Matin Malikzada Makes Pottery With Afghan Influences

Matin Malikzada Makes Pottery With Afghan Influences

Before leaving Afghanistan in 2021, the artist Matin Malikzada took pride in making pottery with the traditional materials and tools his family cherished for generations.

He used to mix his own clay dug from a mountainside near Istalif, a village north of Kabul that is known for its ceramics. He would kick his potter’s wheel with his sandaled right foot and make his bright turquoise glaze from the ishkar plant, which grows in the nearby desert.

Now Malikzada, 38, is recreating his life as an artist in the town of New Milford, Conn., about 80 miles northeast of Manhattan. His family of six are among the 6.4 million refugees or asylum seekers from Afghanistan who now live abroad. “I had more than 30 years’ experience, but everything was new for me here,” he said in an interview. “I felt like a kid.”

In Connecticut, Malikzada had to learn to use factory-made clay, an electric wheel with a different height and speed, and chemicals to create glazes. It took 415 experiments for him to come up with his signature colors, he said.

“I had to test, test, test,” he said. “Sometimes it came out very crazy, but my father taught me to always think positive.”

Malikzada’s unexpected journey to the United States began about three and a half years ago, when the Taliban was taking over Kabul and U.S. troops were withdrawing from Afghanistan. After securing an evacuation flight to Qatar and spending months in temporary housing sites there and in North Macedonia, he and his wife and four children arrived in Virginia in 2022. They were among an estimated 76,000 Afghans admitted to the United States legally in the year after the troop withdrawal. Most, like the Malikzadas, received what is known as humanitarian parole.

New Milford Refugee Resettlement, a local nonprofit, found housing for Malikzada’s family and covered their initial rent payments. Literacy Volunteers on the Green, another local nonprofit, sent English tutors. Neighbors drove the children to doctors’ appointments. Local potters have given him materials and kiln time. His landlord is letting him make pottery in the basement as Malikzada rebuilds his business. A church lets him store inventory in a back room. And a pro bono bookkeeper files his state sales taxes monthly, while an accountant does his income taxes.

After Malikzada arrived in the United States, a volunteer found him a carpentry job building drawers in a furniture factory. For several months, he worked there during the day and created pottery at night.

Stephen Gass, an entrepreneur and mentor to Malikzada, thought the factory job wasted the artist’s expertise and could damage his hands. Gass is helping him develop his pottery business instead. “His work ethic is staggering,” Gass said.

When Malikzada created a new line of tableware, he named it “Together,” to honor everyone who helped him along the way. “I don’t know how to say thank you enough,” he said.

Word about Malikzada’s work is spreading. The fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, who has a home in Litchfield County, Conn., heard about him from a friend. She visited Malikzada’s basement studio and bought more than two dozen bowls and plates. “They are exquisite,” she said. “I have a big tender spot for refugees. It’s a great asset to have them in this country and community.”

Malikzada, a seventh-generation potter, is still adjusting to his new life. “I had a very nice job, nice house, nice business, all my family there,” he said about Afghanistan. The hardest part is missing his relatives. His parents died, one after the other, after he left.

“My life is like a bowl. That bowl is broken,” he said. “Now I made a bowl again, but it needs firing, it needs a glaze, it takes time.”

Sometimes, Malikzada said, he works for 16 hours a day getting ready for local craft fairs and art shows. Often his wife, Najila, helps him carve symmetrical designs that suggest flowers and leaves into clay bowls before glazing. By last summer, the business earned enough to cover their rent, groceries and other expenses. “I don’t have weekends,” Malikzada said. “Someone says, ‘Where are you going Saturday?’ I say, ‘To a beautiful place: my basement.’”

Last summer, Malikzada taught a series of classes to potters at the Village Center for the Arts in New Milford.

As the students hunched over pottery wheels and chatted, Malikzada answered questions about how to make a handle, add a spout and avoid unwanted grooves. He showed them how he used his knuckle to smooth a wall, and how he kept the lip of a vase thick at first to allow for the piece to stretch upward.

“Here, push, come up, up, up, now by the finger,’’ he told a student. “It is not hard, you just need practice,” he said. “Practice 1, 2, 3 and you’ll make it more beautiful than me.”

The students marveled at how Malikzada could throw a tall vase in a few minutes, create a lid that fits a teapot without measuring, and spin clay for hours without getting a speck on his clothes.

“He has a fluidity that comes from doing it the same way millions of times,” said Jane Herold, a potter who attended one of Malikzada’s classes. “People who come from an art school background are agonizing about what shape to make. He’s not. He’s making the shapes he knows, that his father knew. It’s a very different thing from the way a lot of modern, self-conscious potters work.”

Malikzada’s family of six was approved for asylum last fall. They celebrated with a feast of kebabs at Hasna’s Grill, an Afghan fusion restaurant in nearby Waterbury. He said his next steps will be applying for a green card, and eventually citizenship.

One day, Osman, his 6-year-old son, could be the eighth generation of potters in the family. “He made 20 pots,” Malikzada said, smiling at his little boy.

In January, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development gave Malikzada an award as an “emerging creative” contributing to the state’s art scene. And he is getting ready for a series of crafts festivals in Connecticut and New York, including at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, the Rhinebeck Crafts Festival and Crafts New York at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park.

“I feel better this year than last year,” Malikzada said. “Hopefully all the time I’ll think positive, every day, every month. Step by step.”

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