Clay and its Many Layers

Rocío Almarcha shows Amy how to make a Christmas tree out of clay / HANNAH SCOTT

Rocío Almarcha is a ceramicist, teacher, and mother. In this article, she reflects on her journey as an artist and how she has learned to balance these three roles in her life.

In the refuge of a workshop that occupies the first floor of an old building on the street Hombre de Piedra, only a block from the bustling world of the of the Alameda de Hercules Plaza, Rocío Almarcha is seated at her work table covered with brushes of all sizes. With precise movements, as if it were second nature, her hand moves steadily across the surface of the ceramic tile, leaving behind a streak of color. Her dark hair softly frames her oval face and her almond shaped eyes wrinkle slightly while she focuses her gaze. Here, Rocío’s creativity manifests itself in the form of ceramics. With a calm yet sure voice, she affirms, “This is a part of me.”

In this workshop, Rocío creates unique pieces for her clients. In fact, Rocío does not need to advertise or use social media as is common now in order to find customers for her artwork. She receives all her commissions thanks to word of mouth. In the small patio in the back of the studio, a faded red bookshelf holds glazes of every shade. They are combined to create samples tiles, each painted with different gradations of color to determine the exact tone.  Rocío collaborates with her clients so they have the freedom to get involved in the process, to design a personalized work down to the last detail. This factor distinguishes her from other ceramicists and creates high quality pieces.

However, as much as she tries to control the final results of the creation, there are always some aspects that are the product of chance. “You never know how the pieces will turn out after the kiln. It is always a surprise, for better or worse. You paint how you think, but they change completely afterwards. Sometimes when you open the oven, things have even broken. Ceramics is wonderful because of this, because it’s always a surprise, but it’s also a pain,” says Rocío.

Rocío Almarcha in her studio at calle Hombre de Piedra / HANNAH SCOTT

Rocío has always had an affinity for the fine arts, but it was not until her fourth year at university that she discovered her passion for ceramics. “Ceramics capture you. Just to manipulate the clay relaxes you.You don’t need much. Creating beautiful things hooks you, and it is a very broad and almost infinite field. There is a lot to learn: from different types of clay and glazes, to molds and techniques.”

In 1998, when she was in the fifth and final year of her Fine Arts degree, in addition to expanding her studies in ceramics, Rocio was working with her ceramics teacher on some restoration projects in Seville, in churches, and also on one of the floors of the famous Real Alcázar in Seville, the Hall of Carlos V. “Seville has a great history in ceramics and a very old tradition. There are people who are investigating other types of pottery, a little bit more trendy and modern, but the two types coexist here,” says the ceramicist.

With the income from restoration work, Rocío and her working partner, Juanma, who is also a ceramicist, bought their own kiln that same year. It is the one they still use today. Shortly after, the two opened a combined store and workshop, Barroca, in the Alfalfa neighborhood of Seville’s Casco Histórico. Barroca had a very personal atmosphere because the customers could look from above down into the workshop to discover the artists’creations. With so much going on, Rocio didn’t have the time to finish her degree until 2011; while pregnant with her daughter, Roberta, she passed the remaining three subjects she had yet to complete.

Three years earlier, in 2008, after almost 10 years with her store, the economic crisis hit Spain and Rocio and Juanma had to close it. “You feel sad when you see that you cannot make it work.  I didn’t know what I was going to do when my children grew up a little. I didn’t know if I was going to leave ceramics for good at that time, if I would overcome the crisis. It crossed my mind that, perhaps, I could not go back to ceramics, or at least in the same way. But, I also knew that it was the time to be a mother, and, for that, I needed a lot of time that I would not have otherwise,” explains Rocío.

So, they moved the oven and all the materials to Juanma’s mother’s garage. Everything stayed there, and together with her husband, Felipe, she devoted all her energy to raising her children—her oldest son, Felipe, who is 13 years old today, Arturo, who will be 10 in January, and Roberta, who is 8— until the children had grown up and the economy had stabilized. Rocío knew then that it was the moment to pursue ceramics again. She began to look for another place to create and discovered the space near Alameda Plaza. “At first, this space was completely destroyed. There was a lot of moisture in the walls and there was no bathroom, nor water, nor windows for natural light to enter,” she says. Yet, this did not discourage her. “Even so, Juanma and I were excite; we said, ‘let’s paint it!’ We had a lot to fix, but we really liked the space, especially the patio and the roof.”

Tula working in Rocío’s class / HANNAH SCOTT

Today, Rocío also shares her passion for pottery with the next generation of Seville’s artists. Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, she teaches classes for the students of Huerta de Santa Marina Elementary School, where her children attend. In a classroom where science and language classes are taught during the day, Rocío’s students create their own ceramic pieces in the afternoon. A few minutes after three o’clock, Rocío uses her sweet voice address the group of 22 children between 5 and 11 years old. Here, she is in her element, completely comfortable in front of the class. She captures the attention of the children, who are wondering what the new project will be. “Today we are going to make little Christmas trees,” she announces with excitement, while beginning to draw a sketch of the process on the chalkboard.

Meanwhile, her assistant, Celia, cuts chunks from a large clay bar and passes them out one by one to the children who cannot keep from starting to touch it. They start with the process; “first, you have to make a round ball. Then, you flatten it with a rolling pin before tracing and cutting out a perfect circle. Next, you remove a piece in the form of a slice of pizza and roll the clay to make a cone that will join a small circular base. Then, as a final touch, you top the tree with small star.”

From here on out, clay dust covers all tables and hands as the children run from one table to another sharing the rolling pins and other tools. The symphony of small voices in the room creates a constant low roar. Both Rocío and Celia move around the classroom, responding to each successive “help me” or “show me” with a tutorial, and each “look, look” with words of affirmation.

Celia assists Olga, Roberta, Candela and Amy / HANNAH SCOTT

There is a lot of emphasis on helping each other in the class, which is not by accident. It is an intentional philosophy practiced by Rocío. The disparate ages can sometimes make teaching difficult, so this way, the older children don’t get bored, and the younger children don’t get frustrated by the projects. It is about creating a compromise in the midst of difficulty. Through this, the older ones build their confidence by helping, and the younger ones get to learn from their peers.

Suddenly, a group of young boys succumb to mischief, now focused on throwing clay balls at the walls. It is true that it is a very intense and demanding hour of teaching, but so much creativity and laughter emerge from the chaos. With a sense of pride radiating from their faces, one by one, the children take their finished product to the main table so they can be collected and left to dry. All together, the great diversity of the little Christmas trees is on full display. When all the children are gone, Rocío and Celia return to the classroom, saying to each other with a sigh “my goodness” and “what a mess!” The smiles remain on their faces.

As Rocío teaches, the children also teach her. “I’ve learned how to learn from them. I’m energized by seeing that they love what they’re doing. It’s extremely rewarding to participate in someone else’s project and know that you are helping them achieve it. I love their freshness, their creativity, and their warmth. They are not afraid, and they are very expressive, and, because of that, everything they make is so beautiful.”

At this stage of her life, Rocío has learned how to balance all her responsibilities, as a mother, as an artist, and as a teacher. It’s hard, she says, but she also has the freedom to organize her time and to fulfill each of these various roles. Her inspiration to create comes from her daily life, from her family, from everything she experiences. In her classes, Rocío embodies all three roles in one. Her daughter, Roberta, is also an aspiring artist.

Rocío has a lot of hope for the future of ceramics. “It’s true that the arts are suffering now. Art schools receive fewer and fewer students. Some say a day will come when they are lost altogether. I don’t think so, but it scares me. That is why you have to find a system to get people excited about ceramics.” This is exactly what Rocío is doing with her passion and talent, one project and one class at a time. •