Molding relationships

Updated: 2011-10-28 09:26

By Wang Chao (China Daily)

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 Molding relationships

Pauline Wiertz, a ceramist from Delft, the Netherlands, says the Jingdezhen experience gives her inspiration for her artworks. Wang Chao / China Daily

Porcelain helps Jingdezhen foster closer links with Western nations

There is more to this clay than meets the eye as it creates eye-catching products, and builds lasting relationships. Porcelain is the common link in Jingdezhen's close association with Delft, a city in the Netherlands, and also helped foster cross-cultural exchanges between the two cities.

Pauline Wiertz, a 56-year old ceramist from Delft, is one of the early birds to Jingdezhen under the exchange program and says that her experiences have been truly memorable.

"It was a different world to me when I landed at the tiny airport in Jingdezhen. Everything in the city was in porcelain, including the streetlight poles, the chairs and even the trash cans.

"Working here is like making a porcelain pilgrimage, as it was here that the business originated," she says.

Wiertz has been an ardent admirer of Chinese porcelain and says: "I have a whole wall of Chinese plates at home."

But the real reason for her journey is to make bonds, through combinations of clay cast from organic objects. These artworks comprise anything you can imagine - bananas, peaches, chicken feet and even insects. By deliberately assembling these casts together, she makes sets of avant-garde and whimsy clay sculptures.

"I glaze and fire the casts in the kiln to establish a coherent porcelain piece," she says.

Her recent work, Shrimp Cocktail, looks like a typical assortment of marine species at first glance. But on closer inspection, however, it turns out that severed chicken feet were used to cast the coral.

"Anything I encounter may end up in my mold," Wiertz says. "Whenever I see new stuff, I stare at the shape and ponder: Can it be incorporated into my porcelain sculpture?"

Her Jingdezhen experiences have certainly given Wiertz lots of new ideas for ceramic artworks. She shops at the local flea market and comes back with exotic articles - a broken porcelain Buddha, a traditional Chinese silver hairpin, small porcelain animals - all of which she plans to use in future works.

Wiertz also finds herself inspired by the ancient porcelain culture of Jingdezhen. "Many Chinese elements are painted on the porcelain and each of them have symbolic meanings. For example, cranes and pines mean longevity, while flowers mean blessings. I want to add these symbolic meanings into my works as well.

"In this area, I'm really a student who wants to learn from my Chinese counterparts," she says.

Wiertz says she is thinking of making a piece of the "three friends in the winter" - pines, bamboos and plums, a theme commonly seen in traditional Chinese porcelain, yet relatively unknown in Europe.

"By combining my technique and the Chinese theme, my artworks will be the real bridges between Western and Eastern cultures."

Staying at the Sanbao International Ceramic Art Studio outside downtown Jingdezhen, Wiertz also gets a chance to catch up with village life, as well as the old-fashioned ways of making ceramic art in China.

In the backyard, traditional wooden mills powered by a stream of water are pounding kaolin rocks, a raw material of clay, to powder. Wiertz and her Western friends have never seen such practices before.

"In Jingdezhen, I can see how people dig out the rock from the mountains, pound it into powder, and make it into clay materials," she says. "Back in the Netherlands when I needed to use clay, I went to the market to buy two baskets. But here I can make the raw materials by myself - it is like a musician making his own guitar! So exciting!"

As a ceramic artist active in Europe for more than 20 years, Wiertz has an electric kiln at home. But she wants to try the Chinese wood-fired kiln during her five-week stay in Jingdezhen.

"The unexpected patterns created by the flames and wood ash are just amazing," she says.

Although Wiertz finds it fascinating to blend Chinese elements into her works, she is not sure whether the Chinese audiences will accept her style.

"In the West, ceramic art is very individual and contemporary; but here it seems that the public appreciates traditional works more, and people copy the masters' works a lot."

Wiertz says she cannot force people to change, "so I don't expect the Chinese to buy my works".

However, Lei Jie, a ceramic studio owner in Jingdezhen and a graduate from the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, says that modern Western styles are well-received in the city.

"People in other places may find it hard to accept these ceramic sculptures, but in Jingdezhen, it is totally fine because people are open enough to embrace any ceramic artwork. After all, it has been the ceramic capital for more than 1,700 years."

Lei mentions that four years ago when he was still a college student studying ceramics, he had already cast molds from shrimp and fired them into porcelain works.

"One of my classmates even cast a dead dog into a clay mold," he says.

Li Wenying, the administrator of Sanbao International Ceramic Art Studio, says Wiertz and other foreign artists are bringing fresh blood into the old body of this ancient porcelain city.

"Previously, Jingdezhen used to be appreciated for traditional designs and skills, but through exhibitions and exchanges of these modern artists in recent years, people have began to accept alternative porcelain art."

Established in 1998, the Sanbao Ceramic Art Studio is spread over an area of 10,000 square meters. A foreign artist has to pay $200 (144 euros) every week for accommodation and access to the studios.

Coming from the same exchange program between Jingdezhen and Delft, Tineke van Gils says the "clay exchange" not only gives her a chance to learn about Chinese ceramic art, but also binds artists together.

"Wiertz and I used to meet from time to time in the Netherlands, but we never had a chance to work under the same roof. Now we are talking about creating a piece of work together."

As an artist with 30 years' experience of making teapots, van Gils is incorporating Chinese elements into her pots in a more straightforward way.

"When I was walking around the city, I saw all the soft clay molds drying on the streets. Usually people buy them to add paintings on the surface, but I bought it to create hybrid works."

She then puts the molds on the potter's wheels and adds Dutch-style bases and caps on them. "Then I paint tulips, the national flower of Holland, on one side of the pot, and I hire a worker from the local factory to paint traditional Chinese patterns on the other side. This way everybody can tell it is a combination of the Chinese and Dutch styles."

Van Gils agrees with Wiertz that this ancient city has the magic to spark inspiration. "When I was in the Netherlands, I used to stay at home and wonder what to create. But here in Jingdezhen, I threw all my preoccupied ideas away and easily found new ones."