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DVD Review

Throwing Curves
The Life and Art of Eva Zeisel.
Canobie Films. Directed by Jyll Johnstone.
60 mins.

Throwing CurvesEva Zeisel is a name many may not have heard, an artist and designer many may not be aware of. Despite this, many may have seen her designs, may have been touched by her work. Many will certainly be touched by this lovingly directed documentary on the Hungarian-German-American ceramist.

In Throwing Curves, Zeisel's extraordinary story is shown through her own eyes and those of her contemporaries - interviews with the artist, family, friends, colleagues, gallerists and curators are thoughtfully put into context with the help of archival footage from the turbulent era that Zeisel was a part of.

Zeisel was born in Budapest in 1906. Her mother, we are told, was a pioneer feminist activist. Zeisel studied art, then decided that if she actually wanted to sustain herself, learning a practical craft would be more sensible, so she learnt the trade at a porcelain factory. The industrial approach was one that became a golden thread through Zeisel's life works, but her personality gave them a distinct human touch. "If it gives pleasure to the eye, it is beauty" she says.

In 1930, she went to Berlin, somehow managing to start a personal trend, whereby she would always be at the forefront of political developments, although by no means to her advantage. There she worked at another porcelain factory, with a designer seconded to her. In 1932 she went to the Soviet Union, drawn there not by political developments, but by the lure of an exotic culture. There she soon found favor, gaining a position as artistic director of an important glass and ceramics factory. However favor did not last and in 1936 Zeisel was arrested by the KGB for allegedly planning to assassinate Stalin. she was imprisoned in St. petersburg for 16 months, then inexplicably deported to Austria. How she survived that episode is still a mystery to her today. In Austria she met up with an earlier admirer Hans, and soon got married.

Events, however, were not to leave Zeisel in peace. In 1938 Hitler Germany annexed Austria and Zeisel, probably again fearing for her life, emigrated to the USA, which was to become her new home. Penniless, Zeisel soon got an order for 10 miniature pieces, earning her $100. "We were never poor. People like us were never poor", she says a bit self-mockingly. "We just had no money".

Soon Zeisel was at the forefront of design, making a set described as 'very Greenwich Village', i.e. modern. At the time, her work was very 'hard edge', but over the years her forms became softer. She was to go on to make some of the most famous China sets to come out of the USA - 'Hall Craft' and 'Tomorrow's Classic', one of America's best ever selling sets. It was very refined, even aristocratic, but inexpensive. Zeisel's work since that period has been characterized by curves and wavy lines.

Eva ZeiselWhile all this was going on, Zeisel also managed to raise five children. Her husband Hans was a law professor in Chicago, where she spent more and more time from the mid 1970s. While juggling family life with pottery, this amazing women also taught at the Pratt & Rhode island School of Design. She now again lives in NYC and, driven by a desire for 'playfulness', still designs at the age of 98. "The others" she says "were always the 'grown ups'. I somehow got old without ever growing up".

Produced by Canobie Films, Throwing Curves is the first of a documentary film series that explores the lives of 85-plus women still actively engaged in their creative lives. Orders are taken online at the Canobie Films website.

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