Noe Valley Voice February 2006

Pieces of China

By Liz Worthy

Since moving to San Francisco six years ago, I have been a member of Ruby's Clay Studio, a ceramics workshop tucked into the side of the Noe Street hill. Ruby's is like a second home, full of many good friends as well as a host of familiar clays and glazes. This August, I temporarily left the comforts of Ruby's and of San Francisco, and traveled across the globe to another ceramics studio, Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute in China. The Jingdezhen area of China, where this studio is located, is considered the birthplace of porcelain. In 2004, the region celebrated its millennial birthday, and stories from ceramicists who attended the festivities trickled back and whet my appetite for a similar adventure. So when I saw a China residency program listed in a Ceramics Monthly magazine, I took interest. The price--$800 for the month--and the promise of hot summer weather were the final decision makers.

The Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute is about 20 minutes from Jingdezhen, and soon I had no doubts that, indeed, this was the porcelain capital of the world. Jingdezhen's lampposts are made from large ceramic columns decorated with a variety of designs, from blue-and-white dragons and rosy peaches to misty mountain scenes. Whole streets are lined with glaze stores, and the supermarket sells ceramics tools. Trucks and bicycles with carts roll by loaded with anything from bags of clay to six-foot-tall porcelain vases. Even the garbage is interesting. On close inspection, a pile of rubble on the street turns out to be a mass of discarded plaster casts--reliefs of eagles and the feet of Buddhas. I later learn that 60 percent of Jingdezhen's roughly one million residents work in the ceramics industry.

The Sanbao Institute is its own little ceramics oasis, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. The locals come up to the studio, to eat at the restaurant, practice their English with the international residents, and enjoy the slightly cooler weather. The weather, as promised, was hot: in the 90s with high humidity. The grounds are decorated with mosaics made of broken ceramics shards, and clay sculptures poke out of recesses in the walls. A stream winds through it all and is the home of ceramic water serpents.

Both the studio and living area are broken up into a number of wooden buildings, connected with brick paths and wooden bridges. And the local craftsmen are continually adding on to the buildings. During the short month I was there, I saw them add a balcony, dig an additional fishpond, and work on a number of smaller projects like bamboo chairs and cups. Great care has been taken to keep a traditional aesthetic, so much so that even a stack of red plastic buckets, purchased to help with studio cleanup, had to be snuck in while the director was away on a trip.

I worked alongside a handful of other residents--from places like Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands--in an open, airy studio. My workspace had a potter's wheel, two five-foot-long tables, a set of shelves, and a large window. Out my window was a view of birds and butterflies flitting over a rice paddy, and beyond that was the road where cars and scooters zoomed and others lazily biked by, sometimes three to a bicycle and often holding umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun.

I had more studio space than I had ever had, and I planned to utilize all of it. I also had access to a huge pile of porcelain, which I imagined would be replenished as soon as I reached the bottom--in about a week. I would make larger-than-life ceramic chairs, huge dragon sculptures, and many other creatures. I would make sets of cups and plates, and after a little practice, some large vases. The only challenge I foresaw was getting it all back to San Francisco.

A week later, my concerns had shifted. My wares consisted of a row of squat, lopsided thick pots and a pile of broken, hand-built objects. When the master potters came to visit, they'd examine what I'd made with great interest and amusement. "Hmmm," they'd say, and it didn't take any knowledge of Mandarin to know what they were thinking. The porcelain clay was giving me problems. It has a different set of properties than the grittier clay I'm accustomed to in the U.S.

I began taking to heart the advice of the other residents who had been there longer than I had. I also visited the neighboring studio where the master potters worked (which I suppose was the reason I was in China in the first place). One master potter was throwing large vases the traditional way, on a kick wheel, while another had a modern electric wheel and was making mugs and teapots for a production line. I couldn't believe we were working from the same pile of clay. We had no common language, so I just watched them closely and tried to pick up helpful things. For instance, I saw that they were holding thin pieces of cotton in their hands that helped their fingers glide upon their pots. They also turned the wheel much slower than I did, and they threw the clay on plaster bats rather than directly on the wheel head. The bat was then removed with the pot so that the pot was less likely to collapse when moved from wheel to shelf. I concentrated on applying their techniques and did improve some, but to be fair, they'd been doing this most of their lives, and even back home the wheel had never been my forte.

Fed up one afternoon, I wiped my hands on my apron and went outside. Soon, I found myself hunched over the fishpond, pondering which fish in the submerged basket might make their way to the dinner table that evening. I realized that the fish, low-lying and somewhat squat, like most of my current work, were perhaps the perfect object for my ceramic inspiration.

I returned to the studio and molded slabs of clay over rolls of newspaper. This worked, but the fish lacked definition. On another trip to the fishpond, I became interested in their scales. When I returned to the studio I began fooling around with how to make this texture. I arrived at a system of making my fish scale by scale. The process was slow but worthwhile; I was more in control of the form. I would throw the fish head on the wheel, then attach a few rows of scales as I held it in my hand. Then I would place the head looking down into a teapot and turn the teapot round and round as I built up row upon row of scales. As I worked, I realized that I'd stumbled upon a way to make tall pieces. I did wind up making a couple of tall vases using this technique, but for the most part I stuck with fish.

After this breakthrough, when the master throwers stopped by to see how my work was progressing, they didn't have to search so much for the proper response. They pointed and smiled and said . meant fish, I learned. I'd try to repeat it, and I'd get it wrong every time, even after much coaching. Could this word really be so difficult? Could the clay really be so hard to get accustomed to? I'd figured out how to make fish, and at the moment that was all that mattered.

Liz Worthy will display her and other ceramic works at a solo show Feb. 3­20 at Ruby's Clay Studio & Gallery, 552A Noe Street, between 18th and 19th streets. The show opens with a reception on Friday, Feb. 3, from 6 to 9 p.m.

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