Bringing the Portuguese Art of Azulejos into the 21st Century with Isabel Colher

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Bringing the Portuguese Art of Azulejos into the 21st Century with Isabel Colher

via easyvoyage.co.uk
via easyvoyage.co.uk

If there is one decorative element which characterizes the Portuguese best, it is without a doubt the azulejos. They’re everywhere! From church interiors to palace courtyards and dormitories, to train stations and restaurants, building facades, fountains and even Lisbon’s own metro system, it is impossible for anyone to miss them. The Moors were the first to introduce the practice of tile-making onto the Iberian Peninsula, and its contact with other cultures throughout the centuries has greatly enriched their craft. The beautiful result are the famous Portuguese azulejos; painted ceramic tiles.

The word azulejo draws its origins from the Arab word al-zulay-cha, meaning “lightly polished stone”, and which most likely referred to the stones used in making mosaics. The Moors specialized in geometric shapes, a stylistic tradition which stuck long after the Reconquista liberated the Portuguese from the Moors. Since then, the art of the azulejo has taken on a new form, combining the old Arabic style with a more European feel.

Panel of azulejos by Jorge Colaço (1864-1942) at the São Bento railway station. Battle of Ceuta (1415), part of the Reconquista
Panel of azulejos by Jorge Colaço (1864-1942) at the São Bento railway station. Battle of Ceuta (1415), part of the Reconquista

A trained eye, with enough knowledge about this amazing art-form, can clearly spot the transition between the eras of development and different styles used over the centuries by these seafaring people. And since this technique is so deeply ingrained into their very souls, some have taken upon themselves to, not only preserve this tradition, but to also bring it into the evermore technological, 21st century.

One such person is Isabel Colher. A native Lisboner, Isabel fell in love with the craft from a young age. Being very close to her grandparents, Miss Colher was introduced to the world of arts and crafts ever since she was a little girl. One was a carpenter, while the other designed publicity drawings for several national newspapers. Surrounded by people full of imagination and who didn’t shy away from rolling up their sleeves and working with their own two hands, Isabel enrolled into the Lisbon Arts School and specialized in sculpture and ceramics. After graduation she went on working in tile restoration all throughout the country for the next 20 years, learning bit by bit, every step of the way.

Isabel Colher at her workshop Tardoz, in Lisbon. Photograph courtesy of Roberto Keller-Perez
Isabel Colher at her small workshop Tardoz, in Lisbon.
Photograph courtesy of Roberto Keller-Perez

Becoming quite intimate with these azulejos, Isabel Colher has become, what many may call a “master”, and has since held several courses in both Portugal and Brazil, teaching the new generation the traditional art of tile-making. Today she owns her own little workshop at the outskirts of Lisbon, overlooking the mighty Tejo River, and from where she designs her tiles and panels, adding her own personal touch into her creations.

Azulejos of different styles and sizes, most of which being replicas found throughout Lisbon.
Azulejos of different styles and sizes made by Isabel, most of which being replicas found all throughout Lisbon.

Even though she works on occasion with the Lisbon city council, restoring century-old panels, she now mostly crafts her own original pieces, in both azulejos and other types of ceramics. Using mainly traditional methods and even some improvised tools of her own making, she carefully kneads the raw clay by hand before any new project. Every morning, just before work officially starts, she checks her day-old tiles for cracks and imperfections, as they’re slowly drying, turning them from one side to the other. If Isabel is somewhat unsatisfied with one of them, she takes the piece, breaks it apart, recycling the clay for another time.

As she told Gipsy.Ninja in an interview: “I don’t mind if there’s a small detail out of place, or two colors mixing where they shouldn’t. They’re what make each piece of azulejo unique, and it’s certainly how they did it centuries ago, before factories began to make them by the thousands. If the piece is structurally intact and its details are to my liking, I keep it.”

Tile panel made out of blue cobalt and manganese on white background, representing a genealogy tree.
Tile panel made out of blue cobalt and manganese on white background, representing a genealogy tree.

Wanting to spread the craft to anyone who’s interested, Isabel often takes on apprentices from both Portugal and abroad, through various programs sponsored by the EU. At her workshop, which is called Tardoz by the way, and which basically translates to “the back of the azulejo”, she sometimes holds courses for tourists who don’t want to simply buy their Portuguese memorabilia, but make it themselves. Children of all ages are also frequent visitors. She regularly updates her blog, keeping people up to date on her latest designs and ideas. On her Etsy shop, one can find many azulejos and other unique ceramic pieces, both traditional replicas and personal designs, but which all certainly “scream” Lisbon, from the very top of their lungs.

Garden sundial made by Isabel, specifically designed for a certain latitude.
“Sun-baked” Garden sundial specifically designed for Lisbon’s latitude.
Azulejo replica from the Pena National Palace in Sintra, all packed and ready for shipping. Isabel worked in restoring some panels at the palace, with this particular piece being one of them
Azulejo replica from the Pena National Palace in Sintra, all packed and ready for shipping. On the back of the box, there is a short story about the tile itself.  Isabel worked in restoring some panels at the palace, with this particular piece being one of them.
Isabel together with one of her apprentices, this time from Romania.
Isabel together with one of her apprentices, this time from Romania.                                                 Photograph courtesy of Roberto Keller-Perez
Children learning to make their first azulejos in Isabel's workshop.
Children learning to make their first azulejos in Isabel’s workshop.
Experimenting with metallic oxides
Experimenting with metallic oxides
Garden fountain from the Goethe-Institute in Lisbon, made by Isabel Colher.
Garden fountain from the Goethe-Institute in Lisbon, made by Isabel Colher.
Medieval Gothic Dragon bas-relief 16th century.
Medieval Gothic Dragon bas-relief inspired from the 16th century.