A Canadian Ceramicist in China
In the fall of 2017 I was lucky enough to be accepted to the Jingdezhen study abroad program through West Virginia University. Myself and twelve other students of ceramics from all over the United States would spend the next three and a half months travelling and making ceramic work in the historic porcelain capital of china, Jingdezhen. This ‘small rural city’ of a million people is located in the Jianxi province, approximately five hours by car (or fourteen hours by train) inland from Shanghai. Jingdezhen is the birthplace of porcelain, and high quality porcelain wares have been produced here for over a thousand years. In this blog post I’ll write a bit about my experiences through the WVU program, and why I think that studying (or visiting, or doing an artists’ residency) here would be a great thing for just about any ceramic artist who is looking for adventure, travel, and the opportunity to learn more about the history of our medium. I’ll also talk a little bit about things to be prepared for if you are considering doing a residency, through either Taoxichuan or the Pottery Workshop JDZ.
I first met the folks that I would be spending the next four months with in Shanghai, a futuristic-looking city whose population approaches the entire population of Canada (24 million versus 30 million), a factoid that the American students thought was hilarious. It was a huge change of pace for me, as I had been visiting family back home in British Columbia right before leaving for China. The town I grew up in has a whopping population of 2000 people, so being thrust into the thick of such a densely populated city and country was very challenging.
The human factor, for me, was one of the hardest elements of the entire trip. One’s personal bubble sure gets a lot smaller in China! However, that being said, my experience with Chinese people was that they are some of the most courteous and kind people I’ve ever met. In fact, I’d say that the crowds moved a lot smoother in Shanghai and Jingdezhen than they do in Calgary or Vancouver! Everything, in fact, seemed like it ran smoother than in Western countries. This was something that really amazed me about China, and made me feel somewhat like an ignorant Westerner. Long lines at the grocery store, insane amounts of traffic, the moving and production of nearly unfathomable amounts of goods – I would watch situations unfold that I was sure were going to be disastrous, but somehow everything just WORKED! My frustration at Canada and America’s inefficiencies when I returned was definitely an unexpected culture shock!
(these are stacks of decorated handmade rice bowls, the finished version of the greenware in the previous picture. Incredible!)
As a person used to being able to find – and seek comfort in – solitude, the WVU program was somewhat difficult to navigate. If a student was considering this program and needed time to be by themselves, I would tell them to mentally prepare for the very real possibility that that might not be possible. Another things that I personally had difficulty with was my own feelings of inadequacy – in both the studio and the day to day. On this note I would say if someone is considering either a residency or a study abroad to Jingdezhen, learn some rudimentary mandarin!! I wish that I had. The Pottery Workshop JDZ, one of the main studios that offers both a residency program and space for the WVU crew to work, does have translators whose job it is to help artists who do not speak mandarin. However, there is usually one assigned to a large group of folks, and your time with them is limited. I managed to learn a few words here and there, but I think my experience would have been a lot easier had I spent a couple months studying mandarin at least a little. Should I ever go back, I will definitely try to brush up on my language skills in order to be somewhat more self sufficient. All that being said, though, many of the other students loved the games of charades involved in trying to communicate with people who spoke no English, and most of them had a ton of success. I suppose I just take myself a little too seriously!
In the studio, feelings of inadequacy were a little easier to deal with – I suppose because potters are constantly dealing with inadequacy and failure! Jingdezhen was truly a marvel in terms of the new materials and techniques available to the ceramicist. Not that they were all easy to use, at least at first…
There were many porcelains available in Jingdezhen, but the ‘standard’ porcelain was notorious among residents and students alike as very difficult to use! I found I could throw it well enough, but as soon as it came to getting the clay off the wheel, I had to take a very different approach. The same could be said for decorating and glazing as well; everything in the Sculpture Factory, where both WVU and the Pottery Studio JDZ residency operated, was once fired. Imagine my surprise – for instance, no more wax inlay for me! In addition, no one dipped their pieces in glaze; all glaze was sprayed. I felt like it took me nearly two months just to get used to all the new ways of doing things that I thought I knew well!