Chandra Debuse's Playscapes

" These objects become playscapes for pattern and character to frolic, inviting human fingers to also roam the topography, seeking out their own morsels of delight. "

Chandra Debuse's latest show Playscapes is a visual treat. The show features functional pots covered with drawings of animals dancing, skating, and stretching. She uses these postures to create imaginative scenarios full of play, desire, and attitude.

I am a big fan of Chandra's negotiation of two and three dimensional space. She deftly switches between the volumetric curves of her thrown, or slab built forms, to the bouncing drawn lines of her images. I also appreciate her technical approach to image making. Her tool box is wide open as she employs mishima, underglaze painting, glaze inlay and sgraffito. The variation in line quality between these techniques keeps my eyes moving around the pots.

My favorite pot in this show is the Reach Teapot pictured above. One side of the teapot features the squirrel stretching towards the spout. The other side reveals the nut that could be the reward of his hard work. This overextended reach is a metaphor for the desire to meet our self imposed goals. Such a simple image explains so much about human nature.

To see the whole Playscape show online at the Charlie Cummings Gallery click here. The show opened October 17th and runs through November 17th. Here is Chandra's full statement about this body of work.

"As a maker of functional pottery, I use narrative imagery, pattern and form to encourage a playful sense of discovery. The intimacy of using a handmade object infused with bouncing lines, candy-colors, low-relief and hand-drawn elements beckons users to ponder the playful message on each item.
Recently I moved from south Florida to the mountains of eastern Tennessee. Although Gatlinburg and West Palm Beach are 800 miles apart and are situated in different climates, the similarities between the two places are remarkable. Both areas contain natural landscapes of astounding beauty, but many visitors forego trips to the ocean or the mountains for a more contrived setting, such as a world-class golf resort, theme park, or outlet mall. Through observing landscapes of leisure in these two regions: (parks, golf courses, beaches, swimming pools), I am inspired to create voluminous three-dimensional forms with manicured, controlled surfaces and divided spaces. I create salt and pepper landscapes, multi-level treat servers, and jars, plates, cups, or bowls with hand-drawn characters engaging in various playful activities. Because I consider all surfaces of my objects as canvas, imagery often wraps around a piece. These objects become playscapes for pattern and character to frolic, inviting human fingers to also roam the topography, seeking out their own morsels of delight. Often it is only through experiencing the piece: physically holding it, exploring it, and hopefully using it, can the whole image be seen. It is my hope that through this interaction between user and object, a playful attitude is sparked."


Yixing: BIG pots pt. 3

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. 


Kids, coffee, and crates

A quick photo essay from a full day at the Pottery Workshop. 

It started with a painting class from the Shanghai Center Preschool. Move over Franz Kline these kids put abstract expressionism in perspective today. They painted with a wreckless abandon that only a 3 year-old waiting for snack time can possess. 

The coffee shots are courtesy of my friend Guo's luke warm cappuccino. I worked the inside/outside deco scheme for this last set that I made. I like the sprig of dogwood that you discover as you get to the bottom of the cup. The light coffee color of the cappuccino is a nice contrast to the porcelain slip. It warms up the green under glaze and sets off the overall color scheme. Always nice to see how the user can make or break a functional pot by what they choose to put in it. The set of six is now a regular part of our coffee shop rotation.

The end of my day was spent packing a crate that will ship out tomorrow. This four by three foot crate is the biggest thing I've ever shipped. I had to get inside so I could safely pack the boxes in the bottom. In the end 63 pieces, or sets, will go to the Charlie Cummings Gallery for my late November opening. Check out Chandra Debuse's Playscapes that just went online at CC Gallery a few days ago. She is showing a diverse body of work that includes squirrel, bat, and bunny drawings.


Wanna watch me make this handle disappear?

Camouflage, the under appreciated design principle. Now you see it, now you don't. (Late night slide shoot = pottery jokes. Good night.)


Check out my new work online at the Schaller Gallery

Glad to be showing new work with the Schaller Gallery in St. Joseph, Michigan. A big thanks to Anthony for posting the serving dishes that arrived on the slow boat from China this month. The square plate pictured above is posted online. Click here to see the other work that is available. Hope you enjoy.


In the Studio: Tea Three Ways

In the midst of my Yixing posts I thought it would be nice to post a few images of the tea related forms I've been making. I'm approaching tea from three distinct perspectives- a southern American perspective making pitchers/tumblers for sweet iced tea, a British perspective making teapots with cups/saucers for hot black tea, and a Chinese perspective making teapots with teacups for green tea. I want to eventually develop these forms into a full exhibition focusing on tea history in the different cultures.

The difference in scale with the pots really jumped out at me when I put one of the green tea pots beside the pitcher. It is definitely the runt of the litter. It looks small but one of my friends actually told me today that it's still too big. Needs to be smaller so the tea can cool faster. This goes along with the taste preference for green teas to steep for a very short time. Until moving to China I had no idea how different green tea was from the black tea that I knew. Growing up in Virginia brewing tea meant hanging four bags of Lipton over the side of the pitcher until the water cooled. For green tea steeping this long would taste pretty bad. Green tea works better as a subtle flavor. Think about the last time you tasted artificial green tea flavor like green tea ice cream. It just doesn't work as a fake flavor because it looses its subtlety in chemical replication. Its comes across heavy handed and kinda gross.

On the decoration front I like where the pattern is going on the British style dogwood teapot. I'm working an over/under switch with the fence motif. The handle side has the decoration overlap the fence and the handle making a camouflage affect. The spout side goes underneath the fence making for a subtle shift. I just finished the last batch of pots for the next few weeks but I already want to use the over/under on my next batch of plates. Ill be glazing tomorrow night and then the photographing/packing process starts. 

These will all go to the my show "Between the Fence Posts" at the Charlie Cummings Gallery. It will be posted in late November on www.claylink.com. Looking forward to hearing what you guys think about this body of work when it goes online.


Yixing pt 2: The Makers

Seeing tools spread out on a table always lures me in. I have to suppress the urge to pick them up. I silently remind the excited little kid that lives in my head "Those are their tools. You can look but don't touch". I settle for imagining what they can be used for. There are ribs, strips of horn, pencil shaped pieces of wood, paddles, and a variety of measuring devices that I have never seen before. Each tool accentuates the arsenal of techniques that are used by the Yixing makers. Over hundreds of years a unique tradition of making has evolved that centers around precision and craftsmanship for functional tea ware.

The potters and their studios share an unusual characteristic. They were almost all spotless. The potters sit at wooden tables with their tools laid out like they are ceramic doctors preparing for surgery. There is no dust, no clay scraps, nothing extra that can inadvertently scar the surface of the pots. The environment is clinical. Even random piles of tools are clean. The only excess clay that can be seen is a fist size lump of clay that is used for patching imperfections. This approach to a clean studio carries over into the burnished surfaces and detailed lines of their aesthetic.

Each potter works on small groups of pots. They are the sole focus until they are completed. There is no rush because there is no mass production. It was refreshing to see a Chinese tradition where quality instead of quantity is most important. This idea is unfortunately rare for many goods produced in modern China. Builders have an especially dubious reputation for their shoddy concrete faced with marble veneers. Walking through a Chinese building site is like biting into a shiny apple only to realize the core is rotten.

Most of the teapots are hand built with thin slabs. They are pounded flat with wooden mallets before they are bent and stretched to make the bodies, spouts, and handles. It was interested to see they trap air inside the forms by sealing them at both ends. In picture six above you can see the space for the lid is sealed with a slab. This helps create internal air pressure, allowing the outside surface to be repeatedly burnished without the pot collapsing.

Teapot forms can take days, or weeks, to complete so premature drying can be a problem. They have an inventive solution that keeps all the parts at a workable state. Beside each potters table was a large jar covered with a wooden lid wrapped in fabric. This jar was half filled with bricks that elevate a moist clay slab. Teapot bodies, lids, and spouts can be laid on the slab making a miniature terrarium. Picture nine above shows one of the jars holding three teapots. This simple solution makes good use of the pickling jars that are produced in Yixing.

My favorite aspect of visiting the makers was seeing their pride as they showed us the prized teapots they had made. Competitions judge the best teapots and they are often displayed in glass cases with commemorative plaques. One master had an impressive collection of award winning teapots that he displayed alongside a bottle of locally brewed Tsingtao beer that had his face on it. I like that an artist working in a traditional material can be recognized for his achievements. Famous teapot masters can fetch high prices for their pots. We saw one selling for a whopping 210,000 RMB, or about 33,000 USD. (Click here to see it.This explains the BMW's that we saw cruising through the streets of Dingshan.) To put that in perspective the average income for Chinese in the wealthy city of Shanghai is 1800 RMB per month. It would be great if functional teapots could catch on as a luxury item in the west. Boutique potteries could line the streets of Beverly Hills and Madison Avenue pushing out the likes of Prada, Gucci, and Louie Vuitton. One can only dream...

My next post will be about the lesser known Yixing tradition of making large storage vessels that are used for pickling. Here is an teaser image featuring an image of a crab scurrying across the sand.

This post if the second in a series about Yixing teapots. They are produced in the town of Dingshan, which borders the city of Yixing in Jiangsu Province. Check back later in the week for the next post.
Click here for the first post in the series - Yixing: An Evolving Teapot Tradition