May 14, 2013

The last of the tiny urns

Today I shipped off the very last of the 3" urns from the second trip to China in 09.
"You ren ma?" (Anyone here?) Wu Fei sweetly sang out as we approached the gate of a potter who slip casts small forms. I had not heard that question used. I had not known to call the potter Shifu (master).
He and his taitai are home working. They answer. We enter. Shifu, we want to look at some small covered pots. We carefully pick over the lot, choosing well a dozen of this and a dozen of that. Just what we can carry back to the studio, where I will make terra sigillata--I have to find some soda ash--and I will show Wu Fei how to apply this ancient material. And we will fire to 900C, just enough to keep the shine. I will take them home and ship them home and fire them in saggars on the cape. Many break in transit. oh well. I save the rest by re-bisquing them. We did not get them high enough for this clay which really wants to be fired to a dense 1300C.

January 30, 2011

Nanshan Waterfall at Yaoli

Click on post title or slideshow to the right to see bigger pics.

We paid the entrance fee, which was good for two days and included entrance to various sites in Yaoli as well as to the trail up to the falls. The trail is a one way loop and we are the only ones hiking. As I wrote in my post about Yaoli, this is a place whose tourism is being planned, but has not yet been invaded by crowds. As Dean Huang and I started up to the falls I was reminded of the pine and granite landscapes of New Hampshire and the gorges and waterfalls of my old haunt, Ithaca, N.Y.
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But none of these favorite places features the vast waves of rustling feathery yellow green bamboo that we saw across the way and walked through as we descended. My Chinese friends are surprised when I tell them that we do not have this kind of bamboo forest where I live.

NanShan waterfall, I am told by a friend, but my research does not prove, is partially man made. From the base of this wonderful flow we cannot tell what is above. Is it a dam? No evidence from below. I have also been told that, due to some military secrets, the area has been at times forbidden to outsiders.

Waterfalls are my holy land and this one was a pilgrimage worthy of the hike, perfectly orchestrated for serenity and awe. Power of fast flowing water led us up to the unexpected force and magnitude of the large fall, followed by the peaceful hike down through the forest of bamboo.
We followed the sound of water rushing to find ourselves looking up a powerful wall of water.
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Then we started down through the bamboo.
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The trail brought us down past a small shelter with bamboo roots used to echo the curving roof lines of ancient architecture and tea harvesters finishing their day's work. The young leaves are harvested in the early and late day. When we ask around for a place to stay we find that the farmer's homes are housing the migrant workers now and so not available for us to rent rooms for the night. Across the river, we found a farmers house, shop with 3 rooms. We were offered the special room, with a television and a double bed for 40 yuan. We declined and negotiated the two separate rooms for the same price. We had dinner of fern stems there with the family kids, while the dad roasted tea leaves in a wide pan. My room was white washed, white painted beds, white linen, very soothing...sleep. Next day we hike up behind the village, past the Taoist hermits. I found fiddle head ferns, but we had eaten the stems. They don't eat the heads. And they looked perfect. Then a found a raspberry, one single orange raspberry. Dean had never seen a raspberry, he did not know what it was. He trusted me and ate it. One berry. They must grow somewhere in China.

December 8, 2009

Inspired by China's porcelain...bowl sale saturday

Studio Sale Saturday 12-5
7 Tufts Street Cambridge, MA

I came back from China in October inspired to work with the porcelain I had in the studio. The clay needed to be reconstituted into a workable state. I made 40 bowls: ice cream bowls, cereal bowls, serving bowls, all sizes. I used the cobalt blue that I brought home from Jingdezhen and underglazes to paint and carve them. I am at the kiln in Wellfleet now and will glaze and fire them this week. They will be hot from the kiln when I return for the sale on Saturday. The studio is rich with great flame painted pots as well. So, my friends, I hope to see you then. I will get back to writing about China when the elf season is over. Gus asked me today if I wanted to go to a sale with him. I said, as I rushed around with deliveries, "I can't shop, I'm an elf."

October 31, 2009

Back again from China

I returned last week from my second trip to China this year. I returned to Jingdezhen for the International Ceramics Festival and an Exhibition in which I was showing a piece which is now in the collection of the Jingdezhen Ceramics Museum.

My visit was enriched by my now old friends in Jingdezhen who put me up, provided a studio for me to work in and traveled with me to LuShan, one of the five sacred Taoist mountains. I will continue to write and show pictures as I adjust to the time zones of home and sort through photos. .

The ease with which I can travel in China, with my Chinese improving every day, is stark contrast to the tightly controlled tour I was on in 1975. That year was the last time I was in Shanghai, a city whose changes are vast over these 34 years and changing still as they rapidly build new, exotic structures in advance of the Shanghai Expo in 2010.

More to come. Nice to be home.

September 19, 2009

LaoChang, the Old Factory area

Welcome to LaoChang, the Old Factory area.
It is a lively sunny day. The clay and plaster molds are all out in the sun. The pace of outdoor work is picked up with the sunshine after endless days of drizzle. Such is the universality of clay work. Things will dry quickly and time must not be lost or wasted. I find my way through endless alleys. A small girl finds a place to pee, a small boy discovers me looking at him.

There is nothing in my experience or definition of "factory" that resembles what I find here in this old factory area. In this area there are seemingly independent ceramic enterprises, large and small, every stage of ceramic process and life, interconnected by a main street and narrow winding ways, split by a railroad track. In the flat area below the tracks, there are potters, painters and glazers, throwing, painting and spraying.
Unfired pots are deftly moved through the streets on hand pulled wheeled carts. Beyond the tracks are masters with with rows of plaster molds being poured and released and turned in the sun.




























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August 14, 2009

Keep off a bump on the head

Last week, a friend sent this web link to a site with photos of Chinese signs made funny by the translations into English. While I found the comments about each sign a bit insensitive and lacking understanding of the Chinese, I printed it out and brought it as study material to my Chinese study meetup in Central Square. My intent was not to laugh at the "chinglish", but to understand what the signs say and mean and to decipher what went wrong in the translations. Interestingly, the native Chinese speakers in the group were not always sure of why the English was funny to us, so it was instructive in both directions. Some of what came out sounding ridiculous in English were poetic uses and literary twists of Chinese. We laughed and learned and shared our linguistic experience. We saw many mistranslations in China, took pictures of some which I will share later, and considered fixing translations as a career option.

Keep off a bump on the head

小心碰头

xiao-small

xin-heart

xiaoxin-be careful

peng-bump

tou-head

Here the translation does not suffer from being too literal, but from the confused use of a dictionary. Xiaoxin. The characters mean small and heart individually, but together mean be careful and might well be used to mean keep off instead of be careful to warn danger. The other two characters mean bump and head. Simple. Be careful bump head. A literal translation might come out in English as "Carefully bump head" or "Caution bump head, which is also odd. We would write, "Watch your head" which if reverse translated into Chinese might come out as "Read your head" or "look at your head". So while this sign translates strangely, we are lucky it didn't say "Small heart, bump head." Sort of Zen koan there.

This sign was at the beginning of the trail up to the Nanshan Waterfall at a place where low hanging pine branches crossed the high trail. I am working on the pictures of the hike and waterfall for the next post.

August 4, 2009

Yaoli potters ran out of clay

A visit to Yaoli


Yaoli (translated as Inside the Ceramic Kiln) is a small village approximately 60 km outside of Jingdezhen and a short distance away from Mt. Kaolin (GaolingShan), the source of petuntze, the white feldspar that makes porcelain what it is. It is a walk back in time to what it might have been like during Ming and Qing Dynasties in a porcelain production town in the Jiangxi countryside, but no one is working in clay there anymore. Apparently the local clay ran out long ago. The well-preserved ancient ancestral halls of the Cheng family showing feudal life, classical courtyard buildings, and intriguing winding alleys tell of a different time. The village of Yaoli is set in a beautiful landscape of old-growth forests, hills and the Yaohe river valley. It is also famous for its green tea.

Yaoli is also the historic meeting place for the mobilization of the resistance war against Japan and rear office of the New Fourth Army and former residence of General Chenyi. Signs of the building of a tourist attraction for ceramics and tea consist of a few hotels, even a resort and new construction. Unlike the rebuilt tourist site towns I visited with Richard in Yunnan--LiJiang and Dali- ancient walled cities that have been turned into bustling vacation destinations for mostly Chinese tourists, busy like a theme park, it is not yet heavily promoted as a destination. A bigger road is being built from Jingdezhen, a process we watched for an hour or so while our bus waited for the gravel to be laid out over a 20 meter stretch while we watched the building of a wall at the side of the road. This was frustrating to the others on the bus, but I love to watch work.
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We arrived in Yaoli by lunchtime. The vegetable available at lunch and dinner in Yaoli includes the green stems of local ferns that we will find in the woods the next morning. They don't seem to use the fiddleheads we stalk wild here in spring. In the restaurant and the home in which we spent the night, pictures of Mao, still, dominate dining room walls. Another topic, another time.

The ceramic tile roof lines of old Yaoli town layer over brick houses, courtyard and alleys.A clean fast moving river runs through the town separates the ancient town from the newer area. Bridges connect at regular intervals. Small dams break the flow.

The villagers use the river in a controlled sequence for washing vegetables, washing clothes, and sewage so as not to affect those immediately downstream. What about furthur downstream and into the future, I wonder? After lunch and an exploratory walk around the town, we started up a dusty road toward the site of the ancient pottery, as yet unconvinced of the value of the tickets sold in town to visit the kiln and pottery sites, a feudal house, a museum and the hiking trails up through virgin pine to the spectacular Nanshan Waterfall and down through bamboo forests and tea plantations. We would find these tickets, while costly, well worth the price for our two days in Yaoli and environs.
















On to the Excavation Site of the Ancient Kilns at Raozhou

There is evidence of porcelain production here from the Song (ca. 960) to the Ming Dynasty (ca 1600). I found on line a carved celadon vase from the Raozhou kilns. Shards at the site indicate that blue and white porcelains were produced here as well.The excavated foundation of these two long dragon kilns climb up a hill creating an internal draft.













The excavated remains of clay preparation pits in the ground around which the river bends are marked with explanatory signs in Chinese and English.
















Reconstructions of the pottery plant here include a potter's wheel:
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An example of how wood was stacked like a roof to keep the wood dry:














A water powered hammer mill and a horizontal wheel for grinding raw material:














We can only imagine what function this piece of equipment has...
















Not everyone shares this potter's interest in kilns and clay. Dean Huang, Huang Jinlei 黄金雷, my travel buddy, is an English teacher at the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute. He, as a non ceramist, knows little about things clay, but is thankfully, one who has a wide-eyed interest in all things and a particular delight in refreshing mountain air hike, intrepid wanderings and cheap local travels.
Here is Dean enjoying the roar along the hike to the waterfall I will begin to write about tomorrow.
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July 27, 2009

Foreigner 外国人 Waiguoren

In smaller, less touristic Chinese towns and cities, a western face stands out in the crowd. People notice, they stare, they comment. They say "waiguoren", point, encourage their children to look. They say "hello", if they are bold. Waiguoren means outside country person. A regular contact will come to call me "Lao Wai", old foreigner. As a middle aged woman, here in the U.S. no one notices me, I am invisible. I like that. So being so conspicuous is hard for me. An American studio mate in Jingdezhen said he thought it was like being a movie star, likening his look to Jack Nickolson. I never liked it, or fancied myself a double for Demi Moore (with Patrick Swayze making throwing look oh so sexy). I tired of the feeling that I represented nothing more than money, dollar sign on the forehead. I sometimes hid my face under my umbrella. But I learned to smile (oh common ground) and say "Ni hao" or answer the hello with "Do you speak English?" in Mandarin. My speaking in Chinese is a conversation starter.
  • On the small street behind the campus a kid on his bike nearly fell off with his jaw agape when he saw me on my bike. I wished I had a picture of his face.
  • I heard a shopkeeper tell his wife to raise the prices...it's a foreigner.
  • A taxi driver insisted that my eyes were not blue enough.
  • On my last day young girls I passed said "waiguoren" to each other and I countered with "我不是外国人,我是美国人:I am not a foreigner, I am an American." They were stunned and giggling.
The advantage of staying an extended time in one place, going to the same fruit seller or art supply store every day is that you become a person, not just a curiosity, after a while. A greying American woman, traveling alone, riding a bike with clay on her jeans is an oddity. After a couple of weeks of buying my pineapple quarter on a stick and oranges from the same woman, she finally asked me how old I was and we had a halting conversation despite her local accent.

And there are friends. When curiosity about a foreigner on campus and in town gives way to new found friendship forged in two languages and common interests. This is a hurdle worthy of the effort. More on friends later.

July 22, 2009

Kiln Guys

Today I am loading the smaller of my two outermost Cape Cod gas kilns and find myself writing about kilns in Jingdezhen. Kilns there used to be wood or coal fired, but that has changed. The town used to have hundreds of stacks putting out smoky effluent of the dirty fuels. Sickly air quality has improved since they were closed in favor of gas kilns over the past 20 years. Like every other part of the ceramic process there, the firing of kilns is the province of the master. I used two of these in my stay there. This one is close to the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute, so it is the one most used by the students there.

The kiln is unloaded at eight a.m. Between 8 and 10 the makers arrive to collect their finished work. Once collected, we show the work to the owner, who, with a glance calculates the fees, paid in cash, change made from a fat wad from the pocket. video
New works arrive, students fuss with beads on supports of high temperature Kanthal wire and clay. I failed miserably at this, asking the wire to do more that the weight of the stones I made would allow. To me, everything was an experiment worth stretching the limits, losses are lessons. By 10 a.m. the loaded cart is pushed on its rails into a steel and fiber car kiln.

Another day, another firing to 1300C. There is no room for the kind of experimentation with fire that is such an integral part of my clay life. The loading of this kiln is exactly as I learned for porcelain firing, so familiar and known. The kiln guys at this kiln don't smile. I like the guy at the other kiln. This second kiln, in the Old Sculpture Factory area is fired on an afternoon schedule. In by 3 p.m., out by 1. I made the mistake of bringing work there on the day off and by bike--oops. Generally, pots are hand carried. With enough pots to carry, a guy with a hand cart or one with two hanging racks on a shoulder pole can be hired to walk from the studio to the kiln.

July 8, 2009

Themes in no particular order

  • bamboo scaffolds
  • Fired hard or soft
  • the power of smile
  • on bicycling and traffic
  • 慢走man zou Slow go.
  • chinglish and meizhonghua
  • better a smoke after dinner than 99 years
  • 100 steps
  • Division of labor
  • Bobo and the girls
  • Passover
  • Full moon
  • Waltzing with Matilde
  • Argentine International Tile Project
  • James and the Gettysburg Address
  • Painting Wu Fei
  • Theme parks of Ancient Villages
  • Yaoli and Nanshan Waterfall
  • Hanging coffins LongHuShan
  • Clay and Place
  • Meeting of interests--Chinese culture and clay
  • Sanctuary in a dorm
  • Shifu, masters
  • Visual depictions of Ceramic Processes
  • Hutiaoxia sculpture
  • Traffic
  • Ming Qing Jie, Tombsweeping, shrines and incense
  • Yoga
  • Fear of nothing
  • A foreigner speaking Chinese
  • English Corner
  • Food alley
  • Music in the Studio
  • Take the long way
  • Kiln guys
  • Laochang, the old factory

May 26, 2009

Flow of Wisdom












The porcelain of Jingdezhen goes back long and deeply into Chinese history. Jingdezhen porcelain, developed in the Song and Tang, was a treasure of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The processes that make this clay workable are codified from the days of the Imperial kilns. In my first days of working in the studio at Jingdezhen, it was this fine white clay itself that invited me. I began exploring the clay in my hands, making, as I often do to start, stones and bones. The clay was soft. The weather was rainy. The clay, as it slowly dried, became chalky and fragile. This clay, made mostly of feldspar, is difficult to work. The stones and bones gathered to dry. Students gathered to wonder why I was making these stones, sticks, spirals, bones. 我还不知道。I don't know yet, I answered.




When I arrived here I thought I would do some work with bamboo, inspired by the lashed bamboo scaffolding seen in construction sites all over Asia and intriguing to me since my 1975 visit to China. Bamboo is an amazing plant, a grass really, that spreads its shoots shallow and far.
The bundle of bamboo trimmings I got from a gardener on campus the first day was of little use but to attract attention from students curious about the foreigner as I worked outside the studio sorting and trimming. Again, the answer to the question of what I was doing was "我还不知道? I still don't know". This not knowing was alien to the way of thinking here.


This batch of bamboo never found its way into the work. At some point I would know, or I would not. Some pieces come together after much consideration and planning; others find their way to being through the working. This was the kind of work that was to develop through the work, without clear ends.

Still unsure as to how to proceed, I, at last, appropriated a 3 meter split bamboo with a soft arching curve, with its strengthening divisions exposed and began to consider an installation using these made and found materials. I washed the bamboo and considered how to use it.

The stones and bones were finished to the "ring like a bell" density of the 1300C fire as my time in Jingdezhen was ending. And gently ring they did. I lashed the the ends, hung the bamboo from a tree branch outside the studio with help from James Gao and WuFei. I printed inspirational quotes in English on slips of paper that were tied to the lashing. These were copies of the ones I gave to students after an English Walk and Talk earlier in the week. Rich in cultural reference, I had explained the meanings to them. Quotations from Picasso, Martin Luther King and other Westerners were added to Chinese voices, from Buddha, Lao tze, Confucius, Dalai Lama, and Mao.

I sorted the stones were sorted by color of clay, from Tianbao clay browns to porcelain whites with painted cobalt blues and stripes of white clay through cobalt base between. I lashed each unglazed stick with ends glazed as jewels and hung it from the end of the bamboo. Together they rang lightly in the wind. A horseshoe shaped porcelain stirrup supported the other end. Stones flow like geologically from dark to light. A listening head looks up for more, absorbing knowledge dripping from above.

It didn't last long. I heard from friends that children pocketed the stones and by the end of May Day Festival it was gone. So it goes. Friends enjoyed the language of my art and process and will remember, as I remember the making.











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