History and development

Isak Isaksson in his workshop in 2020

Discovering pottery

Isak Isaksson was born in Östersund in 1949. The family moved early to Västerås where the father had been offered a position as an accountant in the grocery chain Ica. Isaksson’s first great passion in life was rally cars, which he obsessed with both riding and racing. In 1973, when Isaksson began training as a youth worker in Piteå, he came into contact with pottery clay for the first time. At the school there was a creative workshop with paints, tools for carpentry and a potters wheel. “The transition to school from fiddling about with the rally car hurt, I had to work with my hands … There was a lathe and I started turning in wood, made a bowl or two. Then a piece of wood dropped from the lathe and hit my head. Maybe the bulge is still in the forehead. I decided to let go of the lathe, found a turntable with an accelerator pedal, took a lump of clay and ooops, it became a pot. What? Another and it became another pot. Apparently I had it in my fingers and with the childish attitude that ‘this is not so complicated’, I made lots of pots. Art and design teacher Toivo Lundmark, a wood artist in Piteå, gave me a requisition of 100 kilos of clay and said with the well-known Norrland harshness: ‘THROW’. No one else at the school threw so I had full access to the potter’s wheel and oven. That’s where my education began” describes Isaksson. After completing his education, Isaksson started working as a youth worker in Västerås and threw pots at home at leisure.

An early pot made during the Piteå year

The workshop in Brissund

After moving to Brissund on Gotland in 1976, Isak Isaksson decided to make ceramics his profession. He secured a basic livelihood as an hourly teacher while building a workshop with a shop adjacent to his house. Isaksson has built his own kilns since the beginning – both electric kilns, gas kilns and wood-burning kilns. The ability to repair damage to the kilns himself has given him greater freedom to experiment boldly with firings.
In Brissund, Isaksson worked with utility goods. He made teacups, bowls, vases and jugs. The glazes he used were initially simple, ready-made, blends. After a year or so on Gotland, Isaksson went to Etelhem’s pottery where they harvested their own clay from the ground. At high temperatures, the surface layer turned into a beautiful glaze, similar to a Tenmoku glaze.
One of Isak Isaksson’s potter friends on Gotland, Mattias Fischer, taught him to create his own glazes. Isaksson experienced this as a big breakthrough and describes it as “Fischer pulled the glaze ghost out of me”. There and then, in 1978, Isaksson’s fascination with, and experimenting with glazes began.
The summer months were intense with many tourists wanting to buy Gotland pottery. Isaksson got a steady flow of customers only by putting up a sign by the road. The bestseller was a four-handed vessel that Isaksson called Baggerskrukan (The Bagger’s Pot) after the name of the farm: Baggers backe (Bagger’s Hill). The shape was the classic amphorae. Isaksson made the pot in different sizes, both glazed and unglazed. The handles were stamped with the seed house from poppies that grew around the workshop.
During the winters, Isaksson worked, among other things, with commissioned work. One of the assignments involved, in a relatively short time, turning 3,000 ampel pots for a company in Stockholm. Isaksson mentions this order as crucial for a technical knowledge step: after such a large number of vessels that were expected to look the same, he had become a skilled and fast thrower. 

The Bagger’s Pot

The workshops in Old Town

In 1983, Isak Isaksson left Gotland for a workshop with an adjoining store on Österlånggatan in the Old Town of Stockholm. Hard-pressed to cover the costs of the workshop and shop, Isaksson continued to focus his sales on tourists – and produced consumer goods that he could manufacture quickly and sell in the shop. Isaksson made teapots, wine goblets, jugs, plates and in both simple and more playful shapes. He mixed the glazes himself: easy-to-work, colorful glazes with a high quartz content to withstand machine washing.
In addition to the utility goods, Isaksson, driven by curiosity, began to experiment with shapes and glazes. The necks of the vases became higher, the goods became thinner and more fragile. A book about crystalline glazes, which Isaksson received from a good friend in the USA, was the start of a completely new experiment with chemical components. The waste was substantial : Isaksson estimates that one in ten objects was worth keeping after firing a crystalline glaze. 
When a medieval cellar at Järntorget became vacant in 1989, Isaksson moved his workshop and shop there. The experimentation continued there in more structured forms, and Isaksson began selling art objects. A few years before the breakthrough of the Internet, Isaksson acquired a computer and was able to access chemical bases with information about glazes: “I succeeded with a 4600 modem and various programs. One base was in Canada and was run by a chemist. His company Digital Fire is big today and I still go there sometimes to get information on unusual topics.” 
The experimentation with glazes became more and more of an obsession and began to attract attention. Isaksson started to receive visits from collectors. In 1992, some of Isaksson’s works were presented at a group exhibition at Nordiska Kristallmagasinet on Kungsgatan in Stockholm – an exhibition that Isaksson counts as his breakthrough as an art ceramicist. Prior to the exhibition, Isaksson had succeeded in creating something that had hitherto been perceived as impossible: a reduction-fired red crystal glaze. The glaze tests had been going on for several years with lots of damaged goods and damaged kilns as a result of failed firings. Finally, thanks to the help of a fascinated chemist who investigated firings by scanning electronics, Isaksson managed to crack the code. The art and culture historian Åke Livstedt wrote in a review in Svenska Dagbladet that “he (Isaksson) uses exclusively crystalline glazes, whose fantastic effects and colors play over the simple, supported shapes”

Red glazed teacup from 1985
The very fist reduction fired crystalline glaze bowl from the exhibition at Nordiska Kristallmagasinet in 1992

The workshop in Velamsund

In 1994, Isak Isaksson moved to a new ceramics workshop located in the 19th century Långa Raden in Velamsund in Nacka. The store in Stockholm was moved from Järntorget to a new address on Österlånggatan in the Old Town. In Velamsund, Isaksson continued partly with the pottery that was the basis for self-provision, and partly with the artistic experimentation with shapes and glazes. The pottery still had the pure, simple forms as a basis, but more details – such as decorative traces in the clay – were added. A teapot from this period is decorated with handles, spouts and knobs reminiscent of tree branches. The glazes show color shades that are achieved in several firings with different types of substances.
In 1994, Isak Isaksson received one of five prestigious Hounsai Soshitsu Sen awards in Japan for a bowl of reduced-fired red crystalline glaze. In an article about Isaks Isaksson in 1994, the magazine Konstvärlden described the competition as “the most prestigious in all of Japan. The Kyoto Biennale is held every two years and the prize-winner in the competition is none other than Sen Soshitsu himself, the master of the so-called Urasenke tradition ”.
In 1996, Isak Isaksson met Gustavsberg ceramist Sven Wejsfelt for the first time. Wejsfelt (1930 – 2009) had come to Gustavsberg in 1953 and worked as a thrower, caster, shaper and glazing expert for Stig Lindberg with the right to sign “Stig L”. From 1979, Wejsfelt signed his own goods with the “studio hand”, which marked his status as an independent artist within Gustavsberg. Sven Wejsfelt kept his studio at Gustavsberg until 2007. Isaksson describes the relationship with Wejsfelt as important: “I met Sven from 1996 until his death in 2009. He provided me with, among other things, the so-called ‘Friberg mass’, a special porcelain mass that was manufactured in the factory. Sven taught me a lot about ‘fine throwing’. Getting access to Sven’s knowledge and the factory’s know-how and materials meant a lot to my development. Sven was also in my workshop and checked, we found each other so to speak. He taught me, among other things, the simplicity of the shapes and the interplay between shape and glaze. I was invited to fire my large objects, up to 80 cm high, in the factory’s ovens.”
One of the collectors who became enchanted by Isak Isaksson’s shapes and glazes was the gallery owner and antique dealer Bo Knutsson. In 1996, Knutsson organized a separate exhibition with Isak Isaksson’s objects in his art gallery in Vänersborg. Isaksson chose to present 40 to 60 cm high amphorae with several layers of glazes reminiscent of watercolor colors mixed.
In 1988 and 1999, Isak Isaksson participated in the creation of The World Mandala Monument, a two-meter-diameter clay mandala created by New York-based potter Neil Tetkowsky in collaboration with the United Nations. In a press release from 2002, the UN communicated that “The eight-foot sculpture is made of clay collected from all United Nations Member States and molded into a single ‘world clay’, celebrating the oneness of all human beings. Symbolizing the successive generations of humanity, the handprint of 102-year-old Mary Livornese graces the center of the sculpture. The work is an authentic symbol of sustainable development, representing as it does the community of interests, generation after generation, that protect our environment ”. Isaksson participated in the work of collecting the clay from the 188 member states of the UN, a task that, in some cases, was easier for a representative of the neutral Sweden than for an American. Newspaper Dagens Nyheter wrote in an article that “Isak Isaksson from Nacka has played a significant role in the project’s creation” and that Isaksson via Sweden had mediated clay from at least 60 countries.
In 1999, Isak Isaksson managed to free himself from an alcohol addiction that he had lived with since the mid-1980s. “I have always dived fully into everything I do – including drinking. Getting rid of alcohol was like taking off a heavy coat that I had been wearing for a long time. I was free. I became more creative than I had ever been before. I felt like I had unlimited energy and creative joy. It felt like riding an elevator up, up, up,” describes Isaksson. In a desire to be able to help others get out of addiction, In 2002 Isaksson began, in parallel with his work in the workshop, to study addiction therapy at Tollare Folk High School.
In March 2001, objects by Isak Isaksson were exhibited at a separate exhibition at the Swedish Embassy in Tokyo, an exhibition that inspired experimentation with new expressions. The shapes were variations of the classic chawan, a tea bowl with ceremonial references. The bowls were powerful, coarse and raku-fired with glazes that ended with heavy drops at the base.
In March 2003, Isak Isaksson participated together with three other potters, among others Lisa Larson, in an exhibition at Dieselverkstadens konsthall in Nacka. The exhibited works had a rougher, rawer expression than the works that Isaksson had previously showed in Sweden. The bowls were clearly Asian in their tea bowl shapes and their raku-fired glazes. Interviewed in the newspaper Nacka Värmdö Posten, Isaksson expressed that he would like those who come into contact with his object to get a personal relationship with them. The, for him, uncharacteristic designs with clearly Asian shapes and glazes, he explained by saying “sometimes you need to deviate and do something different”.
On the night of December 21, 2004, parts of the Långa Raden burned down – including Isak Isaksson’s workshop. Isaksson was awakened at a quarter past two at night by a call from the police and drove the short distance between his house and the Långa raden. Interviewed for a report about the fire in Nacka Värmdö Posten, Isaksson expressed: “I hope that my glaze folder was not in there. I have been collecting glazes for 33 years. It’s starting to feel like a life’s work. Of course you get nostalgic. My first turntable was in there, for example, which I also had for 33 years.”
The glaze folder had survived but Isaksson was without a workshop. He rebuilt the garage at his home and moved the kilns that had not burned down. At the same time, he continued to study to become a family therapist at Linköping University. In 2006, Isaksson opened his own practice as an addiction therapist on Södermalm in Stockholm – a practice that he ran until the spring of 2020. During these years, Isaksson continued with ceramics, but more as a side business. The development and experimentation continued, but was partly overshadowed by the immersive activity that the work as a therapist constituted.

Teacups, teapot and wine goblets from around 1994
The winning, reduction-fired red bowl and the diploma from 1994
Amphora with several layers of glazes in different colours from an exhibition at Knutsson’s Art Gallery in 1996
Chawan with raku glaze from the exhibition at the Swedish Embassy in Tokyo in 2001
Chawan with raku glaze from the exhibition at the Swedish Embassy in Tokyo in 2001
A raku-fired bowl exhibited at the exhibition at Dieselverkstadens konsthall in 2003

The workshop in Bergshamra

In the spring of 2017, Isak Isaksson moved to a cottage from the 19th century located in Bergshamra outside Norrtälje north of Stockholm. He renovated the house himself and expanded it in the original style with materials from a local sawmill. With the forest next door, a workshop that he designed entirely according to his own thoughts and hands – and which is powered by, among other things, solar cells, Isaksson feels that he has really found his home: “This is my place. I am home. The house is built in the material of the area and I continue in the same tradition when I make changes. I use the sun to get electricity, I build my own kilns. I am part of the place and create my own existence with my hands. I am no longer pressured to throw fast to make a living. I no longer have to stretch every penny in length. I can afford to let the processes take time.”
In 2018, Isak Isaksson was accepted as a member of Konsthantverkarna in Stockholm. Hanna Grill, curator and artistic director, describes how the Artisans’ Review Council in applications primarily assesses artistic and technical quality and approaches to materials and design language. Grill describes Isaksson’s work as belonging to a tradition that she believes that ceramicists and many collectors have a relationship with. In terms of form, you can see references to the older classical potters such as Berndt Friberg and Gunnar Nylund, but Isaksson is in his glazes more expressive than you dared and perhaps technically could be earlier. Grill writes: “Today, quite few have the strength to enter the world of glaze in the way Isaksson does, it requires time and knowledge, many glaze samples and experiments. Today, the younger/newer generation of potters works more with form and artistic expression. I think it is partly related to the higher education programs that perhaps focus more on this than traditional technical teaching.”
In November 2019, Isak Isaksson received the highest technical award a ceramicist can receive in Sweden: the Master’s certificate, an international proof of the person’s professional skills. The Master’s certificate in the pottery profession has been awarded annually since 2017 in the Blue Hall in Stockholm City Hall, and so far 28 people have received it.
At a window exhibition at Konsthantverkarna in September 2020, Isak Isaksson showed bowls and vases in a variety of different types of crystalline glazes. The shapes were recognizable from before: rich variations on the classic vessels that Isaksson favors and is faithful to. The glazes, on the other hand, pointed to something new – large and small crystals in different shapes and colors emanating as small explosions from the works. The objects had a joy of color and richness of variation that marked a new phase in Isaksson’s art.
Due to Covid 19, several exhibitions planned for 2021 were cancelled. But the year also brought a new level of acknowledgment as three of Issksson’s works were incorporated in the collections of Nationalmuseum, Sweden’s National Gallery.
In January 2022, Konsthantverkarna is opening a main exhibition with Isak Isaksson’s works.

Crystalline glaze objects at a window exhibition at Konsthantverkarna in 2020
Crystalline glaze objects at a window exhibition at Konsthantverkarna in 2020
The three objects by Isak Isaksson in the collection of Nationalmuseum, Sweden’s National Gallery