural association founded in 2003, thanks to the initiative of a group of 30-year-old artisans, artists and photographers based in Venice, all sharing the need of having a space to work on their passions. By chance, being close to Biennale, we started hosting exhibitions during the summer months (often external pavilions), which allowed us to cover the costs of the rent and carry out other activities in the winter months, like exhibitions of emerging artists, or Manos, the exhibition of the self-produced design realised by Spiazziverdi, our agricultural branch made of urban and collective farms, up to Tocia, initiative revolving around food and involving cooking, community and conviviality, a new reality that treats food as a field of experimentation and exchange, exactly like artists do with photography, pottery, design and visual arts.
You juxtapose your profession of architect with the ones of potter and designer. When did you discover your passion for pottery?
Having been brought up in Caltagirone, one of the most important Italian cities for what concerns pottery, it was natural for me to get familiar with this world, in fact I was using clay probably before pencils! As a kid, I would go to local artisans' workshops and my first pieces were huge cribs in terracotta, in respect of the local tradition. When I moved to Venice, I gradually picked up pottery again and equipped a small studio inside Spiazzi. Over the years I have experimented with various techniques and have understood that clay allows infinite experimentations. I explored the areas of Bassano and Nove, where I go regularly, and went to China to work porcelain a couple of times. Each of my pieces carries the memory of such places, with the oriental blue tones, or the lava-like browns, and the colours of the soil, but independently from the results, the most important aspect for me is being able to work with my hands, something positive in all fields.
How did your experience in China influence and modify your approach to matter?
The artist residency in China, precisely in Jingdezhen, in 2006 represented a crucial point of my education. Before my journey, my approach was mainly artistic. As soon as I arrived in China, I visited a museum in Shangai, where a small jade green bowl was exhibited. To my eyes, it didn't seem so significant and I could not understand why it was given such importance. So, moved by curiosity, I checked the caption and learned that to realise that precise shade of green, which was the favourite by the Emperor of the period, fresh pine branches were burnt in the oven. Obviously, the method was empirical and only a couple of bowls would pass the test. I immediately understood that I was in another world. The observation of the serial method of Chinese factories and laboratories, result of a century-long knowledge, led me to a new way of producing. Paradoxically, thanks to my Chinese experience, I returned to Italy, the country of design, to produce serial products.
Among your recent works, I am particularly fond of Lapidea. How did this project come to life?
Lapidea is probably my most mature project so far, made possible thanks to the experience I acquired over time. In fact, after a long period during which I focused mainly on shapes, in this last phase I felt the need to return to a starting point, to mere matter, which in the case of clay is a little like climbing the geological eras and moving from the rocks that generated it. The idea was to recreate clay stones realising sedimentary agglomerates which I excavate and sand, trying to make the volume emerge. Usually ceramic is worked on the surface, polished, glazed, scratched, decorated. With this work, I tried to turn upside down this concept and work on the volume, focusing on the invisible and on what emerges only once made smooth. What appears inside, is the causal aggregation of shapes and colours that make up the paste and recall a Venetian pavement or a rock.
What can you tell us about 'Male to female'?
This is another chapter involving pottery, which moves from objects that seem to have lost value or interest. I recover old dishes and soup bowls and add interventions. I practice on reflecting on the duration of objects, on the evolution of taste, and on objects that are not used anymore. Ceramics is eternal in a way, because it has existed since prehistory and it can be cooked and re-cooked forever, remaining intact. This project wants to point out that for each new piece we produce, an old and forgotten piece could be recovered, responding so to the principle of resource reduction. I often visit flea markets, and when I find I nice piece of pottery, I buy it and take it home, where I keep it for some time until I find a new way to make it attractive again, with a drawing or a decal. The object acquires so a new light and can return to the kitchen or the table. I often add messages that have a relation with the objects themselves, for example the words MALE and FEMALE written respectively in light blue and pink, offer a reasoning on genre stereotypes, and on how certain meanings are pure conventions, colours, and attributions of sense. In this project, the design intervention lies in the process, it is a project of graphic design on pottery, but it also touches a productive aspect, in which the act of producing becomes a waiver and transforms itself in re-use. Touching these old pieces, I can't help notice how once upon a time, objects were made with greater care, and the same is true for clothes, which could be tightened, shortened, or anyway modified because sewn by hand, freeing people from the need to buy and buy and buy.
I can't help notice that you are passionate about our barena (Venetian marshland) dried flowers. In which ways does the lagoon inspire your work?
I am lucky enough to have the possibility to space from spoons, rigorously in ceramics, to the city, which means the urban dimension of the lagoon, precisely Cavallino-Treporti. The environment and landscape have always been reflected in my work, maybe because it is something I feel strongly and links me to my happy childhood memories in wild Sicily, where man and nature are constantly related, obliged to find mutual balance and respect. I believe that nature, and in particular the Venice lagoon, has its own language, which can be understood only by those who live in the open air, in an ongoing relationship with her. This language, we should learn... whereas unfortunately it seems it is a heritage that risks getting lost.
What does sustainable design mean for you?
I am particularly sensitive to this topic and in the project Lapidea there is a total recovery of matter, there are no scraps, the material used is entirely put into play. The project was realised with old 'left-over' clay that had been sitting in my workshop for years, just moved from one shelf to the other, carrying not only the heavy weight of its essence, but also the probably heavier weight of my sense of frustration for having allowed it to dry without producing anything. One day, all these bags of clay, became a precious element and, in fact, no extra clay was bought to realise Lapidea. Clay renews itself if worked with water, so it doesn't really make sense to speak about recycling, because it is a genetically circular matter. Because I work with natural materials, I take this aspect almost for granted, but I think this principle should have greater influence on production in general, because a sustainable product is worth more in terms of meaning. We are still distant from the application of this principle on a wider scale, but we are taking some steps forward and there is a lot more awareness not only from the producers' point of view, but also from consumers. Getting back to Lapidea, in addition to the circular aspect of the realisation process, for some productions, these agglomerates can be competitive compared to marble or stone because, with their humility, they are able to represent and interpret with low environmental and production costs, assuring zero waste.
Speaking with Gaetano was a real treat for me, and I have to say that he conveyed so much calmness that it felt almost like a therapy. The space is so airy and full of life, with a quiet and subtle beauty that struck me, and ... well, the ceramics are simply outstanding.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Gaetano and that the next time you are in Venice you will visit Spiazzi, maybe during the Biennale or maybe for another cultural event.
Bye for now and talk soon.
Gaetano Di Gregorio