Nepean Potters Society visits China

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Jindezhen Journey - A Journal from Nepean Potters Society trip to China in 2015 by Bronwyn Campbell, a member of Nepean Potters Society.

The tour was organised by Mike and Jeff from Highlands Pottery.

I write this with China’s distinctive tastes and smells still with me - missing the new friends I made and the excitement of a completely different culture, but oh so grateful that Australia is my home.

The Nepean Potters Society with their Chinese welcoming party

Image caption. Back row: two workshop assistants, Sue, Connie, Pie, Le Ming (assistants with wood fire at mini kiln), Kay Front row: Ken (assistant) Geoff, Mike, Bronwyn, Felicity, Christine, Eric, Laura, Kath, Ashley and three lovely ladies that worked in the studio. Sharon, the lady with the pink bag was our interpreter.

Jindezhen is a perplexing contrast of the sublime beauty that is created there and the cramped, often squalid, sometimes shocking living conditions. It is a city of 1,554,000, situated SW of Shanghai in the NE of the Jiangxi province of China. It is known as the “porcelain capital’ having produced pottery for 1,700 yrs.

Chinese tour guides and “Wikapaedia” tell us that Jindezhen gave birth to the English name China. The ancient name of the town was Changnan. Over time the foreign ceramic traders made the name sound like China.

Jindezhen’s unique kaolin has enabled Jindezhen to make high quality porcelain. The word kaolin comes from “Gaoling” or “Kaoling” a village located in the Ehu Town, Fulong County, Jindezhen City. Jindezhen porcelain is internationally known “as thin as paper, as white as jade, as bright as a mirror and as sound as a bell.” A Jindezhen produced jar produced in the Yuan dynasty (1271AD-1368AD) auctioned for RMB 230,000,000 in London in 2005. The highest price ever achieved for a porcelain piece.

It is to this complex and captivating city, where even the telegraph poles and traffic lights are covered with porcelain, that I arrived along with Christine Reynolds, Kay Alliband, Connie Keith, Susan MacFarland, Caroline (Pie) Bolton, James Dickman, Ashleigh Thomas, Nathalie Pastro, Felicity Hall, Mike Moore and Jeff Lees to spend 3 exhausting but exhilarating and rewarding weeks at The Pottery Workshop, Jindezhen in the Sculptural Factory.

In 1956 Jindezhen combined local co-operatives to form the Art and Craft Ceramic Factory, which is now known as the Sculpture Factory. In 2005 The Pottery Workshop opened on the 1st May and established an International Residency Program. We were there to help celebrate the 10th anniversary. To date 1,500 resident artists have made use of the facilities. The Pottery Workshop’s original philosophy to educate, promote and make pottery is followed to this day with the added element of charitable work to enrich the lives of those in the local community. There are also affiliated Pottery Worskhops in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Dali.

The Jindezhen Pottery Workshop, a private, self-funded organization, consists of: a Residency Studio, Mufei Gallery, library, and retail shop, Education Centre, Design Studio and a great Coffee Shop that makes wonderful G&Ts. It holds Friday night lectures as a service to the community, a Saturday Creative Market (participants average over 320,000rmb every month.) and holds an annual Zodiac Exhibition.

The Pottery Workshop is part of a bustling, thriving, happy, friendly community consisting of endless tiny galleries selling their own distinctive pottery, public high fire and low fire kilns, mold makers and slip casters, glazers, jigger jolly plates, clay factory, box makers and street sellers - selling anything from food to books (including wonderfully cheap art and design books).

Eric Kao, born of Chinese parents, originally from California, has been the director of the Pottery Workshop (Since 2010). He has a M.F.A. in Ceramics from the University of Massachusetts and has been active with exhibitions in China, Japan and the United States. He was an invited artist at the Archie Bray Foundation (2011), guest curator for the University of Florida (2013) and guest artist at the Shigarki Ceramic Culture Park (2014). 2015 is a busy year for him as he will be a guest at Tabor Academy, Harvard University, Pratt Institute and has a record number of artists headed to Jindezhen.

Eric, full of humor and empathy, and his wonderful assistant, Chinese born Laura, became our friends and made our stay hugely enjoyable. They couldn’t have been more helpful, more understanding or kind. (Thank you Eric for taking me to Chinese People’s Hospital Number 3 when I struggled with an allergic reaction to the pollution - an horrendous growing problem for all of China’s cities.)

A hand made Yi Xing teapot.

Image caption: A totally hand made Yi Xing teapot. Made by one of the masters from increasingly rare purple clay. It has a lady bird knob.

While at the Centre we did the following workshops:

  • Carving - Teacher Chen Min
  • Blue and white painting – Teacher Yu Xuan
  • Throwing off the hump – Teacher Mr Lu
  • On glaze painting– Teacher Jian A Yi
  • YiXing Tea pots – Teacher Zhu Jia Ning (a 3 day workshop)

For each of these workshops we were provided with three suitable pieces to decorate and the tools and colours and clay (for practicing throwing off the hump and YiXing Teapots) we needed. We selected and bought our own glazes, the pieces were glazed by the glaze man and then the Centre took them away and they were fired for us. If we wished to practice the learned techniques further, we were left to make our own arrangements regarding firing and glazing. We could ask one of the assistants at the Centre to translate for us or wing it, which called for some interesting exchanges with hand gestures and a lot of smiling. After coming back from a self-organized decal firing Eric’s comment was, “That’s what I love about you Australian’s. You just get in there and do it.”

The pottery production processes in Jendezhen are very different to our own. A pot may be thrown by one person, turned by another, decorated by another, glazed by another and fired by another. There is no real “ownership” of a piece by one person as westerners would see it. Also available are endless varieties of shapes and sizes in slip cast green ware or very soft bisque that may be purchased. The Chinese ingenuity at making the most of the very basic tools was amazing. We bought glazes by the 1 litre or 2 litre in recycled plastic drink bottles with a simple piece of raffia tied around the neck for a handle. No fancy spray gun for the glaze man, he used a simple small, handmade tin can with a small funnel, a horizontal tube that went across the top, hooked up to compressed air created a venturi effect – the perfect spray gun. He/she sprayed cleaned up your pot, done ready to fire. The carving master used tools made from bicycle spokes that she had made herself. She found them much more flexible and suitable for what her art needed.

A number of those in the group also took the opportunity to make use of the mold making opportunities. I designed a trinket box, took the drawing to the modeler who modelled it, then the mould maker made a mould and slip cast four copies for me. Out of the four I ended up with two –sadly broke one after having laboriously carved 3/4 of it and lost 2 due to cracking in the firing.

Interspersed with our workshop days were organised trips into the city to visit tool, brush and glaze shops, decal and tissue transfer shops, green ware factories, slip cast factories, Ceramic Factories, The Big Tile Factory, The Big Pot Factory - a potter’s paradise! Once familiar with these we could go back in our own time if we wished. We also were taken to the Fake Antique Alley (a maze of alleyways with hundreds of shops to choose from) and The Shard Market (mind blowing huge where you “might” find a genuine piece of a true antique) – a shopper’s Mecca, if you had enough room in your luggage.

We had a fascinating day trip to the Ancient Kiln Museum. Surrounded by beautiful garden and grounds, we saw ancient kilns, retired potters demonstrating old techniques, beautiful modern replicas of pots that would have been owned by the emperors and of course the inevitable souvenir shop.

Voted as our favorite day out was a day trip to Yaoli (Yaoli means scenery of this place matches fairyland.) a couple of hours drive into the country from Jindezhen, this area began to produce ceramics in large quantities during the middle of the Tang Dynasty (618AD- 907AD). Overall this area covers 197sq km. It consists of mining areas, Yaoli ancient town, theme Park and a beautiful natural forest area. We took a long walk through the spectacular mountainous landscape following the rapidly flowing river up to a glorious waterfall (Previous days had seen a lot of rain so it was at its roaring best).

This was followed by lunch and then a visit to the ancient, picturesque town of Yaoli (Ming Dynasty/Qing Dynasty era 1368Ad-1644AD – 1636AD -1911AD). Romantic and beautiful to walk through, but passing the latrines any tiny dark rooms brought reality home to roost. Life for the inhabitants would be very hard.

At the Big Pot Factory we saw this lovely example of blue and white painting .

Image caption: At the Big Pot Factory we saw this lovely example of blue and white painting . The design is drawn in red vegetable dye first.

At the Big Pot Factory we saw this lovely example of blue and white painting. The design is drawn in red vegetable dye first. On the way home we were shown the 66m dragon kiln owned and operated by Mr Jin. It takes 1,000 pots to fill, 3 days to pack, 1 week to fire. These days he only fires 2 or 3 times a year. At 66, he says his eyesight is failing and only works for a few hours in the morning, but kindly demonstrated how he makes his massive coiled pots that would have been used as storage jars for water and grain in the past. Watching him flap the massive coils over his shoulder and walk around the piece and work the coils together to produce the most symmetrical pot was most impressive - each coil finishing exactly at the beginning of the previous piece.

During our time in Jendezhen we were excited to meet Janet Deboos and shared a meal with Leonard Smith and Stephen Harrison (look out for his exhibition next year “Three Clays”- made from chemically similar porcelains he has found in Aus- tralia, Jindezhen and Korea). Also, the others visited the studio of Takeshi Yasuda (while I was visiting the hospital – that’s an experience to retell another time.)

Thus, it was time to pack up and say goodbye. In Jindezhen births, deaths, marriages and celebrations are accompanied by letting off the loudest fireworks that can be found. So with the sound of Eric’s two boxes of splendorous fireworks set off in the middle of the highway (the sidewalk was full of parked cars and motorbikes – you have to park as close to the restaurant steps as possible don’t you know.)  in our ears we made our sad farewells.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Pottery Workshop or wish to apply for a residency, Eric tells me you can simply apply on line.

I cannot recommend it more highly!

The Pottery Workshop
139 Xinchang Dong Lu 3330001
Jindezhen Jiangxi China
(0798) 844 0582

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