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Traditions of pottery and clay masters


Related to the Clay was the name of an exhibition of ceramics which was recently held and dedicated to Havrylo and Yavdokha Poshyvailo. The exhibition marked 100th anniversary of Havrylo’s birth (his wife Yavdohka was born a year later, in 1910). The Poshyvailo couple were amazing honchari whose ancestors were potters and craftsmen in many generations. Lesya HRYHORYEVA, who has done research into the life and work of the Poshyvailos, presents here some of her findings.


“Now I understand that everything

in the world is made of clay —

we, the humans, and our love and our hopes!”

The Ukrainian poet Mykola Vinhranovsky


The village of Opishne in the land of Poltavshchyna is famous for its honcharstvo (art of pottery making), for skilled craftsmen, and potters in particular. Every other villager has among their ancestors potters in several generations. Honchari-potters have always been regarded there as “philosophers” who work with clay, which, in culture of many peoples, is associated with “the substance of the human body,” and thus honchari can’t help pondering on the eternal issues of being — Good and Evil, Life and Death, Beauty and Ugliness, Justice and Injustice, Truth and Lie.

The house where arguably the best known honchari — the Poshyvailos — lived is situated at the fringe of the village. As a matter of fact, Havrylo made the crockery and his wife Yavdokha painted it. Their creations seemed to give life to the earthenware in a sort of literal sense, particularly when we talk about figurines rather than items of everyday use. In addition to creating things, the Poshyvailos collected things — naturally, earthenware creations. Their collection became the first private museum of ceramics in Ukraine which was “officially” opened to public in1970s. Havrylo was reported to have said, “We’ve always lived with clay, as far back as the memory of our family goes into the past, we’ve always loved our craft, we carry in ourselves the memory of generations…”

Havrylo Poshyvailo was born into the family of a craftsman, Nychypir Poshyvailo, and a potter, Hanna Onachko; both of his parents, in their turn, came from the families directly connected with honcharstvo. Glazed pottery and clay toys were among the items the Poshyvailos and the Onachkos made in the nineteenth century. It is known that their families were engaged in this craft as along ago as in the eighteenth century.

Havrylo Poshyvailo was a master of his craft, totally devoted to his ancestral occupation. People who saw him at work said that time seemed to stop around Havrylo — “you were transported to the beginning of time, to the first moments of creation.” When Havrylo worked, he was oblivious of anything except the pot and the potter’s wheel in front of him. His clever hands possessed the magic of creation — a clod of earth was turned into a living thing, especially after his wife applied her paints to it, creating fabulous creatures and imaginary flowers. Yavdokha was reported saying, half in jest half in dead seriousness, “I keep unpainted pots close to my bed so that, if at night I see something worthwhile painting in a dream, I get up and put my dream fancies into all sorts of things on the sides of the pots!”

I met Ihor Poshyvailo, the grandson of Havrylo and Yavdokha Poshyvailo, who told me that the hard times for the Poshyvailos had begun in the 1920s, when the soviets launched their campaign of making the peasants join their “kolhospy” (collective farms) — “nobody cared any longer about traditional crafts and arts. A factory was set up and craftsmen were forced to work at that factory rather than at home as they used to for generations, and the quality went down. Besides, every kolhospnyk (member of the kolhosp) had to put in a certain amount of hours a day working in the fields — it was a new kind of serfdom.”

Honcharstvo in the village of Opishne seemed to be dying. Havrylo and Yavdokha Poshyvailo left for Kharkiv, hoping to find better employment for their talents. But later, when they learnt that the factory in Opishne continued to work and the quality of the products was improved, they decided to go back and try their luck. They were no longer honchari — they were just factory workers who were supposed to produce a certain amounts of “items” per working day. There was no longer room for individual creativity — everything was standardized. But it was work, one could earn one’s living. To indulge his creativity, Havrylo made figurines, toy plates and cups and toys at home at night. One of his most popular toys was a “nightingale” — a whistle in the shape of a bird which, when filled with water, could produce warbling sounds similar to the song of the nightingale.

When things became less restricted and the general atmosphere somewhat more relaxed, Havrylo widened the repertoire of things that he made — crockery in the shape of animals, domestic and wild; candle holders; purely decorative pieces, and anything his fantasy might suggest.

His wife Yavdokha, who always remained his faithful companion and co-creator, had been born in the same village. She was orphaned at an early age, and was raised by people who were not at all relatives but were kind enough to take care of a parentless child.

The famines, war and hardships never stopped the Poshyvailos from being honchari, the occupation they regarded as a calling rather than just a trade.

Their art came, at last, to be noticed and appreciated not only by the people but by the authorities as well, and the Poshyvailos had their first exhibitions showing their works held in the cities of Kyiv and Poltava in 1948. They continued to exhibit their earthenware creations every year after that at various exhibitions and in many towns. And then they went international — their works were shown at exhibitions in Belgium, Canada, Japan, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Poland, Hungary, France, the Netherlands, the USA, Norway, Great Britain and other countries. Museums and private individuals bought their creations.

After their death (Havrylo died in 1991, Yavdokha — in 1994), their craftsmanship and their skills passed on to their son, Mykola. He is a recipient of all kinds of honorifics and titles, he has shown his works at Ukrainian and international exhibitions, winning prizes and contests. Mykola’s children have chosen the path of research and study rather than that of creation; they organize exhibitions of decorative and applied arts at various venues. The latest of such exhibitions was held in Kyiv, at the Ivan Honchar Museum.

They were instrumental in getting a museum of the Poshyvailos and their art opened in Opishne to mark the 90th anniversary of Havrylo’s birth. One of the Poshyvailos grandchildren, Ihor, shared some of his reminisces with this author:

“Grandpa and Grandma complemented each other, they were like two parts of one whole. Their art gave them wings, their love for the people. Clay was their inspiration. They felt to be related to the clay like kinsfolk. They were greatly troubled by the events that were unfolding before their eyes under the soviets — worsening living conditions, famines, suppression of freedom of expression… They were satisfied with very little, did not care to have a better house or a studio, which they could demand from the authorities — their international fame was a lever they could use. They grieved that dushevnist’ (cordiality, compassion, sincerity, benevolence, understanding — all rolled into one word) so prized by them in people seemed to dissipate and give way to harsh pragmatism… About a year before he died, Grandpa once said that he felt he had done enough and now it was time to rest… Grandma Yavdokha followed her husband in the other world exactly three years, three months and three days after his death…”

The continuity of traditional honcharstvo seems to have been broken. With the death of the honchari patriarchs, the art of pottery and earthenware creations is giving way to mass-produced souvenirs of hardly any artistic value. Honcharstvo in Opishne seems to be becoming a thing of the past.

However, one hopes that the art of honcharstvo will be revived as some of the other traditional crafts have been. Luckily, some museums have wonderful creations of honcharstvo in their collections, and it may be the starting point from which the new awareness and interest will develop.




Havrylo and Yavdokha Poshyvailo at their home in

Opishne. 1989. Memorial Havrylo and Yavdokha

Poshyvailo Museum.


Riders (whistles 18,3 x 14 x 7,5 cm) made of clay

by Havrylo Poshyvailo and painted by Yavdokha

Poshyvailo. 1973–1978. Museum of the Ukrainian

Folk Decorative Arts.


Kumanets (ceremonial vessel, detail; 36,5 x 20 cm)

made of clay by Havrylo Poshyvailo and painted by

Yavdokha Poshyvailo. 1980s. National Museum of

Pottery in the village of Opishne.


Ladies (1 x 5,5; 12 x 6,5; 11,5 x 6; 11,5 x 5,5 cm)

made of clay by Havrylo Poshyvailo and painted

by Yavdokha Poshyvailo. 1980s. Private

collection of the Poshyvailo Family.


Plate (6,3 x 45,6 cm) made of clay by Havrylo

Poshyvailo and painted by Yavdokha Poshyvailo.

Mid-1970s. Poltava Local History and

Culture Museum.


Part of the Sorochyntsi Fair composition

(16,2 x 23,3 x 16 cm; 22,3 x 25,3 x 17 cm) made of

clay by Havrylo Poshyvailo and painted by

Yavdokha Poshyvailo. 1990. National Museum

of Ukrainian Pottery in Opishne.


At the exhibition Related to Clay.

Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv. March–May 2009.


Vase (43,2 x 14 5 15 cm) made of clay by Havrylo

Poshyvailo and painted by an unknown artist.

1947. Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Arts.


Tureen (28 x 36,6 cm) made of clay by Havrylo

Poshyvailo and painted by Yavdokha Poshyvailo.

1974. National Museum of Ukrainian Pottery in



Little Coin (crockery for children) made of clay by

Havrylo Poshyvailo. 1980s. Opishne. Private

collection of the Poshyvailo Family.


Barylo (a type of traditional vessels; 26 x 30 cm)

made of clay by Havrylo Poshyvailo and painted

by Zinayida Lynnyk 1948. Museum of Ukrainian

Folk Decorative Arts.

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