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The unifying language of clay in a complicated world.

'Artist' is a tricky word anywhere these days, but in my experience this is particularly true in Jingdezhen, China. While working as an artist-in-residence at Zhenrutang in Jingdezhen, I met some of the most skilled artisans I've ever encountered, but not many artists in the sense that the word is bandied about in America. As a Westerner, the mentality of art making in Jingdezhen was as foreign to me as the cuisine, well-known components treated in a different way but then labeled with the same words. I am familiar with many of the components of Chinese dishes just as I am with many of the words used relating to object making. However, the manner in which both are constructed, as well as the final result, was somewhat alien to me.

In Jingdezhen, there exists an odd separateness of process that seems strange to anyone who has trained in the Western style of artist self-sufficiency. One person may trim pots for decades and never touch wet clay; some may work only a ram press, while others only ever know the skill of mixing glazes. The levels of which each craftsman understands each process is unrivaled because of the limited focus.

The ceramic district of the city appears to have more in common with the potteries of old, where everyone in the village has a job to do, and they do it well. The idea that one person could throw, trim, glaze, and fire a ware was considerably alien to everyone I ran across. As a visiting artist, there was no time for what the late Michael Cardew affectionately referred to as 'donkey work'. The menial tasks of clay work that can shape a studio practice, for better or worse, are taken care of by others in Jingdezhen. This alteration in studio practice and mentality was not the only head-change that occurred during my stay in China; however, I quickly realized that I was not in Kansas anymore (literally, I live in Kansas.)

When I first arrived in Shanghai on my way to Jingdezhen, there was no mental rest. Every task occupied all mental functions to guess, infer, translate, or mime my intentions in order to get what and where I needed. As I spent more time in China, the language barrier, that at first brought a feeling of isolation and frustration, gradually morphed into a warm blanket of comfort. I was no longer subconsciously obligated to read every sign or digest the surrounding conversations. Amongst the vast population of signage, street vendors, and scooters (on top of scooters, followed by more scooters,) I found a pleasant calm in my ignorance of what was happening around me. In hindsight, it was this effect that had the most important impact on my studio practice while there. It was not the unique clay body that makes the amazing Jingdezhen wares possible, nor was it the countless ceramic workers there to do what you can do, but infinitely better; it was the mental vacuum made possible by the complete foreignness I was put into. And that vacuum was nurtured and cultivated in a positive meditative manner during my stay in Zhenrutang as the artist-in-residence.

The two residencies typically associated with Jingdezhen are the long established Sanbao, located in the idyllic setting of Sanbao valley on the outskirts of the city and The Pottery Workshop located in the bustling heart of the 'sculpture factory'. Both offer experiences unique to their location. Zhenrutang is relatively new, only four years old, and adds its own distinct offerings to the mix.


Zhenrutang physically embodies much of how I, as a first time visitor, came to see China as a whole - a mixture of reverence for the historic, and a thirst for the practicality of the new. The embodiment of the two are quite literally staring each other in the face, with one side of the valley housing a new modern building where all the production of wares, large tiles, and Buddhist sculptures are made. The opposing side consists of a series of structures made out of old block and wooden beams that had been shipped in from buildings of disrepair surrounding Jingdezhen. The visitor quarters, studios, kilns, ceramic museum, teahouse, and a residence kitchen are all located on the historic side.

The specialness of Zhenrutang lies in the juxtaposition of old and new. The institution offers the meditative, serene atmosphere of Sanbao valley coupled with all the help and modern know-how found in the heart of Jingdezhen. Most often I would have molds made in the sculpture factory and brought back to Zhenrutang where I would have access to the factory mold makers if the molds were in need of altering. All my needs were expertly taken care of during my stay, both clay related and not. In the grounds are gardens from which fresh vegetables are harvested every day for the meals offered to the resident artist and visitors. The lodgings are fitted with western style beds and bathrooms, both of which were greatly appreciated after a week of traveling in China. All of these rewarding dualities exist not by happenstance, but through careful and mindful planning by the owners of Zhenrutang.

It is the brainchild of two people, Chen Qian jun and Wu Yi xun. The institution was conceived with both the factory and residency in mind. Wu Yi xun is an avid practitioner of meditation and had a large role in the structural design. There is a purposeful feel to the layout of Zhenrutang that is in line with Smiths goal of 'feeling the effects of art in everyday life'. Chen Qian jun has plans to open a gallery in Shanghai that will show work produced by the residents and hopes to start a research agency for the antique ceramic ware of the Jingdezhen region. Much has been invested in Zhenrutang already and there are more plans for the future.


Clearly much can be said about the facilities. However, ultimately a kiln is a kiln and a wheel is a wheel and they do the same things no matter the time zone--but the clay is a different story. Notoriously troublesome to Westerners because it is so unique, the same properties that allow Chinese artisans to roll massive slabs, throw enormous pots, and to trim the clay when bone dry, also turn experienced Western throwers into helpless novices. While it can be quite humbling in the beginning phase of a residency, the clay ultimately can reveal vast possibilities to the persistent.

The experience of creating in a foreign culture and location is undoubtedly special and the people surrounding you become the membrane that facilitates and filters influences and energies. I met many great people there, but 'Sky' Liu Zongna, the resident coordinator of Zhenrutang, was the most important component in my successful residency. She was indispensable as an organizer, translator, and most importantly, friend during an intense cultural emersion.

Jingdezhen, as most know, has an unparalleled place in the history of ceramics. Going to China is a huge undertaking and while the reasons I traveled to Jingdezhen were ceramic in nature, (the ancient kilns, rich ceramic history, massive pots, and impossibly large, thin porcelain tiles) it will not be the reason I go back. The commonality of clay served as an exchange ticket into a large, complicated, intimidating and ultimately welcoming country where clay served to bridge a gap between two peoples. There is something special in the way that the language of clay can be more important than the language of words.

Written by Richard W. James Photography by Ziyun Deng

About the Author

Richard W. James is a ceramic artist currently living and working in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Title Annotation:TECHNICAL
Author:James, Richard W.
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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