Precious little people

This artist is determined to keep his father’s trade alive

Inspired by his father’s craft, he took up the hobby of modelling clay figurines only a few years ago. His house is his showcase; with his studio housing a tall shelf of handed down moulds that includes too many saints to count, the figures of the Nativity scene, and many more, though he admits that his favourite subjects are folklore and soldiers. Jane Vella meets artist and former cartoonist Joseph Agius, and gets into the Christmas spirit.

“My father was Carmelo Agius. I see his works pictured in a lot of books, and shown at exhibitions. But his name is never mentioned,” explains Joseph. “He was a humble and shy man, maybe that’s why people didn’t know who he was. But I’m determined to make people conscious of him.”

Joseph explains that although his father’s work was not signed, it included its own distinct features which gave it a signature. “There’s always a number on the bottom, as well as a tiny bit of clay carved out,” he says. “It seems like a signature, but in fact, he would use that bit of clay to finish the figure’s nose,” he adds, laughing.

The craft of moulding clay into small figures and statues spans three generations in the Agius family. “My dad worked in a small room in the yard. I was a bit of a disappointment. Iused to help him but I never had any interest in continuing his work myself,” Joseph recalls.

In fact, Joseph only started making figures a few years ago, almost by accident. When Joseph’s mother lost her eyesight, his father, in his late seventies, dropped everything, including his craft, to look after her. Carmelo even considered destroying his moulds, as he felt he had no use for them anymore. “Before all this happened he would say, as long as I keep making figurines, I’ll be alive,” says Joseph. “And as time went by, and he stopped making them, he got sadder.” his father, in his late seventies, dropped everything, including his craft, to look after her.

This is what pushed Joseph to act. “I told him not to break the moulds, and that I would take them and continue the work myself.” Around the same time, Joseph visited a figurine exhibition. This is where he met local personality Carlo Borg Bonaci, who is a collector. “When I told him who I was, and who my father was, he asked me to make him a St. Michael, to continue his collection,” Joseph explains.

Joseph asked his father to give him the mould for St. Michael, in order to begin the figurine. “He not only gave it to me, he made it himself. All I did was paint it,” he says smiling. “I started enjoying the work and I was happy that dad was regaining his interest – he came alive again. He started to help me, and to teach me certain skills.”

And the rest, they say, is history. “My enthusiasm grew. My friends told their friends. All the hobbyists know me now,” explains Joseph. He admits that the greatest demand for his craft is during the Christmas season, though the figures related to Good Friday are also very popular. During the rest of the year the demand is also from people who are in Malta on holiday. “I think I have more of my work abroad than in Malta,” he says.

Old clients of his father also visit him to fix the figurines which have been damaged. “They appreciate that at least they’re being fixed by the son of the original artist. The same hand, the same technique,” Joseph explains.

I ask Joseph about the process involved in making clay figurines. “Today you can easily find ready-to-use clay,” he explains. Before, he used to buy hard clay, which had to be broken down into crumbs to remove the impurities and then put in water to soften before use. Joseph still uses his father’s moulds. “Since they are old, it means that they’ve started to lose detail, the nose, for example,” Joseph explains. “So you have to add it, fix the wrinkles and the objects in the figurine’s hands. Sometimes you have to shape it from scratch.”

p58

He tells me that he doesn’t need to make new moulds. “My dad had so many that I always have new ones to choose from,” he says. He goes on to recount a story when somebody wanted a St. Publius figurine, together with the pedestal in one mould, rather than in two separate pieces. This person insisted that his father used to make this particular statue. Joseph told him he knew nothing about such moulds. “Afterwards I went home, and found a mould exactly as the man had described,” he recalls.

Of course, there are often situations where there are no moulds, and this is where Joseph gets creative, by adapting moulds to different characters, especially in the case of folklore figurines. The basic figure will be the same, with Joseph adding different clothes, or items in the figure’s hand, be it a basket or a birdcage.

The departure from the mould makes each figurine one of a kind, and Joseph believes this is exactly what the collector appreciates. “The fact that the model isn’t perfect, that they know it’s handmade, and that an amount of effort went into it is important,” he explains.

Besides making clay figurines, Joseph also enjoys drawing and painting. He mostly does oil paintings, though he paints in acrylics and watercolors as well. However he is quick to point out that he paints more out of need than anything else; to decorate a bare wall, or as a favour to a relative. “Even then I’m cautious,” he says. I ask him to explain. “An uncle once asked me to paint something for his home. What I didn’t know was that he wanted a picture that included about 65 people in it, and the painting was almost as big as a wall!”

Joseph’s full-time job is in printing. He has worked for the same company for 27 years. He used to work as a designer, and even used to illustrate books and book covers. Now that job is done using computers, he admits. However, he is currently working on a project which involves illustrations for a children’s book. “I’m a pencil and paintbrush man, I’m conservative that way. I tried to do the same work with computers, but we didn’t click,” he says. “I believe that I’m an artist, but not in the sense that I’m creating great masterpieces. I feel I have the heart of an artist.”

Joseph’s son Johann also dabbles in art, using pencils and watercolours. But is he prepared to take the family tradition into the fourth generation? “He doesn’t have the patience yet,” says Joseph, and Johann nods in agreement. “It’s difficult until you get used to the technique. I end up cutting off its nose,” Johann says, smiling.

“I realised late in life that it would be a shame if the tradition ended,” admits Joseph. “but when my father died, I thought, what am I going to do with these moulds? I brought them home. Hopefully, history will repeat itself when I’m gone.”

“ I tried to do the same work with computers, but we didn’t click ”

In his younger days, Joseph was also a cartoonist for the now defunct newspaper Ix Xewka, signing as ‘Dylan’, a nickname which he has kept until today. And why Dylan? As a young man Joseph’s satirical caricatures and writings made him look like a rebel to his friends, who compared him to the singer Bob Dylan. Carmelo Agius, Joseph’s father Hence the nickname.

Joseph Agius