Clive Sithole was introduced to traditional ceramics at the age of eight by his step-grandmother Alina Maoetsa. Thirty years on, he can boast of having exhibited in all major South African cities, as well as in Chicago, New York and Britain, and of winning a host of awards.
The latest is both the provincial and national prizes in the Craft 2009 Awards, run by the Department of Arts and Culture. And his pots sell for impressive amounts, from R7 000 to R28 000 for big ones.
No doubt if Alina was alive today she would be proud of him, and doubly proud of his impressive client base, which includes former first lady Zanele Mbeki.
"I am told she has an impressive (ceramic) collection," says Sithole. "She once ordered 60 pots from me for the first AU meeting in the country, to be presented to every head of state attending."
Sithole was born in Soweto in 1971 and after his father's death in 1977, his mother remarried and they moved to Lesotho where he met Alina, a potter of note. "She first taught me how to model toy cattle. That's when my passion slowly developed."
His mother, a skilled seamstress, is also a potter. "My mom is amazing with her hands. When I'd make my pots in her presence, she would say, 'Hey, I can do that', and she'd grab her own clay to prove it to me," he says.
At the age of 10, he met Philemon Lerata, the first black person to graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from the then Natal University. He was instantly inspired by Lerata, who turned pots on a wheel, and realised for the first time that the craft was not the sole preserve of women.
After matric, he won a scholarship to study at the London International School of Fashion in Johannesburg. Thereafter he set up a fashion business, but soon grew bored with it. "I don't think fashion was my calling."
At this point, he moved to Durban to live with his sister and two years later he joined Babumbi Clay Project, headed by Cara Walters. She taught him all she knew.
His skills resulted in an invitation to attend ceramic classes at the Univeristy of KwaZulu Natal, and, after that, he enrolled for a post-grad diploma in ceramics, which he obtained in 2007. He is now studying for a BFA, majoring in ceramics, at UKZN's Pietermaritzburg campus.
The department's professor, Ian Calder, says, "Clive is one the best ceramists in the country who is very well showcased nationally and internationally."
Sithole has met and been encouraged by several masters of the craft, such as the late Nesta Nala from Zululand, who is now considered a national treasure.
"When I met her, I was so inspired by the soft-spoken, unassuming and illiterate lady who produced such beautiful ceramics without any formal training. Her measurements were impeccable, her designs flawless.
"She made me determined more than ever to make pots."
Nala taught him how to coil and to burnish pots to a high gloss using a stone, and showed him the techniques of open pit firing.
Another inspiration was meeting the famous Kenyan-born British ceramist Magdelene Odundo, who visited him at his studio. "That lady is a giant in this industry. Meeting her was a dream come true."
Together they fired pots and exchanged techniques. Odundo is well-known for her bright, reddish-orange pots, very different from traditional African pots. These, says Sithole, are always dark or black as they are associated with ancestors. Since it is believed that ancestors visit at night, the pot must be black.
"Traditional African pots which are used to serve umqombothi (beer) bear a lot of significance. For example, the designs around the top of the pot depict the wealth of that particular family and serve as a grip when drinking. The top end must be at a 45-degree angle to prevent spillage when drinking," he says.
Sithole uses only natural clay for his pots, which he digs up from a certain farm in the province, as opposed to commercial clay which cracks and breaks easily. "I also prefer making pots by hand because it tests your skill and you can do it anywhere there is clay."
With the prize money he won from his recent awards, he intends to fund his studies and put down a deposit for a house.
But he has bigger dreams, too. Sithole bemoans the fact that so many institutions offering ceramic studies have closed down. "I would like to establish an academy for ceramists to try to revive it in the near future, but for now I have to complete my studies."
Although he has been working with ceramics for 14 years, there is nothing else he would rather be doing. It's almost therapeutic, he says, and when he makes pots, everything around him disappears. "You simply get carried away. It's almost like meditating," he says.
At 38, he says he has no thoughts of marriage. "I am married to my art. Making pots is my hobby, my work, virtually my life," he confides.
Clay Festival '09
Some of the country's top ceramicists, including three 2008 Corobrik National Ceramics Exhibition award winners, will be presenting workshops, demos and talks at the premier clay festival at the Berario Recreation Centre this weekend.
You will be able to buy, decorate, glaze and then fire your own Raku pot, as well as enjoy refreshments in the tea garden.
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, May 16 and 17
WHERE: Berario Recreation Centre, cor Dolores Avenue and King Street, Berario, Joburg.
There is no entrance fee. The premises has secure parking. For more details, call Cynthia McAlpine at 011-791-5153 or go to www.ceramics.org.za