Wind your way up the hills to Monchique through layers of mist that give way to sunshine the higher you get, and once you arrive at the little village square and head round towards the road to Foia, you take a narrow street, barely wide enough for an average-size car – wondering where you went wrong to arrive in, well, the middle of nowhere.
Then you see a sign, and an arrow pointing to Studio Bongard. Surely not? There’s nothing there but quiet country lane and a steep, slippery slope to the side. But you stop, climb up the stony-scattered path, to find a tiny building set above deep steps. Push the door and you are there, out of breath and filled with a curiosity. More steps take you up to another level where you stop and gasp, for before you is a wild wonderland, an enchanted garden that spills down the hillside and away, where wild flowers and grasses grow in abundance, and every few metres there in a strange creature, an exotic bird, a fearsome warrior.
Tara Ezaguy Bongard smiles. She is well used to the newcomer’s reaction, the look of amazement, the head spinning in every direction to take in more.
This garden is the haven, and the realisation of a long-held dream, of Tara and her husband Sylvain, clayworkers who create what they want, in their own way, and place it where they feel it will sit most happily. And their work is, dare I use that much-abused word, unique. Extraordinary in detail, exceptional in their choice of colourings, intriguing in the story behind each one.
Tara was born in London to a Portuguese father and English mother, studied art in the UK, and apprenticed in glass painting, fusion and woodwork. She returned to Portugal in 2005 and met Sylvain three years later. Born in Geneva, he lived in Portugal as a youngster and went on to study in the UK and Germany; in the 1980s he started painting tile panels inspired by his childhood passion for animal and sea life.
At first, these two artistic talents took on studio space in Ferragudo, and together developed their special style, creating small sculptures that were snapped up fast by design shops, galleries and museums across Portugal and beyond.
Says Tara: “We are dedicated observers of nature and humankind and we have an infinite number of ideas and ways to express our shared visions. But our work, and our style, are spontaneous, and we can translate the pictures in our minds to three-dimensional pieces.”
Today those pieces range in price from €15 to very many thousands, and from little seahorses, fruit and flowers and platters, to trumpeting elephants, giraffes and heads of vast proportions. And the sculpture garden and studio in Monchique is testament to the breadth of the Bongard’s ingenuity.
They bought the land and a ruin which they turned into their home, allowing them to live on site with their five children. Their windows look down onto the workshop below, the sweeping valley beyond and the volume of work on display at every level.
“It would be impossible to say how many pieces we each produce a year. Besides the many hundreds of small items, we allow ourselves the luxury of spending time on the larger figures that we are so passionate about,” says Tara.
An innovation at the atelier was the introduction of a new kiln that runs on wood pellets, the first one of its size made in Portugal. This changed the rhythm of Tara and Sylvain’s work as the kiln, which has approximately one cubic metre of inner space, needs constant attention throughout the firing process, allowing the couple a more personal relationship with the final results and the ability to ring changes.
Unsurprisingly, countless commissions arrive at the atelier. “The general idea of what the client is looking for is transformed into a final piece reflecting our touch,” says Tara. “Many people find joy and energy in what we create, putting aside their preconceived idea of trending aesthetics. Some clients, who start off looking for bright colours, may go away with an earthy piece and vice versa; their eye is drawn to what pleases them at that moment.
“In the past we have also made many practical pieces – kitchen sinks, basins, birdbaths, candelabras, even exclusive tiles for the kitchen, bathroom and a swimming pool.”
The Bongards have also been working for the past four years with Michelin restaurants such as Bonbon in Carvoeiro, Casa Velha in Quinta do Lago and a private catering company in the UK providing tableware that compliments the changing menu and underpins the ambience of the restaurant. And they have created a number of fascinating exhibitions here in Portugal:
Submerged Art, Museu do Portimão 2011; Arte Submersa, Museu do Azulejo Lisbon 2014-2015; Regresso do Maré , Museu do Portimão 2017; Century of the Seas, Forte de Ponte da Bandeira, Lagos 2019-2020; Treasures of Nature, Silves Castle 2019-2020.
The year gone by
So what did 2020 bring to the Bongards? “Well,” says Tara, “it allowed us to realise our dream of working next to home, and receiving clients in a more personal space. It gave us the ability to offer people a place to wander and see our work, free of the constraints of four walls. And it meant we were able to breathe the wonderful Monchique air. We have achieved much within the peace of the mountain. and the general slowing down of living.
“On a personal level it has been a true challenge to suffer the distance of family and accept that it is important to work together to see these unfortunate times pass. What is important for us, too, is that each of our five children discovers their passion in work and love, as we have.
“I think we have really worked hard. Living from art requires constant thought and re-creation if it is to succeed. We have arrived in our perfect place and look forward to it continuing to develop.
“Previously we have sold our work through up to 50 selected shops and museums across Portugal and abroad but now, with tapering-in during these times, we hope to receive more of people interested in our work in Monchique where they can meet us and recognise what our work means to us.”
Go there, and you certainly will recognise the mix of mystery and magic in the garden and studio. Enjoy the experience.
Words: Susi Rogol-Goodkind