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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!

However, for all of those difficulties, Jingdezhen opened up worlds of decorating that I hadn’t even known existed. The Pottery Workshop JDZ arranges for local craftspeople to come in and teach westerners classic Chinese techniques – blue and white cobalt painting, underglaze decals, dry carving, overglaze enamels, and more. I fell in love with both carving and underglaze decals. I even went so far as to send my designs to the factory and have several hundred sheets of underglaze transfers made up of my patterns. For a decorator, Jingdezhen was heaven. I found out through Rain Harris, one of the guest artists on our trip, that many international artists will return to Jingdezhen for short residencies just to have access to the amazing technology and factories that exist for creating both underglaze and overglaze decals. I could see myself potentially doing this in the future, for sure.

(some of Carola’s slipcast work manufactured in Jingdezhen)

Speaking of international artists, we were also welcomed into the design and manufacture studios of many artists from all over the world outside of the Pottery Studio as well. Designers like Carola Zee from the Netherlands travel back and forth to Jingdezhen to design and make their work, then ship the pieces back to their home countries to wholesale. It was a making world previously unknown to me, and I really admired these makers for their business savvy and management skills to be able to make such a complex operation work for them.

We were also lucky enough to visit the studio of Takeshi Yasuda – an artist I had had a huge pottery crush on since I was sixteen! Takeshi’s studio is located in the ceramic grounds called Taoxichuan, a sprawling, squeaky clean compound dedicated to contemporary ceramic practices in Jingdezhen. There is another international residency located here, too - very modern and well equipped (and, we enviously noticed, air conditioned). Taoxichuan would be another great option for an artist looking to do a residency in Jingdezhen. The only downside I could see to Taoxichuan would be the long distance to the Sculpture Factory where the public kilns and local artisans worked. At the pottery workshop, we would walk our work down to the kilns where everything from slipcast animal decorations to lotus-shaped incence burners to artisanal teapots were fired. At Taoxichuan, I believe they have their own kilns on site. One’s intereaction with the local ceramic community seemed to me like it would be a lot less natural there.

In addition to time spent learning about Chinese ceramic material and history in the studio, West Virginia University’s program has a huge added perk – a full two weeks of travel at the end of the program, including visits to many museums and sites in the cities of Xi’an and Beijing. I would have felt way too intimidated to manage this alone before visiting China with the WVU group. I would actually say this was one of the best parts about program. The scary parts about travelling in an unknown country were well managed, but we were encouraged to learn enough to travel solo should we choose to. I actually ended up staying afterwards for an additional two weeks with my partner, and we flew back to Xi’an, travelled by bus around the countryside there, then back to Beijing where (thanks to the WVU program) I was able to easily navigate the city by public transit and take in some of the many amazing museums and artwork there.

Terra cotta warriors near Xi’an

Beautiful pots (both porcelain and metal) in the national museum in Beijing.

All in all, in spite of the difficulties I really enjoyed and was heavily influenced by my time in China. The work I am making right now stems directly from some of the experiences I had through the pottery workshop, and being surrounded by beautiful minimalist song dynasty inspired wares. If you have wanted to go overseas to have a ceramic experience, Jingdezhen could be a really great place for you! In addition to The Pottery Workshop and Taoxichuan, there is another residency at Sanbao (which I don’t know much about, hence I have not written about it; we visited very briefly and it is beautiful but far away from the city center and much more remote). I will say: in summer, be ready for extreme heat and humidity. In winter, be ready for houses and studios to not be heated! The weather when we left was chilly and damp, and things took forever to dry out in the studio. However, spring sounds like it’s a monsoon and flood season which might be worse…overall it seemed like fall (october, november) would be the most amenable time for someone who can’t handle heat and humidity (oh my western canadian roots!).

I will also say, be ready to eat so much food! At least, if you don’t mind spicy and greasy. Because of the history of Jingdezhen as a place where people travelled far (to bring pots out to the rest of china!), food has traditionally been heavily spiced and fried to preserve it for longer. Food in Jingdezhen today still holds onto these traditions. I loved the food, but many people could not handle the spice levels and also the oiliness. Western food is getting easier to come by these days, but one still had to seek it out if one wanted comfort food from home (mostly this took the form of Kentucky Fried Chicken).

Finally, coffee! Bring your own, and a pourover! Coffee is extremely expensive. If you need it…bring it! I brought two pounds with me for four months and wished I had brought more. It was a nice little ritual and a taste of home when I was feeling homesick. Thanks for reading! And if you have more questions please don’t hesitate to reach out –

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