In his enchanting house in Sitges, a small coastal town near Barcelona, Spanish artist, Manuel Blesa, lives and works among the largest collection of traditional ceramics in Catalonia. Rebeca Vaisman visits him at home, discovering an artistic soul and a life exceptionally well collected.
BY REBECA VAISMAN | 5 OCTOBER 2023
Manuel Blesa's collections © Rebeca Vaisman
There was a time in Manuel Blesa’s life when the path before him was unclear, and muddied by self-doubt. As a child he loved to draw and paint, but no one in his family - not even him - considered it a viable, respectable way of making a living. Born in 1945 in Ariño, a small Aragonese town in Spain, Manuel grew up working in his family-run barber’s shop. Part of his role was to entertain the clientele with his drawings - he even accepted requests - but he never saw this talent as a potential career.
He left Ariño for the bright lights of bigger Barcelona at 15-years-old. In the years that followed, Manuel worked as a barber, in a furniture company - where he was in charge of gilding the wood - and in an antique workshop. By his own admission he was no master restorer, but he did develop a real love of old and worn objects. In the mid-1960s, he took a job as a waiter in Sitges, a small town on the Catalonian Golden Coast, and fell for the atmospheric fishing town, which boasted a fascinating artistic history.
He worked in a restaurant during the buzzing Summer season, and traveled to the always-sunny Canary Islands during the winter months. It was during one of these boat trips that he met his future wife, Huberta. They settled in Sitges, started a family, and Manuel kept searching for the perfect craft. Among his creative pursuits, he played the guitar in a flamenco tablado, and never stopped drawing and painting.
The cultural environment in Sitges was intense. The seaside village was still moved by the artistic and Modernist effervescence of the early 20th century. Renowned Spanish artists, such as Emilio Grau Sala and Joaquim Sunyer, made Sitges their home, while enthusiastic creators sought to establish themselves in the city. Along the seafront promenade, more than a dozen painters lined up to make sitting portraits, with passers-by and curious audiences watching and even applauding. Finally, inspired by that artistic energy and productivity, Manuel recognised his own calling. He installed his easel in the boardwalk and hasn’t stopped painting since.
Today, Manuel lives in a three-storey house in the center of Sitges, which has been his home and studio for the last 45 years. He renovated the property completely, retaining the soul and essence of the original construction by protecting its wooden beams, slightly crooked staircases, and the traditional white and blue color palette of the woodwork and walls. The first floor holds the kitchen and social spaces, but has always been open to buyers and gallerists; the second floor accommodated the family’s private rooms and bathroom; and the upper floor is Manuel’s studio, an ample, open space where he has spent much of the last four decades.
Manuel Blesa's collections © Rebeca Vaisman
Manuel has more than proven the value of an artistic life, challenging initial doubts with a prolific body of work. His first subject was the countryside of Aragon - a way of honoring those early landscapes and faces - and, naturally, the Sitges seaside appears throughout his canvases too. Alongside his painting, he has developed another great passion: for years, Manuel has been an avid collector.
First, it was antiques, like those he came across when working as a furniture restorer. He also has religious imagery dating back to the 16th century - wooden busts and ivory virgins - as well as dolls and toys, like a French automaton that still works. But his main collection, and pride and joy, is of Aragonese traditional ceramics, particularly from the towns of Muel and Teruel. With over 600 pieces, some from the 15th to 19th century, it’s the largest private collection in Catalonia.
Soon, Manuel found himself arranging still-life vignettes with his beautiful dishes and Mudejar-style vessels so, naturally, ceramics became the main theme of his pictorial work too. He finds great pleasure in representing the detailed language of the glaze, and his canvases manage to showcase two crafts: painting and pottery.
Although he’s exhibited across Europe, Manuel has always preferred to receive buyers and admirers in his own home. Over the years, his collections expanded to most of the rooms, to the point that it became overwhelming to live there. The family moved to a new home, and all three floors of the traditional house have since worked freely as an office, a studio and a lively gallery for Manuel’s art and objects.
“Everything is here”, says Manuel. “It all grew intuitively and that’s the same way that it started to appear in my paintings. I never consciously decided to start painting my own ceramics collection, but it naturally happened. They are just so preciously done”.
And it is understandable: up in the studio, Manuel works surrounded by his antique statues and busts, but mainly by the largest part of his ceramic’s assemblage. They fill the long niches that cross the room from one side to the other, and from floor to ceiling. He also keeps shelves, cabinets and even boxes with pottery. Once he didn’t know how to live with his calling, he now enjoys having everything he has created around him. “I have enough material to build a museum”, he smiles.
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Rebeca Vaisman is a Peruvian art and design writer, based in Lima, and a regular contributor to Cabana | Follow Rebeca on Instagram @rebecavaisman