He has a calm and tranquil smile, long flowing hair and a thick black beard with specks of grey. His shoulders are broad and his large, solicitous hands shape spinning lumps of clay with a delicate ease.
Dan Leş is a figurative ceramicist, living in the isolated Maramureş valley of Northern Romania. He’s been working with clay for over 40 years; in that time his pieces have won multiple awards and appeared in the Museum of National Ethnography. He learnt his craft from his father, and for several years the pair ran a studio together in the small village of Baia Mare.
Today, in his simple country workshop in neighboring Baia Sprie, encircled by a ring of the steep Carpathian mountains, Dan makes modern ceramics and traditional village icons. “I was raised on parables, in a modest family of hard-working people,” he says. “I try to preserve old village characters and the countryside as I see it – to bring them back to life through these figurines.”
Dan himself has become something of an icon. He’s well-known in the region, leading exuberant tours of local churches and monasteries, and even playing the pivotal role in dramatic reenactments of Christ’s crucifixion. Dan is larger than life, and likes to share his enthusiasm for village history, arcadian values and the traditions of his craft. In 2005 he opened Casa Potter, a sprawling country complex that hosts shared meals, painting retreats and pottery workshops. Here, adults and children alike paint the precipitous landscape, and learn the quiet serenity of working with clay. “Ceramic clay is amazing to work with when it listens to you, when it becomes mouldable,” he reflects. “We are but a clod of clay and we too can be moulded, if we allow ourselves to be.”
“Ceramic clay is amazing to work with when it listens to you, when it becomes mouldable.”
Dan finds value in a humble, bucolic lifestyle. The remote and picturesque valley has an effect on those that visit from the city, and the clay and traditional Romanian meals become a form of therapy. “Sometimes you should stop for just a moment, because when you really want to see what is going on around you, you need to stop what you are doing.”
Photography: Matei Plesa