WLOCLAWEK, Poland -- The last survivor of a traditional Polish craft is about to go under.
Capitalism is killing it.
But on the other hand, only capitalism -- perhaps aided by a group of energetic U.S. women -- can save it.
The Wloclawek Ceramics Plant lies in this ancient town in Poland's Vistula Valley. Here a thousand workers, 189 of them ceramics artists, annually turn out porcelain, bathroom fixtures and -- the plant's piece de resistance -- 2.5 million articles of hand-painted pottery, decorated with the multicolored flowers and birds that have been the predominant local motifs for over 100 years.
Originals from the Wloclawek plant, which dates back to 1873, and from an even more antique works in nearby Kolo (1843), are on display in the local museum. From the earliest, sculpted ceramic roses through the modernist designs of the '20s and '30s to the famous cobalt-and-white patterns of the 1970's, the exhibits bear witness to a tradition cherished through foreign partition, Nazi occupation and the Stalinist obsession with mass production.
At first, it must be said, Wloclawek white-ware flourished under communism, which circumvented the firm's postwar existential crisis.
"In 1948, there was a risk that faience would disappear from Poland," said Janina Dabrowska-Brzan, pottery curator at the local museum. "There had been several factories in Poland. But Wloclawek was the last. So a group of people set about reactivating the art."
They set up a school to teach pottery painting, which, like fresco art, demands that the first stroke be perfect. Generations of Wloclawek women passed through the three-year course, which turned out between 40 and 60 ceramics artists a year.
"The craft has passed from mother to daughter," 25-year veteran Wieslawa Kaczorowska said as she painted in the large warehouse. "We have several such pairs still working here."
The best craftswomen used to compete every two years at the so-called Wloclawek Biennale.
"But this year's competition was probably the last," said Waldemar Sekalski, appointed last year as general manager after 17 years with the firm. "There are no longer any sponsors. Everyone these days has limited funds."
Including the Wloclawek Ceramics Plant.
The depressed Polish market, high interest rates on a $5 million dollar debt incurred to build a new plant, and the complete collapse of trade with the Soviet Union, which used to take a third of total production for a turnover of nearly $3 million annually, have hurt the factory.
"People are saying that things were better under communism," Mr. Sekalski, who is chief executive officer said. "Well, for us they were better too. But it could not last. People came to work, they did their job but no more. There was no drive. We could not compete on open markets."
Because of that, the plant now faces liquidation, either in its entirety or as separate porcelain and ceramics sectors.
Or it can find a partner to pull it out of its slump. "We would like to start a joint venture with Western capital," Mr. Sekalski said, a recurring remark in Poland these days. "That would be the best solution for us."
Thanks to a group of American women in Warsaw, Mr. Sekalski's hopes are not as far-fetched as might be imagined.
Jane Curry, a visiting Fulbright professor and a Poland expert who is a longtime fan of Wloclawek pottery, attended the Biennale last May. "I was invited to an awards ceremony," she said, "but I felt like I was in the middle of a wake."
Ms. Curry and Nancy Pinto, wife of a World Bank official, saw the winning entries and realized that here was a category nobody knew about. "It was a real art form which, properly marketed, could sell wonderfully in the West," Ms. Curry said.
The two women felt that Warsaw's foreign community had the wherewithal to provide "some tide-over money." Ms. Pinto staged an exhibition at her home last week, and the orders flowed in.
But they may never be filled if a buyer or partner is not found.
Mr. Sekalski has already received some offers, from within Poland and from Germany. But they are not substantial enough to cover Wloclawek's debts and set the company on its feet. "We are waiting for others," he said. "We have time."
Though not much.
"If we don't find a buyer or a partner within two or three months, the ceramics section of the factory will probably be closed and its assets sold to cover its debts," the executive said.