Surprising Expats: Neil Wolstenholme, Ceramicist

  • 28 Nov 2023 4:50 PM
Surprising Expats: Neil Wolstenholme, Ceramicist
This is part of a series of in-depth interviews with some surprising members of the community, written by Marion Merrick.

As a disaffected 15-year-old punk growing up outside Durham in northern England, Neil Wolstenholme could never have envisaged living in an eastern European country. “I had no intention of coming to Hungary,” he says, “but I did always want to travel.”

He came close, however, when his secondary school took part in an exchange programme to Czechoslovakia. “It was just fantastic,” muses Neil. “We stayed in Prague just after the velvet revolution – they still had all this carnival stuff in the backstreets. There was such a good vibe around the city.”

After leaving school, Neil enrolled on a B.A. course in Design and Ceramics at Edinburgh College of Art. “That’s where I met Kinga [Ráthonyi] in 1993,” he explains. “She was doing her M.A. on a British Council scholarship – she’d been at MoME (University of Art and Design) in Budapest.”

As their relationship developed, a technician in the ceramics department drew their attention to an advertisement from the Prince’s Trust for a UK-Hungary Partnership Award. “You had to come up with a programme to do a three-month project in Hungary,” says Neil. “Kinga contacted an architect friend in Pécs who was building a Rehabilitation Centre for the Blind and asked if we could do some work on that.

After shaving off his trademark green Mohican hair, Neil headed to London for an interview at the Hungarian Consulate. He was offered the grant, and in 1996 he arrived at Budapest’s Ferihegy airport to a row of police with Kalashnikovs. “I’d never even seen a policeman with a gun before!” he recalls.

We were staying in a friend’s flat in Csikágó [‘Chicago’ - the Keleti station area] and travelling up and down to Pécs. We went to the Zsolnay factory and got the pyrogranite clay which they use. I had a rucksack and carried about fifty kilograms of clay at a time.”

Neil and Kinga were to decorate an internal spiral staircase and a access ramp. “We wanted to cover all the bare concrete surfaces – it was our first move towards doing mosaics. And we wanted to involve the people using the building in what we were making, so before leaving England I contacted the Edinburgh Blind Society and did some voluntary work there in order to get some experience. The idea was to make a sculpture relief of a dragon and fill in the gaps with mosaic.”

Neil in studio – photo: Kinga Ráthonyi

When the Pécs project was finished, Neil and Kinga bought a flat close to the City Park and began to work with architects on both private and public buildings.

We did the painted glass for the windows of the Borsod Chemical factory in Kazincbarcika, and after that, we decorated a glass wall in a K&H bank near Balaton – we used glass mosaics – the wall itself was bomb proof!

We decorated the entrance of the Sylvester János Reformed High School; I made a playground fountain with the children at the British International school, and also decorated the entrance to the Novus school in Pest, as well as many other similar community artwork projects.”

Szilvester János Reformed High School – photo: Neil Wolstenholme

I then worked for two years as Artist in Residence at the International School of Brussels and when I returned, I decided to do an MA at MoME – my thesis was on ‘Art as a Tool in Education’. We had really introduced the concept of community art in Hungary, it wasn’t known before 1996, and we wanted to develop this – hence the topic of my MA,” says Neil.

Animation is another of Neil’s fortes, and he soon found himself teaching this alongside ceramics at the Illyés Gyula Gimnázium in Budaörs. “The director wanted to do something with the outside of the school, beside the gates near the bus stop. Originally, there were just two grey, concrete walls, and we came up with the idea of creating faces – any kind of faces – so we ran workshops where the faces were made, not only by the kids, but also by the teachers, the kitchen staff, the cleaners – anyone who wanted to join in. We later did other parts of the school, and we even did a huge mosaic on the roundabout in the town.

Illyés Gyula High School entrance gate – photo: Neil Wolstenholme

The Budaörs school was given an old house by the council which is used for teaching ceramics, leading Neil and Kinga to set up a a Köztér18 Communal Creation-space where they could host international symposiums and exhibitions.

Something else I want to develop is Art Therapy,” says Neil. “In a way, I’ve been doing it for quite a while – I always had students who had various problems, and they can really be helped through art therapy. I’m a yoga teacher, too,” he adds, “old style – not the kind where you do a three-week course and you’re qualified. I spent years learning with Tom Hoppel when he was here in Hungary.

But Neil’s liking for the off-beat and irreverent remains strong from his younger days. He has created several series of ‘Hello Kitty’ porcelain figures, though they are a world away from the saccharine originals, with such names as ‘Hello Lenin’, ‘Hello Sexy’ or ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Kitty’.

This April, Neil was fortunate enough to meet a much-admired figure: Fat Boy Slim. He was hosting a rave at Budapest’s old Railway Museum. “I really like his work, so I contacted his manager to see if I could meet him,” Neil says.

He has one of the world’s largest collections of Smileys so I decided to make one for him with his logo, 'Hello Norman Cook'. It’s yellow, of course, but you can’t make bright yellow porcelain, so I had to use a lot of colour stain which also made the surface of the kitty rough, which is what I wanted. I was able to present it to him just as he went on stage.”'

Neil with Fat Boy Slim in Budapest 2023– photo: Ábel Wolstenholme

This summer, while Neil was in England he was able to visit two other artists he has long respected: Gilbert and George. They had an exhibition in Budapest’s Ludwig Museum in 2017, but having heard they had now opened an Arts’ Centre in east London, Neil decided to contact them and pay them a visit.

I’d always wanted to see their work, so I made two kitties for them, Hello Gilbert and Hello George – both in old men’s big underpants! They were wonderful to meet so lovely and fun.”

Neil with Gilbert and George, 2023– photo: Yu Yiang

Earlier towards the end of the covid lock down Neil had produced a series of Kitties for a window exhibition including a gift for the rebel fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood who is regarded as the ‘Grandmother of Punk’, on the occasion of her 80th birthday. 'Hello Vivienne Pistols’ It features intricate details from Vivienne’s own designs, including her logo. Finding an address to which to send her the gift involved Neil in extensive research scouring numerous press photos of her and examining them in conjunction with Google Earth co-ordinates.

The kitty was finally boxed and shipped to Vivienne Westwood’s office, complete with a QR code inside the lid which linked to Neil’s website featuring his tribute exhibition to her. The exhibition was timed to open on April 18th – Westwood’s birthday. Her PA subsequently sent Neil this message: “Both Vivienne and Andreas like your porcelain Hello Kitty very much and it sits on Vivienne’s work desk in Battersea.” Neil also received a photograph of Westwood holding her kitty namesake.

Dame Vivienne Westwood 2021– photo: Colette Thurlow

After twenty-six years, Neil and Kinga still live in their flat near the City Park with their sons Ábel and Edward.

Marion Merrick is author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards and the website Budapest Retro.

If you would like to be interviewed as a Surprising Expat, please write with a few details of what you do, to: Marion by clicking here.

Main photo: Neil Wolstenholme at exhibition – photo: Kinga R

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