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Turning Earth into Art

Martial Poutout has been painting Haviland porcelain for nearly half a century. FINE CHINA DESIGNER

WHEN Martial Poutout picks up his thinly pointed brush and begins to paint a design on a porcelain plate, splendor as well as color flow from the bristles. The chief of creation for Haviland & Company is following in the brush strokes of some of the world's great artists - Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Dufy, and Suzanne Lalique - designing and decorating Haviland porcelain. Mr. Poutout has been painting fine china for 47 years, 42 of them at Haviland.

``This was my dream since I was 14 and began my training in Limoges, France,'' he says with a smile.

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It is not surprising that the French often refer to Poutout as ``the ambassador of the magic fingers,'' or that France's Minister of Work presented him with a ``Best Worker in Art'' honor. He was also an expert wrestler who can deliver a powerful judo move as deftly as he paints a violet on a teacup. During World War II, he was sent to North Africa to join the Zouaves African Troop of the French Army.

``It was rigorous training,'' he recalls. ``The Zouaves were likened to the French Legionnaires, for they were no-nonsense soldiers who wore fez hats, pantaloons, and red vests.''

He hasn't any idea why he, from a small village in France, was selected to join this troop of Algerians, Africans, and Arabians. He wound up with a cauliflower ear from instructing them in wrestling and judo.end cho

Poutout has twin sons, Frederic and Bruno, who carried on the wresting tradition and fought their way to become wrestling champions of France. Today, one son is a merchandise director at Haviland Company, the other an expert in computers and ignitions.

``One of my happiest moments,'' Poutout confides, ``was seeing the pride of my sons when I received the `best worker' honor in 1971.'' Poutout was honored for a large (60 cm, or nearly two feet in diameter) painted porcelain plate depicting the life of Jesus. It took 200 hours to complete.

``I was nervous on the final firing that it might break, but it didn't. It was dipped in 24 karat gold,'' he says.

``My other happiest memory was when I worked as an apprentice for Monsieur Dumas, who had a small china company in Limoges, France. He gave me a job at age 14, and I learned to paint designs on everything from a vase to a lamp base to dinnerware.''

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Although Poutout's grandfather had worked in the china factory as a laborer, none of his family were artists. ``The day Monsieur Dumas inspected the design I had painted on a vase and smiled, `This shows great promise,' my feet never touched the ground until I got home and told my mother,'' he says.

Today he designs art plates for Haviland. Last year he toured the United States, visiting stores that sell Haviland china and demonstrating his painting technique. Haviland has archives filled with two tons of patterns, collected since 1842.

``When a dinnerware pattern is brought out, it's from this rich treasure. It is thoroughly tested and approved by over 100 inspections before it is manufactured.

``I try to make the plate an art piece, although one does have to consider how food will look on it. Personally, I love those that have designs in the center as well as around the border. It is a challenge to take a painting and adapt it to dinnerware,'' he says.

A particular favorite of his was reedited in 1981 from a painting by the French artist Dammouse. It is from the Haviland Archives of 1882. `It was inspired by fine Japanese silks, deep blue leaves edged with gold on a background of smaller rose-pink leaves,'' he says. ``The flowers fill the wide border, while a smaller design delicately provides a spray of blossoms with minute, gold-colored insects flitting around the buds in the center of the plate.''

Interestingly, the Haviland Porcelain Works were launched in 1842 by an American. David Haviland had a china importing business in New York, and when a customer brought in a porcelain cup to be repaired, he noticed the finesse and translucence of the piece and had to know its origins. It had been made in Limoges, a small city in central France.

The quality of the china was due to kaolin clay, a fine white clay that had been discovered in 1768 in the hills around a nearby town. It was the same type of clay the Chinese had used for centuries.

Once he discovered this small town, Haviland made it his home. He created Haviland & Company, and its dinnerware has been on some of the finest tables in the world - Abraham Lincoln, King Edward VII of England, the governor general of Moscow, the emperor of Japan, and others.

Poutout has designed dinnerware service for King George of Sweden, the king of Morocco, and the Shah of Iran, among others. He also worked with Salvadore Dali, Jean Lur,cat, and Pierre Le Deux, and has been commissioned to do hand painting of porcelain items for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Each piece goes through at least three firings. The high temperatures of the firings are key to the quality, says Poutout. The first is at 1,800 F. for 24 hours, which turns shaped clay into hardened bisque. The piece is dipped in a bath of liquid clay and minerals, and fired again at 2,500 F. for 30 hours. This firing is so intense that the glaze and bisque are fused together forming whiteware.

``We will not accept second-best; our craftsmen work for hours to execute complex patterns and achieve richness of color,'' Poutout continues. ``In fact, six out of 10 do not pass our inspection and are destroyed. A smash to the floor, and it is history.''

Poutout lives surrounded by Haviland. ``My porcelain collection is worth twice the price of my home,'' he says with a smile. ``Friends call it the Second Museum of Haviland.''

In 1980, Poutout began what he calls his ``life's project.'' ``The Four Seasons'' involves designing and painting porcelain tiles: Twelve tiles, about six inches by eight inches, are placed together to form a four-foot picture representing each season.

``I have completed the first, Spring,'' he confides. ``I finish at least another one, for they will be a legacy for my sons. With twins, each has to have one. With the Four Seasons, it would work out even better.''

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