The biggest surprise of my Yixing trip was viewing their big pot tradition for the first time. I have been using Yixing big pot clay for my own work for the past 18 months but I had yet to see one of the pots in person. They knocked my socks off to say the least.
The tradition ranges from closed jars to "planter" shapes. Originally used for pickling and food storage these are now mostly decorative. The building technique is a variation of coiling and paddling that is similar to the Korean Onggi style of big pot making (Click here to see a video). The jars are paddled from the outside while the potter holds a textured wooden support on the inside. The inside support leaves a texture made of many small circles. This row of fine polka dots is highlighted by the rich amber glaze.
The decoration is applied by smearing on white clay. I'm impressed with the gestural quality and range of mark making that are possible with this smear technique. After the white clay is applied they scratch in details that make the images pop from the background. (Look at the line work in the bird feathers below.) Getting the white clay on thick enough to catch the glaze but thin enough not to crack must have been a challenge. The other technical difficulty is that these were most likely raw glazed. The thought of raw glazing a four foot tall pot seems like a daunting task. It is a fine testament to the problem solving that allowed them to adjust the shrinkage of all the materials to fit on large scale work. (I saw a video at NCECA of people raw glazing large pots. Two glazers rolled each pot in a vat of glaze before it was quickly pulled out. The pots were a few feet tall and they glazed them in about 3 seconds!)
I was struck by the similarity between these pots and some of the 19th Century Alkaline glazed stoneware of the Carolinas. Within the broad spectrum of the earth's ceramic materials potters have come up with similar glaze formulas on opposite sides of the world. This is partly due to the chemical function of the materials. Silica acts like silica no matter where the kiln is fired but it also points to an intuitive human preference for colors, surfaces, and forms. Through its behavior clay seems to tell potters what it should look like.
The pots pictured above are from the late Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties. They are in a privately held collection owned by one of the modern masters of the teapot tradition. We visited his compound which housed a small museum and a kiln. The picture below shows me standing near the fire box of their Anagama. The front chamber was functional while the back chamber was used for demonstration purposes. For non-potters walking inside a kiln is a great chance to understand the process.
In the picture below you can see the saggars stacked inside the chamber. They would have been used to fire the teapots. Saggar firing was the norm for most ceramic traditions that used wood for fuel. They keep the wood ash from touching the pots and create unique reduction atmospheres. The high iron nature of Yixing clay dictates that it should be fired in oxidation. Heavy reduction creates bloating in the body and causes the red iron oxide to turn to black iron killing the unique red brown quality of the fired clay.
My last post about Yixing will be about the clay itself. Both the big pot and teapot traditions would not be possible without the unique quality of the clay. Check back later in the week for the next post.
This post is the third in a series about Yixing teapots. They are produced in the town of Dingshan, which borders the city of Yixing in Jiangsu Province.