Ceramics during the war. Ukraine. : An NCECA Presentation

On March 21, 2024, I gave a 10-minute presentation at NCECA – the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts – for Olga Berkman in Ukraine. We worked together over months to formulate priorities, gather photos, apply, and develop a presentation to highlight a group of potters in Ukraine who came together to solve the problems they faced – and continue to face – as a result of the Russian invasion in 2022.

This is the write-up in the conference schedule:

And what follows is the presentation itself.

I’m Erin Sapre, a potter in North Carolina. I’m presenting for Olga, (or [Olya]), a potter in Ukraine who couldn’t make it here.

Olga Berkman is a Ukrainian potter whose work was dramatically affected by the full-scale invasion of Russian troops on February 24, 2022. (For ease, I refer to the period after that date simply as “the war.”) This presentation is the story of how like-minded potters decided to continue their work and solve their war-time challenges together.

The outline of this presentation seemingly has two themes: the work of these potters, and how their work changed because of the war. But their workshop didn’t start with the war. So throughout the presentation I will draw from each column as the chronology progresses, beginning with their workshop, through the lens of war that focused their personal connections - overcoming difficulties together, determined to persist.

Olga, Ira, and Yulia met at a ceramics workshop, and it was in 2020 that they decided to start their own business. They began renting a workshop and became a collective business named Lihtar, also selling Taras’ work. Their name, Lihtar, means “lantern” in Ukrainian, based on Taras saying that they “carry something bright.” Shortly after the war began in 2022, the first challenge was market disruption, and Ilya and Anton, already their friends, joined them to help sell their work. At the same time occurred societal disruption such as internal displacement and occupational disruption – for example, Mykola joined the Army and asked Lihtar to sell his pottery. The workshop experienced supply problems and electrical problems that they had to solve. Later Galina joined, and then her father Mykola. So in the following slides I will talk about each of these things in rough chronological order, starting with the workshop itself.

Lihtar rents a studio in an old industrial area where few people still live, which makes them feel more comfortable letting the kiln run overnight. Without heating, during the winter they prefer to work while the kiln is running. And since their workshop is in the building’s basement, they feel safer working there when air raid alarms go off, which sometimes is 2 to 5 times per day.  

They also rent warehouse space that Olga also uses for her cosmetics business. There they store the completed pottery with packaging materials. It is right next to the post office.

These are two shops where Lihtar sold their work before the war.

Olga was a successful manager of banks and pharmacies for 15 years, ending up as a division manager. But moving from Kyiv to Dnipro, she transitioned to creative work. In 2016 she opened a store on Etsy selling wooden lamps, and bought a potter’s wheel. By 2018 she left her job and was a successful potter for about 3 years, both retail and wholesale. During a trip to China to buy glazes, she discovered face care cosmetics, which she built into a business, and transitioned from making pottery to managing the pottery business – sometimes glazing, but mostly marketing, product photography, order processing, shipping, and financials. Her brother is in the Army.

Prior to joining Lihtar, Ira worked as an employee in another pottery workshop. At Lihtar, she makes her own work, and also throws for Yulia. She operates the kiln, creating firing programs and firing everyone’s work. Olga said, “Only Irina does this, she already knows this capricious oven very well.” Her brother is also in the Army.

Yulia carves sgrafitto on her own handbuilt pieces and on forms that Ira throws. The Ukrainian lion appears often in her work. Working for someone else’s workshop as a single mother, 6 hours of pottery work would buy her one chicken. This motivated her to begin a business with Olga.

Taras was another member of Lihtar at the beginning of the war. He lived an hour away by car but has his own kiln. He switched to volunteer work because he had a large car and was involved in transportation. Health made it difficult to continue making pottery or carry clay, so he has recently switched occupations.

The war changed many things. The first noticeable thing was that business stopped because people switched from daily work and business to thinking about safety and survival. So people stopped buying pottery. So the first question was whether they should stay and continue.

They decided it was best to stay.

They immediately switched from all local sales in markets, shops, and wholesale, to all international sales online. Now 85% of their sales are from the U.S., and then Germany, England, Canada, and Australia.

Other potters started coming to them to help sell their work. Ilya and Anton were already their pottery friends, and Lihtar started to help them sell their pottery in exchange for helping Olga with volunteer work.

Ilya makes flat plates.

Anton has his own kiln and workshop about 7 kilometers from the Lihtar workshop.

Lihtar’s creative entrepreneurship meant that several people had personal income, and Olga is proud that this also meant that she was able to pay taxes. The income supports themselves but they also help others. This is another thing that changed because of the war. Olga’s income started going toward helping her brother’s Army unit buy things like body armor, thermal underwear, and waterproof bags that they could sleep on. She helped volunteer militia buy stretchers and tourniquets that were better quality than the military issue ones. The military hospital was overwhelmed with injured, so she sent cash to help buy food. And Olga spent a lot of time buying food and other necessities for internally displaced refugees who came to her city. At the beginning she helped organize a field kitchen and cooked for her community – her husband spent much of his time cooking during the first month - until World Central Kitchen was able to take over.

Along with many other people in many other occupations, when the war started many potters either left the country or joined the Army. Olga had known Mykola for a long time on Facebook. He had been a potter all his life, and when he joined the Army when the war started, he sent Olga two large boxes of ceramics with the words “Olya, please sell to whomever you can and send the money to my wife.” To pass the time while he was in the field, he built a wheel out of wood. Some of these pieces survived the trip to the kiln during leave / vacation – the mug on the lower left corner was thrown in the field. He also threw while on leave. He was since injured and now continues to make pottery.

The region’s clay manufacturer and clay deposit had been located in Donetsk and had stopped operations when the city was occupied. By June 2022 Lihtar was running out of clay, and new clay was hard to find. They bought all the clay they could find that local potters already had. When that ran out, they started digging their own clay, but it’s a time and effort intensive process of digging, drying, crushing, sifting, adding water, and mixing…. and it was rough and tore up their hands. The regular clay manufacturer moved to Kiev and resumed operations, but that clay ended up being poor quality, and wasn’t a good fit for their existing glazes. At that point Anton was able to start obtaining clay from his brother in Lithuania. Now they mix that clay with what they are able to purchase in Ukraine. Their hope is that this Spring the Ukrainian factory will resume clay production, and that the clay will be good.

Glazes are also a problem. The company that imported glaze before the war stopped, so their options are limited and they buy what they can from Germany. They’ve had to start declining orders for pottery in colors that they can’t find the glazes for.

Another difficulty they face is with electricity and basic utilities. Several times Olga has mentioned lack of electricity, which means no light, no computer, and other things, like no electricity-based transportation which she uses to travel the 7 kilometers to the workshop. So she packs orders by lantern light and runs home from the workshop, but electric wheels and kilns can’t run with no power.

When attacks on energy facilities began, power had to be distributed to different places by having planned power outages, so they planned work around these planned outages. But further attacks sometimes caused the power to just go out. That caused obvious problems with firing and working, but the bigger problem was the surges sometimes when the power came back on. Despite having breakers, surges destroyed the kiln’s programmer twice and they had to replace it. On one occasion the programmer malfunction caused the kiln to hold at max temperature for 2 days because they couldn’t get back to the workshop. That ruined an entire load of sunflower mugs.  

Artisans continue to join Lihtar.

Galina lives in the Cherkasy region and works as a creative arts teacher.

Then Galina’s godfather, Mykola, approached Lihtar. He makes traditional milk ceramics without glaze. After a mug is fired, it is soaked in milk, filling the pores in the ceramic, and fired again. He lives in the city of Uman and sends his work by mail.

More recently a stained glass artist, a baker, and a jewelry maker have joined Lihtar.

Their current challenge is to find markets, to sell their work, but also to find opportunities to highlight the artisan potters of Ukraine and show the world that they persist, together. Olga said,

I am keenly aware of my responsibilities to my country and my colleagues … Ukraine is fighting for existence, and so are Ukrainian potters: I want the world to know that Ukraine potters continue, we have become more connected, and we continue to overcome our many difficulties together. Our ceramics represent the masters of Ukraine, and I am responsible for continuing the fight.


If anyone has any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to either one of us. Our contact information is at the bottom of the slide, and on the handouts. If you didn’t get one, just shoot me an email or come talk to me and I’ll make sure you get a copy.  

This is Olga’s Lihtar Etsy shop https://www.etsy.com/shop/Lihtar

her Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/oberkman/

and her Facebook https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100006830467694