Lifestyle Feature
Private Eye
Joshua Levine , 09.09.10, 06:00 PM EDT
ForbesLife Magazine dated September 27, 2010
Antonio da Silva's raku pottery courts the brutality and randomness of nature--pitting fragile materials against violent, shattering heat--to create one-of-a-kind pieces with a backstory that is something like redemption.
Da Silva's raku glories in a kind of primitive mano a mano with nature.

Antonio da Silva, now 54, grew up in a boys' home in Lisbon and moved to France when he was 14. Art school was his "cradle," he says, and he spent the next 12 years learning the craft of ceramics the formal French way. Think of all those perfect porcelain nymphs and you get some idea of what they taught da Silva in art school. Except that's not at all where he ended up.
About 14 years ago, da Silva began employing a centuries-old Japanese technique called raku. It's everything the systematic process of traditional pottery-making isn't. Instead of baking at temperatures that increase gradually over long periods of time, a raku piece undergoes an intense, violent blast of heat that kicks the living hell out of it, if it doesn't shatter it altogether.
The process is challenging to control, which is precisely the point. Raku is about letting go. Glazes bubble and crater, the form buckles, and smoke invades the body of the clay itself. The potter invokes the brutality of nature as a partner, trading mastery for surprise, orderliness for vitality, and when it works, achieves something that feels wild and alive instead of lovely but inert.
"Making raku is a kind of ecstatic combat that shakes you up, but you come to accept it," says da Silva. "I had extraordinarily rigorous academic training, but I have embarked now on a journey of discovery--the discovery of primitive man face-to-face with nature. I feel like the first man who picked up a lump of coal and started drawing animals on the wall of his cave."
Da Silva's pieces look more like the artifacts of some lost tribe than the legacy of a tradition that produced Sèvres and Limoges. Jagged grids of orange and blue crisscross the mottled glaze. Black vases look like they're molded from pure ash and might fall to pieces when you touch them.
I watch one gray autumn day as da Silva subjects his pieces to the torture of raku. He had set up his oven on the grounds of a friend's elegant château an hour outside Paris. In his owlish round spectacles and funny felt hat, the grizzled da Silva works feverishly but surely as he slaps masking tape on a vase before slathering it with glaze. The grid patterns are the lines of tape that reject the enamel. "If you hesitate for an instant with raku, you're dead," says da Silva.
Long experience has honed da Silva's instincts. His beautiful white glaze can be made only with the ash of the fig tree, and since French law prohibits cutting down fig trees, da Silva roams the south of France looking for figs felled by ice storms. "For me, Antonio da Silva is like an alchemist from another century," says Michael Andrew Wilson, an art and antiques advisor in Paris. "He's spent years developing the recipes for his enamels."
Da Silva arranges three or four pots in the metal oven and fires it up from a gas canister underneath. Within 30 to 35 minutes, the temperature shoots up to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. After another 30 minutes in this inferno, da Silva and a friend wearing thick leather gloves extract the pieces one by one with a long pincer while they're still glowing white-hot. They deposit each one in a vat of wood chips, which ignite spectacularly on contact, shrouding the vessels in a thick veil of flame and smoke.
It looks more like destruction than creation, and there are casualties. One vase shatters like a lightbulb. Another's glaze turns from blue to brown as the copper in it overwhelms the cobalt. But the best of them justify the pact da Silva has made with the devil in the oven: that out of the flames will come something wondrous.