The description of my ceramic development
by Hans Georg Bluhm and
“When time becomes visible …” by Friedhelm Plöhn.

Cathy Fleckstein – Dialogues

In Cathy Fleckstein, we meet one of the most distinctive ceramists in Germany. This summer, she turns 60, which is reason enough to take a closer look at the life and work of this major artist.

Background and training

Cathy Fleckstein is from Alsace, a region that forms a bridge between German and French traditions, languages and cultures. She was born in 1955 in Molsheim, a small town just under 30 km west of Strasbourg on the edges of the Vosges Mountains. At an early age, she studied the poems of Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Éluard and Prévert, the works of Camus, Giono and Sartre, watched films by Buñuel, Godard and Fellini and was interested in contemporary art. It opened up a new vista on the world for her.

After the Baccalauréat, Cathy Fleckstein would have liked to study fine art. Instead, to satisfy her parents’ wishes, she initially decided upon German and Romance philology, first in Strasbourg, and later, to improve her German, in Kiel.

It was probably something of a chance visit the campus of the Muthesius School – then the Department of Craft and Design at Kiel University of Applied Sciences – which excited her interest in working with clay as a craft and an art. Cathy Fleckstein changed courses and in 1975 enrolled to study ceramics under Professor Johannes Gebhardt, head of the ceramics department in Kiel, a teacher who was to leave a lasting impression on her artistic individuality.

As early as 1956 at the tender age of 26, Gebhardt was appointed head of ceramics at what was then known as the Muthesius Werkkunstschule (‘School of Arts and Crafts’). He lectured in Kiel for 38 years, from 1978 on as a professor. The teaching philosophy behind the Kieler Schule founded by Gebhardt was defined by two successive stages: as the basis of the course, he demanded a sound command of ceramic techniques. To this end, Gebhardt first taught craft and technical skills such as throwing, the most important making techniques, an intensive study of glazes and the principles of working methodically. He then permitted advanced students to choose the focal point of their work themselves and to develop their own visual language by experimenting freely.

Cathy Fleckstein’s early work already shows that she perceives her surroundings sensitively and can express her perceptions sensitively and powerfully. This is demonstrated by her piece Nature Morte from 1979, for instance, where an iron wedge is driven forcefully into a lying egg-form, the symbol of germinating life.

It was in this period that Fleckstein made cubes, rectangular blocks and the Schmetterlinge in which she experimented on how clay reacted in combination with other materials. For instance, beating the clay on hard objects produced exciting stretching and crushing marks.

Impressions and casts

In 1980, Cathy Fleckstein graduated from the Muthesius School. The subject of her final examination was Space and Plane. She found the source material for this in the spacious living and studio quarters that she shared at the time with artist Rolf Simon-Weidner, situated in a neglected nineteenth century building called the Milchküche in Dahlmannstraße, Kiel:

‘A house is to be pulled down. A house that I live in. It is my intention to give an account of the space in which I live and work: the niches, the corners, the textures on the walls, the crumbling plaster, the poetry in space. My medium: drawing? photography? or with total immediacy, clay? One of the characteristics of clay is that it precisely reproduces textures that are pressed into it. So: impressions of the walls it is then, of the niches, the corners… But what becomes of the light, the smell, the sense of security? What I experience in space! Casts, impressions, commemorative stones, cemeteries, galleries. Reflection, observation. Overlooking. Forgetting. Mirror of what is lost. Recognition of what is forgotten. Casts. Impressions.’ (1)

By applying clay, she took relief impressions of the individual corners and planes, thus documenting status of the textures of the walls, including the split plaster and cracked paintwork. In this way she managed to capture an excerpt of space in three-dimensions. The rendering of ageing and the results of a process of decay was enhanced on the surface by oxides and engobes in a range of red and brown shades.

Cathy Fleckstein had thus entered new territory in ceramic surface treatment. From her graduation pieces, an autonomous group of works developed: in the following years, she created an entire encyclopaedia of cracks, fractures, crevices and fissures, which French author Jacques Wolgensinger fittingly described as the ‘universe of injuries’ and ‘the art of the scar’. (2)

Torn and split surfaces can also be found on smaller objects, such as the cubes from 1982, which in that year earned the young artist the modern Ceramics Prize at the International Biennial of Ceramic Art in Vallauris – recognition and motivation at once.

These works were based on cubes of stoneware clay. Cathy Fleckstein enclosed a wooden former in the wet clay, which caused the clay object to burst open while drying and during firing. The cracks caused in this way were emphasised by the melting of the ash residue and by the application of iron oxide.

The result leads to a play of associations: on the one hand a completely geometrical form, on the other hand organic structures. Is this more about a liberation from a rigid, abstract formula or the threat posed by a perfect shape? (3)

Ceramic Murals and Wall Pieces

From 1984, Cathy Fleckstein has made mural pieces, a group of works that she has maintained up to the present. First these were impressions she took of walls, so there was a concrete original. Later, free compositions developed from this.

To do this, she uses a coarsely grogged stoneware as the base for a layer of a body she developed herself, on which coloured clays and materials as diverse as wood, paper, glass, ash, cinders, metal, earth from the garden and leftover pieces of plaster from the walls are combined to create an image.

Looking at the wall pieces chronologically, changes in technique and composition become apparent: whereas the early works from the 1980s tend to have massive individual elements that appear raw and fissured, the newer works have become more delicate, more sensitive and thus more variegated.

Today, Cathy Fleckstein also works with small – or even tiny – individual, variously shaped pieces of clay, sometimes as a counterpoint to large areas, and she assembles them on the prepared background to keep producing new variations. For example, layered, narrow strips emerge, often in contrasting colours, separated by deep indentations. At first glance these layered strips are reminiscent of earth strata that can be seen in stone quarries or claypits, or in the cliffs on the North Sea island of Sylt or the geological windows in the Alps.

For linear, graphic elements, the artist draws on a broad repertoire of various treatments of the clay. Scored marks with a needle awl sometimes complement them. Beyond this, individual surfaces as well as pores and cracks are stained. From this interplay of elements, pictorial compositions are created that Cathy Fleckstein internalises and examines with regard to form, creating an artistic narrative in her own language with clay:

‘Over the years of working with clay, I have developed a language,
a sign language that is now stored in these objects.’ (4)

The technical implementation is based on knowledge acquired through experimentation that provides her with a large stock of creative possibilities, which, as building blocks, as individual letters can be used for her words, sentences and stories. In this way she articulates personal experience, historical memories and the dialogue with her surroundings, especially with nature, an inexhaustible source of inspiration to her. With a gaze that is alert and sensitive in equal measure, she perceives the forms and colours of stones, earths, crystals, egg shells, clouds, water and snow. She was motivated to develop this way of seeing, of decoding this cipher script especially through the study of the fragment of a novel by Novalis, The Disciples of Sais. As one example, let me here make reference to the wall piece Aus einer anderen Zeit (From a Different Time): it could be based on memories of her grandparents’ garden with its dry stone walls, vegetable beds and perennials – a whole universe to Fleckstein at that time. Since 1988, this subject has been dealt with in many new variations.

Stelae and Cones

Parallel to the pictorial panels, since 1986/87 Fleckstein has been making sculptural pieces, including cones up to six feet tall, stelae and vessel forms. Here too, layered strips of clay predominate today, either cracked like bark or burnished smooth. Surface treatment remains the central theme.

‘I usually take my inspiration from nature. To me it is a mirror of the spiritual forces that I listen to. I start out from the point that touches me, for instance growth processes, especially germination, which have defined the cone cycle. At the base, this form is broad, rooted in the earth, it strives upwards and the lines come together to continue their path invisibly in the immaterial world.’ (5)

The point that touches her: this means the first motivation, the first impetus to get involved with a subject. In frequently laborious work with the material, Fleckstein seeks for solutions, a creative achievement, which ultimately, as she explains in conversation, may lead to a ‘perfect moment’. Cathy Fleckstein refers here to a phrase that Jean-Paul Sartre uses in his philosophical novel, Nausea, a situation when suddenly, the thoughts and feelings of an individual coincide, when the entire intellectual and emotional knowledge and capacity of a person, their entire being comes together in a perfect moment. (6)

Art in Public Buildings

Between 1986 and 1993, Fleckstein also executed commissions for projects in public buildings:

Besides a large cast of a window in the previously mentioned Milchküche, for the City Hall in Neumünster, in 1992/93 she created three large images for offices of the Employment Exchange in Heide each showing three typical local landscape forms, the geest, the marshlands and coast. Here too the artistic interpretation is based on precise study. Fleckstein writes:

‘Every theme has a basic motif assigned to it, which reoccurs eighteen times in each ceramic panel and through the arrangement emphasises what the image expresses. It is the quality of the soil which is characteristic of the “Geest”. It is the “mean middle” of Schleswig-Holstein, which is why shades of brown predominate here.

The “Marsch” on the other hand consists mainly of areas of green in various nuances, which are clearly segregated if you see them from the air. The green rhythm of the meadows is only interrupted occasionally by a patch of brown earth or the red roof of a farmhouse.

The main features of the “Küste” are water, sand and mud, which are rendered by the colours blue and brown. The main motif is a wave, which repeatedly changes its shape through its continual movement.’ (7)

In a primary school in the Mettenhof district of Kiel in 1993, Fleckstein encased six supporting steel columns in the entrance. The ceramic casings consist of segments of various heights stained in various colours, interrupted by pale, smooth zones decorated with seemingly archaic scarifications on the theme on Plant – Animal – Humankind.

Critical Appraisal

Although Cathy Fleckstein has exhibited since the early 1980s and has been recognised with numerous prizes and awards, although she has been a member of the renowned Académie Internationale de la Céramique since 1986 and belongs to the German Gruppe 83, she does not see herself as part of the hurly-burly of the arts scene.

She tends rather to work calmly and in seclusion. Independently of fashionable trends, she uncompromisingly pursues her ideas, on her own. She studies natural phenomena sensitively and meditatively, interpreting them in sophisticated, large-scale narrative objects. She works systematically and with discipline, and has the ability to formulate her work poetically and with craftsmanlike precision in equal measure.

We can look forward keenly to what she will be making in her studio in Preetz in the future!

Hans Georg Bluhm M.A.

(Translated by David Erban)

  1. Quote from Cathy Fleckstein in the catalogue, Kunstlandschaft Bundesrepublik (‘Art Landscape West Germany’). Stuttgart 1984, p. 52.
  2. Jacques Wolgensinger: Les empreintes des maisons blessées; in: La revue de la céramique et du verre, no. 41/1988, p. 52 ff.
  3. Jürgen Wittstock in: Keramik aus Kiel, Mönchengladbach 1983.
  4. Quote from Cathy Fleckstein, 1996.
  5. Quote from Cathy Fleckstein from a leaflet on an exhibition at Eckernförde Museum, 1998.
  6. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, quoted here from Der Ekel; in: Gesammelte Werke, Vol. 1, ed. Traugott König, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1987, p. 167; Hajo Eickhoff: Tragweite des Gespürs; in: Holger Schulze (Ed.): Gespür – Empfindung – Kleine Wahrnehmungen. Klanganthropologische Studien, Bielefeld 2012, p. 25–38.
  7. Cathy Fleckstein: Project description, 1993.
When time becomes visible ...

I like old, cracked surfaces – old walls, in fact any old architecture, old trees, old books, old machines … Over time, their surfaces become frangible, the colour changes, the structure changes; some things rust – paint flakes off. The surfaces reveal the structures beneath them. History comes into existence; memories become tangible.

Patina is the precious stuff that inspires awe, wrote Heinrich Böll.

In the works of Cathy Fleckstein, reminiscence of old things or things already past is often preserved. Some pieces are direct impressions taken from windows or corners of walls in old houses; others were made by means of impressions from old brickwork. In all her pieces, a process becomes visible that happens over time, that has its origin in the antitheses present in everything. In a kind of process of erosion, austere constructions seem to decay into something disordered, almost organic; smooth surfaces develop fissures, become cracked, literally decompose. On the other hand, unstructured layers and segments merge to become geometric bodies that in part take on crystalline forms. Her works show again and again the tension between growth and decay, between construction and decomposition, between order and chaos. Work titles like Rückbesinnung (“Recollection”), Speicher (“Storage”), Metamorphose (“Metamorphosis”), Spurensuche (“Search for clues”) but also Sturmhüter (“Storm Custodian”) hint at this. Her works, created in what is usually a meticulous, time-consuming process, are the result of an intellectual exploration of the various forms of expression of time.

In her ceramics, time is not only visible; because of the material, it even becomes comprehensible …

Friedhelm Plöhn

(Translated by David Erban)