János Józsa had run away from home three times before the age of 9. As one of six orphaned children brought up by his aunt and uncle, he never knew a real home. And in the cruel post-World War II poverty, the kids were just an extra mouth to feed. The young János dutifully suffered his uncle’s abuse, but when he couldn’t bear it anymore, his only escape was running down the dirt road and into oblivion.
Yet, by a fortunate twist of fate, it was his uncle, working the fields by summer and a potter by winter, who first showed János the traditional craft endemic to the Transylvanian village of Korond: pottery. It felt empowering to be manifesting culture with his own hands. János’s talent and love for ceramics sent him on a decades-long training, eventually making him the most accomplished and influential potter in all of Korond’s history. His work refined the famous local ceramics and took it to new heights.
In Part I, I introduced the wealth that came with Korond’s geology: the bathing culture and the aragonite mines. They took the village’s name far beyond the Transylvanian nobility. But this story is of the other social stratum: the ragged potters of Korond, and their only way to survive — by working the clay and sustaining folk art through the centuries.
How does a village become an epicenter of folk art?
As with any great art, the beauty of the Korond ceramics lies in the ineffable. It represents what it means to be Hungarian in the heart of Romania. It’s a silent, visual reminder of belonging. The shapes of the pots reveal a functionality deeply rooted in rural life. The elaborate motifs and embellishments echo folk tales and legends. The variety of styles and colors radiate an ever-evolving picture of national beauty.
This microcosm of shapes, motifs, and colors is very dear to many of us in Szeklerland and Transylvania. But this craft wasn’t always about creating art. Throughout Korond’s history, pottery has always fulfilled a functional need; one that was supplied by the tough, working hands of people who had no other choice but to mold the unrelenting clay to scrape by.
The Szeklers living here have never become rich by working in the fields. In Korond, as in much of Szeklerland, the rugged and salty terrain are unsuitable for bountiful agriculture. But those with some land could survive; and theose who didn’t have any, had to find something else. So in Korond, they turned to the one labor whose conditions were perfect in the area: pottery. There’s rough, clay and slate soil everywhere around Korond, along the streams, and on the hillsides and pastures. And the clay here was better than elsewhere.
The first mention of the growing population of potters from Korond was in 1616, when the potters guild from a nearby town accused those from Korond of messing up the craft with their ugly artifacts². It had become such a problem that the prince of Transylvania formally forbade them from pottery. But in a century of repression, pottery in Korond only grew. Their simple, signature ceramics — unglazed and reddish — began reaching and supplying households across Szeklerland. The tattered, traveling potter from Korond became an epitome, as the journeying writer Balázs Orbán remarks in his Descriptions of the Szeklerland chronicles³:
“[Korond] is where all the unglazed, atrocious, cheap pottery that covers the kitchens of the entire Szeklerland […] come from,” he writes. “On their creaking carts, the people of Korond carry hundreds of thousands of their products, and they usually sell them not for money, but for grain. Going from village to village, from market to market, they conduct a lively barter and bring home grain.”
Naturally, some potters were better at making ceramics, others better at selling them. So a few had stayed behind and made ceramics, which they then sold to traveling salesmen, who carried them throughout the Transylvanian basin, and across the mountains to Moldavia, embracing the hardship of the road. This way, production and sales could go on simultaneously.
While official records describe at least 100–150 potters in Korond at any time in the 19th and 20th centuries, some estimates are much higher⁴: it was an entire village worth of people who lived off the tough clay. Today, Korond is still the largest rural community of potters in Europe, the local writer, Lajos Ambrus, tells me. Two decades ago, Mr. Ambrus helped assemble the most comprehensive book on the history and culture of Korond. So I ask him why it was this place specifically that became such an epicenter of folk art:
“It’s shameful to be poor; if you’re alone! But if it’s half the village, then that community develops a sense of pride: at least they have something they can all do. They have a craft, their traditions. Even if they have no land, they have something”, he says. “That’s what kept up Korond [...] there was an entire village-worth of people doing it here [...] It’s a wonderful thing when a community develops a tradition.”
And since pottery was the only thing that could put bread on a family’s table, everyone had to contribute to it:
“The child collected the clay, carried it home, kneaded it. The potter made the pots. And his wife and daughter decorated it — flowered it, as they say,” explains Mr. Ambrus. It was the struggle to survive, turning into tradition in real time.
Historical reasons also contributed to Korond’s rise, particularly in the late 19th century. As a result of a trade war between the Austro-Hungarian Empire (then encompassing Korond) and the newly established Kingdom of Romania, many craftsmen from Transylvania, who had relied on Romanian source materials or demand, lost their living⁵. As a result, pottery was slowly dying out in the region.
But not in Korond, which already had the advantage: strength in numbers and raw materials at hand. They jumped on the opportunity to supply the ongoing demand as potters from other villages couldn’t find work. They were selling at every market and fair — all throughout Transylvania. The ingenuity of the people of Korond was not lost on anyone, notes the writer Lajos Incze⁴:
”There is no significant fair in the country where we cannot find a potter from Korond.” he writes. “In ingenuity and courage, they surpass their neighbors. Their entrepreneurial spirit borders on audacity. Aware of the risk, they don’t shy away from it. The man from Korond dares to take risks and make investments, even for a small profit; he trusts his luck, his own strength, his aplomb, which never abandoned him.”
It was also around the same time, at the turn of the 20th century, that the now signature, glazed Korond ceramics began appearing⁶. Following the trade war, the price of traditional pottery dropped substantially, so gradually, Korond switched to the more lavish glazed ceramics to maintain profits. This shift was also timely for the changing social landscape and rising living standards.
In rural households, these glazed or unglazed cooking pots, water jugs, or soup bowls are still being used today. But in the century since, functionality has slowly given way to aesthetics. Consumers’ attention — and their capital — has shifted to decorative items. People are mainly interested in just bringing something traditional and folksy into their homes. So potters have kept creating more vases, decorative plates, flower pots, and candle holders, embellishing them with increasingly complex folk motifs. It was the expertise of innovative potters and the hands of the countless flowering women across Korond that raised the aesthetic level of the ceramics to new heights in the past century. Their contribution to Szekler folk art is invaluable; but one man’s impact probably surpasses everyone’s.
His hands, and an undying love for his culture
János Józsa is a distinctively Szekler man: his white mustache, signature straw hat, and beautifully emphatic accent are straight out of a folk story. At 80 years old, he manages a crippling back pain with an old weightlifting brace just so he can keep sitting at his decorating stand. He has a brisk, restless step, and no patience for trivialities. His fidgety hands can’t keep still for a moment they are not holding a piece of ceramics. Yet whenever he gets to share his passion for Hungarian culture and folk art, his patient storytelling shines through.
Born into a traditional potter family in Korond in the middle of World War II, Mr. Józsa never saw much of his father, who died shortly after coming home from the frontline. His mother, having been left with six children on her own, has soon ‘gone insane,’ he explains. His aunt and uncle took in the orphaned children and tried to scrape by with the additional hungry mouths. There was much poverty, frustration, and abuse, as he recalls:
“Three times I had to run away into the world, the old man beat me so. The farthest I got was Erdőszentgyörgy [40 miles away].”
The second time the young János ran away, barefoot at the age of 6, he took to working in a mill for a week in exchange for food and shelter. But he did return home every time. There, the family worked on their small fields over the summers and were potters during the winters. Eventually, when he was 14, he decided to try his hand at the traditional craft. He took home some clay from nearby a stream and placed it on his uncle’s potter’s wheel:
“I sat up in it and started getting everything dirty. The old woman saw it and told the old man, ‘show that child how to put that clay on the wheel,” he recalls. “The old man came over, put his hand on my hand, and together we pulled the clay up and pressed it down. Then he told me, ‘watch it closely cause I’m not gonna show it again’. That was the Szekler teaching,” Mr. Józsa remembers with his eyes sparkling behind his glasses.
He was immediately drawn to forming the clay with his bare hands, and his childishly immature vases were huge sellers at the first fair he ever participated in with his uncle. As a teenager, his talent for shaping pottery and his precision in drawing motifs earned him a position at the art school in Targu Mures, where he was the best sculptor in his class, he reminisces. After a few years, he was sent to be an apprentice in the porcelain factory at Cluj Napoca. Then, through a series of recommendation letters from his supervisors, he was trained in Bucuresti, Brasov, and Odorheiu Secuiesc. He acquired vast knowledge in applied art techniques, from photoceramics to church painting.
As we walk around his house which doubles as his workshop, his expertise is unquestionable. Each room and each glass-door cupboard reveals a new set of ceramics he made with techniques from across Europe. He says he loved experimenting with them, always wanting to prove to himself that he could make any of them, right here in Korond.
When he finally settled at home in the 60s, he had a singular goal in mind: he wanted to improve the established, traditional ceramics of Korond as much as he could:
“As a child, in the mornings, I always had to bring mineral water in a decorated jug. And my aunt had also cooked with these traditional unglazed pots,” he says. “At that time, these ceramics were always being used in the villages I visited. So I was always close to these motifs. And then I thought ‘well, I should develop them, make them better and more beautiful,” he explains.
“I began by visiting the surrounding villages, and brought home any pottery I could afford or get for free. If I had no money, I drew them on paper and brought them back in a notebook.”
He spent a decade collecting folk motifs, perfecting the clay’s composition, and refining the paints and colors. He’s kept every notebook through all these years — hundreds of hand-drawn folk motifs, and endless experimentation. His wholehearted dedication to the craft elevated his art beyond anyone else’s, as his good friend, the writer Lajos Ambrus we met earlier, describes:
“He is the most skilled [potter]. He immersed himself into folk art itself, as a science, as a cultural heritage, as a value. And he educated and trained himself a lot.”
Every motif that Mr. Józsa adapted to his uniquely Korond’s style, he also taught to his wife. Thus, Julianna Józsa’s hands became the source of the most meticulously drawn motifs in Korond, while their youngest son, János, eventually overtook his father at the potter’s wheel.
Everything the family creates together is authentic, stunning art. Their shapes gracefully border on sleek elegance and traditional functionality. Their endlessly developed colors are the most versatile and vibrant in Korond. Their folk motifs seem to come alive in the pots’ smooth glaze. Mr. Józsa’s vast lifetime achievement permanently shaped the artistic trajectory of the Korond ceramics, as shown by the countless cultural awards he has received over the decades.
Strength in belonging
Pottery eventually brought great wealth to Korond. After a country road was built through the village in the 1960s, the potters and merchants moved their items out to create the now customary street market. But in the past 30 years, following the end of communism, genuine folk art is increasingly being replaced. The markets are becoming a bazaar filled with the products of mass consumerism.
And as younger generations tend not to follow in their elders’ footsteps, the future of the traditional ceramics is uncertain. The roughly 50 working potters still living in Korond are predominantly from the older generations and have no successors in the family craft. There’s also a growing exodus of young people leaving for seasonal work in Western Europe. At the same time, the interest of younger buyers in the overly decorated, folksy ceramics is also declining as minimalistic designs are increasingly becoming the norm in their lives.
But, Zoltán Pál, the geographer and head of local tourism I introduced previously, has a more positive outlook. He sees a deep sense of survival, rooted in adaptation and sprinkled with opportunities and healthy rivalries. He understands the social and economic history that governs this place:
“The people of Korond have always adapted. Back in old times, when they went to the fair in Sibiu, the Saxons [living there] asked for more blue. The trader came home and told the potters to make more blue the next year. And the potters from Korond did,” he explains. The color blue, just like the color red requested by Romanian tourists, has never been a part of the Korond aesthetics. But the potters of Korond quickly responded to these demands, Zoltán says:
“The adaptation never stops. But the folk motifs remain. This is a specializing competition, a healthy market environment. And I see strength in that. There’s plenty of clay.”
Indeed, the Korond ceramics has vastly adapted to the past four hundred years’ shifting economic and political landscapes. In the end, pottery has been the most enduring of all the traditions in the village’s history, not the mineral water baths, aragonite mines, amadou makers, or folk songs and dance. So perhaps pottery here may never quite disappear.
‘The people of Korond are survivors,’ I’ve heard that from everyone I met. It was their pottery that helped them survive. As someone who deeply loves the Korond ceramics, I hope I can still find potters, flowering women, and their beautiful work here, even in the distant future.
Because I think their story shows precisely what folk art is. It’s ever-evolving and functional. It’s the art of the lowest social classes, whose struggle to survive meant they needed to adapt to not lose their living. It’s raw, imperfect, and each piece unique — through it, you get the real, flesh and blood person who created it. And the bare hands that made them, carry the traditions of a community throughout history.
Acknowledgments to János Józsa and his entire family for very kindly welcoming me into their home. Acknowledgments to Zoltán Pál for his guidance and explanations, to Lajos Ambrus for his stories and perspective, and to Derrick Chang and Nándor Darabán for their feedback and editing.
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