Zhou Dinfang in her studio with Christine-Ann Richards (ancient and modern pots side by side)
A Celebratory Trip to China
I grew up by my mother’s stool in the workshop:
Playing with the clay; hide-and-seek among the jars, vats, pots and jugs:
Picking pine twigs near the old and burning dragon kilns,
imitating rowing a boat with large jars on the river.
I remember the day that I had my feet squashed by the piled jars and pots as fences fell
When I went to the hillside to catch cicadas and other insects.
I also remember the aged cottages with jars as walls where sparrows had their nest in.
The life in my childhood was full of jars and pots.
Pottery was everywhere within my sight.
Therefore it is natural that my life has been integrated with the clay of this land
Because clay was one part of my life in my childhood.
The words (above) of Zhou Dingfang,
who demonstrated the art of making Yixing teapots at the International
Ceramics Fair at Aberystwyth Art Centre in 1995 and whose house our
small group of potters visited last October, on the 25th anniversary of
the Craftsmen Potters Association’s first visit to China. In fact her
words capture the essence of China and, over two thousand years, the
place of the potter within society.
The 2003 trip to China was unique in that is was organised by Li Jiansheng, or Jackson Li as he is known in the West, a ceramicist and founder of the Jingdezhen Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute, and where we were to pause for a week on our journey.
Our visit had been postponed for four months with fears over the SARS outbreak but our intrepid travellers were determined, if at all possible, to continue with our visit, which eventually took place in October. We flew to Shanghai and were met by Jackson’s sister, Wendy, who is in charge of the day to day running of Sanbao, a wonderful fellow traveller on our journey and friend of Dingfang. Jackson met us in Yixing and so began our encounter with fellow potters.
During the last decade, the access to small gas kilns has completely revolutionised the lives of contemporary potters, enabling them to set up individual and small family run workshops, no longer bound by the factory system where many of them worked in earlier years.
When I first visited China in 1978, and even within this past decade very little innovative ceramics were to be found in the ‘market place’. Although I had already come across copies, and bought early Dingfang’s while she was still factory bound. In the colleges and schools experimentation was taking place, but there was little opportunity to pursue an ‘individual’ career on graduation.
Things are very different today. Artists in general have greater freedom to experiment, set up their own studios and to travel abroad and take up residencies in other countries. A recent exhibition at the Ariana Museum in Geneva showed a broad spectrum of work from contemporary Chinese ceramicists.
Although Dingfang was out of town during our time in Yixing she returned just before we moved south. It was good to be able to visit her home and studio and see her more recent work. Gu Mei Qun a mutual friend of both Dingfang and Wendy not only took us to visit fellow potters but also brought us to her own home and studio and took time to show us how she made her own teapots and a shared family meal on our last evening, among fellow potters, brought to a close our visit to Yixing.
Gu Mei Qun; Tea Pots by He Jian and an example of the Larger Tea Pots which are made for exhibition and display in hotel foyers
Yixing is known for its teapots, the abundance of different kinds of
clays allow for a broad range of wares to be produced.
We visited a factory and the studio of Li Shou Cai who works alongside his students producing a range of large pots including garden wares using coloured clays as an applied decoration to already formed pots which are then covered with a transparent glaze.
Li Shou Cai and his pots.
Out in the
villages large storage pots are still made in individual family
workshops, but the market is fading as plastic continues to grow in
The kiln used to fire the large jars, by the potters that we visited, was first constructed in the 13th century and has continued in use on the same site, with obvious renovations, until the present day.
Earlier and recently fired works do not have a market and even the pots being made today may never be finished as the continued cost of firing the dragon kiln may finally have proved uneconomical.
And so began our journey to Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of China,
and our sojourn at Sanbao where we were not only able to share and
discuss our experiences among ourselves, our group came from Norway,
US, Italy and the UK, but also with the Canadian and American potters
who were on residencies there. A memorable experience perhaps to be
shared at a later date …..
If anyone would be interested in making the same journey in the future, please let me know and I can set the wheels in motion. Workshops and visits to China have been organised over the last couple of years for school children and students from the USA. There are also strong links with Australian and Canadian colleges as well – but nothing further west!
A small group will be journeying to Yunnan Province in SW China in March 2005 following the ‘Mingei’ tradition: pots, jewellery and textiles. CLICK HERE FOR FULL DETAILS
For more information about future trips, lectures on her visits to China etc. email Christine-Ann Richards at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
or visit her website by using the link below: http://www.christineannrichards.co.uk
Nr. Shepton Mallet,
Somerset BA4 4TE, UK
Article & Images ©2004 Christine-Ann Richards. Not to be reproduced without explicit permission of the Author.