Ceramics and the potter wasps

Conversation between Roberto Costantino and Jorge Hernandez

“I have taken visitors many times to stand next to the potter’s bench and I’ve heard them catch their breath as if they had witnessed a pure miracle of nature. And this is why the tourist should always plan to stop and, like the ancient prophet, venture into the potter’s home.”
Angelo Barile, Al paese dei vasai

Roberto Costantino: After centuries of grandeur, we find ourselves in what is left of an area with deep-rooted ceramic traditions, where our insect friends, the potter wasps, still live. Where did your passion for the artisan work of wasps come from?
Jorge Hernandez: My family had to move to another house and we put lots of cardboard boxes in the attic. When I went to get them, I had a surprise: the potter wasps had made a nest on the edges of some of the boxes.

R.C.: When you saw these nests, did you immediately think about firing them?
J.H.: Yes, they were made of clay and I thought that it would be interesting to fire them.

R.C.: So, you took these incubators from their environment, after the potter wasps had grown and abandoned them, and put them in the kiln at a temperature of one thousand degrees. As art critics would say, what you did is similar to readymade, as it was interpreted by the French Nouveau Realisme and by the American Appropriationism: in your case however, this involves an object taken from nature and its subsequent transformation through firing. Why fire these architectures that were originally made from raw clay?
J.H.: I fired these nests to preserve them and make them less fragile. The first time I did it I was afraid that they would break while being heated; however, luckily, they are properly built, without any air bubble between one clay “colombino” or coil and the other, which prevents them from exploding in the kiln.

R.C.: Potter wasps build clay nests in secluded and shady places like attics, but also in our book stores or closet drawers. They have to hide their architectures from us in order to survive. Instead, we, as investigators, want to find them. Have you found these nests in other places as well?
J.H.: The last clay nests that I found were clinging to the inner lining of a winter jacket that I had left in the cellar.

R.C.: You are from Colombia: did you first see these insects in Albisola or had already you found them somewhere else?
J.H.: I first saw them in Albisola. Before, I had no idea that these wasps, that build nests using clay like us, even existed.

R.C.: To build nests in which to breed their young, the potter wasps of Albisola use clay from our area. It’s really a pleasure, thanks to these wasps, to see the material that our ceramist predecessors once used being utilised again. Where do your wasp friends get their clay?
J.H.: I lived in Albisola Superiore, close to the River Sansobbia and I assume that the wasps still go there today to get the clay from the river bank, in those quarries where ceramists once went to find it.

R.C.: Potter wasps gather the raw clay and with their saliva make it malleable enough to produce the so-called barbotine, a creamy liquid binder that even ceramists make regularly by mixing clay with water to join separately-worked pieces of the same object. The third step is the actual construction, using the coil technique that is still taught today in our pottery schools: a method consisting of modelling the “salami-like rolls”, the so-called coils, and of putting one on top of the other while pressing the clay. But taking an even closer look, we see that these nests also have barrel vaults: the same type of architecture that man has used for millennium to make non-flat roofs. What else have you learned, as a ceramist, from your friends the wasps?
J.H.: The potter wasp doesn’t just mix the clay with its saliva, because it would need an enormous quantity of saliva. The wasp selects the clay, collecting a type that already has a very high degree of moisture, creates a ball using its legs and then transports it to the nest site. Then, it begins to build nests with a modular shape. The shape depends on the characteristics of the material and therefore is reduced to its basics, dictated also by the contingent construction contexts. In addition, this modular shape, that resembles a mould, is perfect for the larvae that will be placed in the nests.

R.C.: These solitary wasps are also masons and architects: they do everything by themselves and don’t apply that division of labour described by Adam Smith in his famous pin factory example. On the contrary, the potter wasp is similar to an artisan, as highlighted by historians of applied arts like François Burkhardt, a craftsman involved in each and every aspect of the project, aside from any difference between manual labour and intellectual labour. This is what I appreciate the most of how they work. What do you think about it?
J.H.: I was trying to think like a potter wasp: I’m born and I’m driven by the need to find raw material to build new nests. That is the mission: to convey the way to survive from generation to generation.

R.C.: The life of thee solitary insects is focused on the construction of architectures that will be used as incubators for the next generation. The clay nest consists of a series of cells that form a structure that can even be the size of a fist. After building a cell, the female captures some spiders, paralyses them by stinging them with its venom, and then places them in the nest. Then, it deposits a single larva into a cell and seals it with the barbotine. After completing a group of cells, the wasp leaves and allows the larva to grow by feeding off the spiders until the time comes to leave the cell. How do you interact with the potter wasps while they are building the incubators and while the larvae are growing?
J. H.: Unfortunately, I have never seen a wasp leaving its nest; however, the other day I had the chance to see two wasps collecting clay.

R.C.: Your work with the potter wasps also reminds me of the techniques of many fluxus artists who have made collecting – the collection and exhibition of objects – their own work, i.e., a way of doing art.
J.H.: In this case, like other artists, I feel like a collector. I liked the idea of preserving these nests knowing that they were built by the wasps: collecting is a way of ordering and taking care of things that we are passionate about. The nests made a big impression on me and so I created a coherent and exclusive collection consisting only of nests.

R.C.: You came from Colombia to Albisola to make ceramic objects and, together with us, you also made prototypes for Andrea Branzi, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Franco Raggi, Giuseppe Chiari, Alberto Garutti, and Corrado Levi and now you have been working for some time with potter wasps. You relationship with the potter wasps reminds me of the usual relationship between artists and artisans: you make the wasps do what we in general define as the artisan work. But, do you let the wasps make what they want, or did you ever end up changing the shape of their architectures?
J.H.: I take the nests and use them just as they are, I have no right to change this type of construction.

R.C.: Your action – taking the nest of raw clay from its context and then firing it –also has a distancing effect: the transformation of the potter wasps’ architecture into a man-based structure that allows us to change the way to view an object that has always been seen in another way. This effect seems to be the purpose of your sculptures and is what I appreciate the most. Do you feel the same way?
J.H.: Some time ago I was surfing the Internet and ended up in a blog where someone asked everyone else: “How can I get rid of the wasp nests in my house?” After reading this question I immediately asked myself why this person had not seen what I had seen. Why do they want to destroy it? I decided to fire the nests also so that others would find out about them. The potter wasp makes us downsize our perspective on things and puts us in a more realistic order, which is also good for us. I don’t think that the wasps have learned from us: it’s more likely that we have taken their architectures as an example.

R.C.: How many potter wasps have you worked with?
J.H.: I began this collection in Albisola but now I’m collecting nests on the hillside, in Stella, and close to a stream there too. However, the clay is different, it has another colour. The potter wasps have helped me to see the different types of local clay. I have also found nests made with two or three different types of clay, including a white clay that I had already worked that they decided to use. In other words, the potter wasps test the clay and choose the one with the right amount of moisture for their needs.

R.C.: Have any of the architectures that you took from the environment not been fired, i.e., have they avoided becoming part of your “making a sculpture”?
J.H.: I haven’t fired the last nests that I found. I’m waiting until after the winter because larvae are growing inside and I would like them to become adults.

Savona, 19 September 2013

Jorge Hernandez, The potter wasps of Albisola