To have time, to give time

Portrait of lecturer Erika Fankhauser Schürch

Experienced craftswoman and an award-winning artist: Erika Fankhauser Schürch in the ceramics workshop at ZHdK. Photograph: Betty Fleck © ZHdK

Crafts and education

She is a trained ceramic artist and school teacher: Erika Fankhauser Schürch teaches as an arts and crafts expert on ZHdK’s Art Education programme. A portrait.


How does a young woman from the Buchsibergen region come totrain as an artist? — Erika Fankhauser Schürch explains that as a child she often noticed an older man sitting under a parasol in front of an easel and painting the landscape while she was helping with the haymaking or out on the potato fields. He was someone who didn’t live on farming, but on making pictures. Someone who brought cosmopolitanism to the hamlet: Bruno Hesse, Hermann Hesse’s eldest son, grew up as a foster child on the Oschwand, in the house of the artist Cuno Amiet; he later lived in the Spych, in the immediate vicinity of Erika’s parents’ house.

She has always enjoyed making things, with her hands and head, and passing on her knowledge of what is possible to others. She would not be satisfied with making alone, with designing and shaping. She considers teaching as valuable as art and craftsmanship.

Falling out of time

Smoke and steam rise from beneath the railway viaduct next to the Toni Campus. A fire burns under simple metal buckets, next to which stand cauldrons filled with sawdust, others with water. Erika Fankhauser places a bowl in one of the improvised ovens with a pair of tongs. “Western artists discovered the Japanese Raku technique in the 1960s,” she explains. Raku firing enables an experimental approach to ceramics. “What happens to a piece of work is even less controllable here than in a conventional kiln. Every result is a surprise.”

Two students look at their bowls, a bit disappointed and impatiently. They had expected a different colour and cannot yet imagine what the surface damaged by the fire will look like once the soot produced during the smoking process has been removed. “I like the unexpected colour, the rusty tone,” says Erika, encouraging them to be more curious and open-minded. “You can clean the glaze with steel wool.”

Ceramics need time and patience; tempo and tone do not get along well. Many people like precisely this slowness. “It was nice to get involved in a longer process,” says one student during the final session of the 14-week studio course, “but it was also difficult to remain patient. Nothing happens fast and a lot remains open-ended for a long time.”

To have time, to let time take its course, to fall out of time, not to go with time: these themes preoccupy Erika as a ceramic artist and teacher. In her studio in Wynigen, slowness finds time. The working steps are complex, yet clear. Each requires its own kind of attention, each involves a risk. Rushing doesn’t work, nor dawdling. Neither in craftsmanship nor when learning is the goal.

Thinking in the dirt

“Lättele” is what we say in the Oberaargau, where Erika and I grew up, when children play with clay. The expression has something slightly pejorative about it. It embodies the aspect of trial and error, playing for its own sake, as well as unrestrained shaping and doing, which adults envy children for their dirty hands a little bit.

“Lättele” was one of my favourite activities, and Erika explains why: “Lätt” allows us to discover space and thinking in the third dimension. “Lättele” trains our spatial imagination, which not least helps solve mathematical problems; as a fine motor skills activity it stimulates the brain. Unfortunately, she adds, many teachers are afraid to work with clay: “Ceramics projects take time, are demanding and elaborate, and there is dirt everywhere.” Three-dimensional design and thus spatial thinking can also be conveyed more easily, with less effort, with wire, for example, or with cardboard. Now-adays, three-dimensional design is not taught at all levels, not even on the BA in Art Education. This makes showing students where and how spatial design can be taught — and not just in the ceramics studio — even more important.

Besides her teaching at ZHdK, Erika is involved in teacher training at the Lernwerk Bern. “Practice is important, because you can only fail by practising, and we only learn when we fail. For instance, she keeps failing to properly update her website, and is not shy to tell her students. This doesn’t dent her popularity, though. “Erika simply knows everything,” they tell me at the ceramics workshop. She always see the bigger picture, is a good listener, explains things very well, treats students as equals and is never patronising. She is genuinely interested in the individual, in his or her ideas. “You can ask Erika anything!”

Erika Fankhauser is an experienced craftswoman and an award-winning artist. She attended the ceramics class at Bern School of Design, a four-year full-time programme, then did a master’s in design at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts and has been running her own studio for many years. The design collections of the Canton of Berne and the Swiss National Museum have purchased some of her works. She is invited to international festivals, most recently in South Korea, where she worked in spring 2018. Can students acquire ceramics skills within a few weeks? “No, but that’s not the point. It’s always about education. I am teaching future educational professionals, not future ceramic artists. Gaining basic skills and knowledge is important, but translating both into teaching practice is more important: “What can I do with pupils in a simply equipped workshop? What is possible and what is not? How can we convey experiences with three-dimensional design?”

Looking back at her school reports, Franziska Nyffenegger ( a lecturer in the departments of design and cultural analysis, remembers one remark in particular: “[…] little patience in working with scissors, glue, paper […].” She is more interested in what working with our hands means in a theoretical perspective. She is currently training her spatial imagination by playing the video game “Monument Valley.”
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