Porcelain Sculptures 'Hello Vivienne I-IV' on flag - Photo: Neil Wolstenholme

Not your average expat

Not just another brick in the wall

As a disaffected 15-year-old punk growing up outside Durham in northern England, complete with his trademark green Mohican hair, 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 [November-December 1989] – they still had all this carnival stuff in the backstreets. There was such a good vibe around the city.”

Back in Durham, Neil could also not have imagined that his teacher would ask him to co-ordinate a collaborative students’ ceramics display for an impending school inspection – or that this would prove to be a harbinger of his future career.

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 postgraduate on a British Council scholarship – she’d been at MoME (University of Art and Design) in Budapest.

Neil Wolstenholme at Exhibition – Photo: Kinga Ráthonyi

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 the 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 an 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 Wolstenholme in studio – Photo: Kinga Ráthonyi

As we speak, Neil points to a characteristic piece of dark blue and white Zsolnay on his kitchen wall. “We were given almost twenty-five dinner services from the factory – they were seconds, so they didn’t have that gold line round the edge,” he explains. “And they didn’t have the Zsolnay stamp underneath, either. They didn’t let seconds out of the factory, they were actually made into gravel and used under road surfaces. So we smashed them all up to make our mosaics.”

His kitchen walls are covered with a variety of colourful mosaics, many having served as experiments for projects the pair have been commissioned to complete.

When the Pécs project was finished, Neil and Kinga bought a flat near Városliget, City Park, and began to work with architects on both private and public buildings. “The first big project was in the new Pólus Centre,” says Neil. “Sadly, though, it’s no longer there. We did the mosaics for the fountain feature in the main entrance but the actual mechanism splashed water all over the surrounding area and was a danger, so after six months they dismantled the whole thing.

“We did the painted glass for the windows of a BorsodChem 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 bombproof!

“I then worked for two years as Artist in Residence at the International School of Brussels also exhibiting ceramic work in Paris and Cossé-le-Vivien [France], and when I returned I decided to do an MA in Teaching at MoME – my thesis was on ‘Art as a Tool in Education’. We had been championing the use of community art in Hungary – it was little known before 1996 – hence the topic of my MA,” says Neil.

“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.”

Sylvester János Reformed High School entrance – Photo: Neil Wolstenholme

The first of several art projects in Budaörs was the entrance gates to the Illyés Gyula Gimnázium. “We wanted to express the strength and openness of the community,” Neil explains. “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 decorated 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

In 2015, Neil and Kinga were given use of an old house in Budaörs where they set up the Közter 18 Community Creative Space – its function is for teaching ceramics (OKJ technical school), and holding art symposiums, exhibitions, workshops and community art projects.

“Something else I want to develop in 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 150 days learning with Tom Hoppel when he was here in Hungary.”

After twenty-six years, Neil and Kinga still live in their flat near the City Park with their teenage sons Ábel and Edward – both of whom attend the Budaörs school where their parents’ work adorns the walls.

But Neil’s liking for the off-beat and irreverent remains strong from his younger days. His recent ceramic exhibitions have featured handmade and finely painted “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”.

Neil went on to produce several series of “Hello Vivienne Pistols” – a tribute to the rebel fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood who is regarded as the “Grandmother of Punk”’, on the occasion of her 80th birthday last year. They feature intricate details from Vivienne’s own designs, including her logo. Finding an address to which to send her one of the kitties 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 that linked to Neil’s website featuring his tribute exhibition to her. The exhibition was timed to open on April 18 – Westwood’s birthday. Her Personal Assistant 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 holding her birthday Kitty – Photo: Colette Thurlow

A tribute to Vivienne Westwood will form the centrepiece of Neil’s forthcoming exhibition with its theme of “Punks Not Dead”. It will be housed in the The Garage exhibition space of their premises at KözTér 18, and will open this year’s annual Budaörs Festival on May 11.


Neil Wolstenholme website:  https://neilceramics.com

KözTér18 Community Creative Space: https://kozter18.hu/en/home-eng/

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

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