The Goodness of People

Our time is running out here and it will soon be time to move on. We have planned a tight schedule to fit in with our other ‘ordinary’ lives back home. Being able to steal this time away from the usual routine is a huge luxury. I am a very privileged person. Although we must be getting along, there is always time to visit the local markets. There is a street market every weekend along the main road starting just outside the pottery precinct gates. It goes up and over the hill, I don’t know just how far over the hill it might go. There were just so many stalls and so much ‘stuff’ out there that I got overload before I came to the end. Such a lot of it was really interesting, hence not getting to the end. In fact, it is just so interesting and crowded and with so many vendors every couple of metres or so. it takes an hour to walk up a few hundred metres and back down the other side. The market spans both sides of the street. I venture out for a quick reconnoitre before breakfast. A brisk walk, as brisk as you can go stepping between the pots on the ground and the stream of humanity wandering in amongst the wares.




I have spied a few things that I rather fancy, but when I ask the price, it is way too high. Obviously I haven’t miraculously learnt Mandarin in the week that I’ve been here so far. I know only two words. ‘G-Day’ or ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’. Everything else is a mystery to me. So I ask the price by pointing at the item and looking quizzical, while rubbing my fingers together and pointing at my wallet pocket. This may seem a bit obscure, but in the situation it works very well. They tell me the price in Mandarin at high speed, that I have no hope of understanding, so the next step is to hold out my phone, open to the page with the calculator. They just type in the number of Yuan that they want and I say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. It’s pretty simple and it works. Usually the price is way too high for what I have to spend. I don’t haggle. I know that I’m supposed to. I know that the price is inflated to allow for it, but I just can’t. It’s not that I’m incapable. It’s more a matter of politics and equity. I’m a millionaire compared to these people. I can hop on a plane and fly here to their town and buy things from them. The opposite can’t be said. It is so uneven. There is no way that they could get on a plane and come to my workshop and try to beat me down on price. The situation is far to out-of-balance.  I ask the price, if I think that I want it that much, I pay it. If I don’t, I just move on along the row.



I see a nice piece of blue celadon, probably a modern fake, possibly only 30 to 50 years old, possibly made during Mao’s time as fake export antique wares. Yes! It was a government sponsored institution. A way to gain much needed foreign currency during the years of isolation. What ever it is. It is very subtle and beautiful and I want it. It has that matt, micro worn, scratched surface and glorious deep blue with a hint of opalescence that I love so much in my own work when it all comes together unexpectedly well.

He takes a long time to type the numbers, that’s sad. I know it’s going to be a big number, and it is . He has typed out Y15,000.00. That is about Au$3,750. That is heaps more than I will spend on the whole trip including spending money, air fares and insurance. I decline gracefully. The next person along the row where I stop has obviously heard what has transpired and the next pot that I look at is offered at the equivalent of Au$500. I move on politely with a smile and a thank you, but no thank you. A little farther along I look and ask again, now its $80 and I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable with that, but It means that I can only buy one, possibly two, things if I do.

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I retreat back to our room and we go to breakfast. After brekky we are busy all day, but the next morning, I venture out again. I see that the two pieces that I had my eye on are still there. I’d rather like to buy a collapsed sagger with its pot firmly melted into it. There are loads of them to choose from. It’s a quirky, unusual thing and I rather like the idea, but it is way too bulky and heavy to carry home, and I still have a long way to go on this trip. When I have travelled in Europe, I buy things here and there along the way, and when I have enough to fill a post pack box. I bundle them all up in there with loads of bubble wrap and the odd bit of spare clothing that I feel that I no longer need and I post it all home. We seem to average about one box per week when The Lovely and I are travelling.  On this occasion I decide to pass on the sagger, lovely and interesting as it is. I return to the original pot that I looked at. It is a small, delicate and extremely thinly potted dish in limpid pale celadon. A little over fired and slightly warped, but ever so delicate. I ask the price again and hold out the calculator. It is no longer first thing on the first morning of the market, time has passed and the pot is still sitting there. It is now Yuan Y50, the equivalent of Au$10. Quite a discount! I nod and we have a deal. The pot is duly wrapped in a single sheet of yesterdays news print and money changes hands. I don’t even look at the paper at all. Not until a few days later. Everyone is happy!  News travels fast, no one is offering me prices like yesterdays. In the thousands or even hundreds. I have just agreed to Y50 and a sale has transpired. It seems that I have set the ‘Muggins’ price.  Now, everything that I touch is Y50. I’m happy with that I can afford it, so I buy the other little beauty that I had my eye on as well. It is very ordinary, subtle and quite sweet. slightly triangular in its warping and with a discoloured rim. It has a certain, soft, irregular charm about it. I’m a happy man.

Later, I see a little wine cup in egg shell thin porcelain, but it has two cracks in it and is rather dirty from spending some time buried under ground. I like the absolute whiteness and transparency of it. It’s tiny and ever-so delicate. He holds up his hand, 5 fingers. Of course its Y50! Everything else has been. I pay up. Suddenly all hell breaks loose, Everyone standing there crowds in and gathers around, pushing and shoving at me all offering something, anything! All calling out loudly. I’m shocked and taken aback somewhat. It takes me some few seconds to realise that I have just been done, and that he was literally only asking for Y5 or Au$1 and even then there was probably room to haggle him down a bit! I have given him Y50 with a smile and he has called out. Hey! look here! here’s an idiot with too much money. Don’t let him get away! I decline all other offers. I don’t really know what happened, but I can only think back and this is my best guess. These people are grindingly poor and I’m the billionaire tourist in their midst. I’m happy with my little cup for Au$10.

No matter where I go from now on in the market, I’m offered small wine cups – for Y50! The trouble is that they are all polychrome and garish and probably only made last week. None of them has the soft, gentle subtle charm of the one I have in my pack. I got the one that I appreciate for it’s subtleties and quiet simplicity. To me it’s worth Au$10. I’m very lucky and privileged.

I pack my miniature horde into my small suitcase and pack my own dozen Jingdezhen translucent one-stone porcelain bowls into my back pack and we set off on the second part of our quest, into the Heart of Darkness, we are venturing up-river into ‘tenmoku’ territory. To the village where all of the Southern Song Dynasty, Oil Spot and Hares Fur tea bowls were once made. We have been studying. We are ‘The Readers of the Lost Art‘  – of Tenmoku, We have quite a way to go, and without Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola to get us there quickly with a few ‘jump-cuts’. We decide that we had better take the plane and fly the internal airline route to the next big city and then take the long train trip that follows the river up stream, as far as it will go. We don’t want any apocalypse now, or later. We have booked a sleeper, so that we can travel in comfort. My name is Harrison and I can afFord it. We arrive in the city at dusk and try to find our hotel. We can’t. We are in the right street but the hotel name escapes us. We wonder on, until we exhaust all our options. We must be looking pretty forlorn, because suddenly a lovely lady walks up to us and asks in perfect English, “Can I help you?”. We yes, she can, and does. We have already walked our suitcases past it. Our savour walks back with us and stops outside one of the hotels that we have thought to be the wrong one. We think this because it has a different name from the Hotel that we have booked into online just a couple of days before. Apparently it has changed its name without mentioning this to us in our booking. Our helper points out that both names are up in lights on the front of the hotel in Chinese characters.

‘The New Fashion Hotel’, formerly know as ‘Marco Polo’s Lodge’ !  Clearly, it was very remiss of me not to learn to read, write and speak Mandarin in the two weeks I had before leaving on this trip. This young lady has saved us. Such a lovely gesture. we want to pay her! Give her something as a gift, but No! She will take nothing. The goodness of human nature shines through!


The next day, we set off ‘up-river’, it’s exciting. So I spend most of the time sitting up at the very narrow and uncomfortable window seat, so as to get the most out of the scenery that we are passing. When we arrive in this provincial town, we are faced with any number of small and large busses outside the station. We need to find the one that will take us further up-river. But which one? So many busses to choose from and so little time! Some of them are now fully loaded with passengers as the stream of humanity pours out of the station and onto them. Some are starting to pull out. All the names are in Chinese characters and the best I can do is make lame jokes about Hollywood characters in bold type face. I need to save face quickly and boldly!

Use ‘The Force’ Luke! No, that’s the wrong movie, it won’t work on this set. Perhaps I could have another look at the strange piece of paper that the old lady in the street market gave me to wrap the old porcelain pot in?

Yes! The secret map printed on old newsprint routine. That old chestnut!

Unfortunately this isn’t a movie script. It was just a piece of chip-wrapping-grade newsprint. However. I did take the precaution of asking my friend in Jingdezhen, to write out the words,  ‘plane’, ‘train’, ‘bus’ and ‘station’, and the names of the locations that we needed to go, all in Chinese characters, before we left Jingdezhen. I run to the closest bus, that is starting to reverse out and show the driver the name of the town that we need to go to next, to get us on our way, further inland. He looks, reads, nods, and stops the bus and motions to get in. We are on-board and off on our way again! It’s all too easy!


The fare is only Y1, that is only Au$ 0.20 cents, so we are a little suspicious. Travelling in China is cheap, but that is ridiculous. We have no idea where we are. We don’t speak the language and all we have is a few words, hand-written on the back page of my travel diary. We motor our way through the town, recognising nothing. We start to exchange nervous glances. Where are we? Suddenly, the bus stops and the driver motions us to get off. We were expecting a journey of some hours into the hinterland, not to be dumped-off on the side of the road in the middle of no-where. We are reluctant to get off. I feel that it might be wise to return to the station and find someone who can point us in the correct direction. We must be looking very perplexed and nervous, because all the passengers are starting to call out together and motion to us with friendly smiling faces, to get off here. We don’t quite realise what is going on, but everyone is acting in unison, so we go with it. They are all pointing across the road at a nondescript building. The bus roars off and we cross the street. We venture into the building a little warily. It’s a bus depot! Once inside, we can see the busses all lined up on the other side of the building. We use the the back page of my travel diary to indicate our intensions and amazingly what we get are a couple of tickets and a long wait, for the next bus in that direction.

My colleague dropped his new iPhone 6 in a bucket of slip on the first day and it is totally dead. My old early model iPhone doesn’t work in China. it is just too old it seems. It won’t even take any of the new Chinese sim cards. It’s just dead here too. So much for technology. I have my series One iPad with me and it accepted the new Chinese sim card with grace and so we can get some email every now and then. However, due to the Great Wisdom of the Illustrious Chairman, Following on along the straight and true path, set and laid out by the even Greater, Great Helmsman, and with the total agreement of ‘The Party’. There is, set here in the ether, a Great Fire Wall of China that prevents almost all information of an unregulated capitalist nature, such as that practiced by ‘The Running Dogs’, to penetrate the iCloud of Heaven. Such is the life of  intellectual freedom that is endured here. Because of this stricture on my electronic connections, I can sometime get email and at other time not, but always with the images removed. There is no chance to connect to any Western based server, such as Google, Yahoo, Face Book, and WordPress. These are all totally forbidden. Any search returns the result; ‘unable to connect with the server’. So we sit in total ignorance of what is happening in the outside world. Not that I care really, it’s just about all meaningless rubbish, but at times like this. I’d appreciate being able to read something in English to pass the time.

Instead I pass the time writing a few sentences about my time spent at the Old East Sydney Tech, for an up-coming exhibition that I will have a few pots in.


Our mini-bus arrives and we set off on the penultimate leg of our sojourn with 6 or 8 other passengers. A few hours spent looking out the window as the bus winds its way up the ever decreasing valley, along yet another river. Just as before the bus suddenly lurches to a standstill in the middle of nowhere. There is an open paddock of vegetables on one side of the road and then a laneway through more vegetables leading to a village. This must be it! We walk into the village and wander around until we find a small hotel. We meet some of the locals and make the sign of two hands placed against the side of my inclined head. A place to sleep! It works and they point us around the corner to the hotel.


We dump our stuff and waste no time going out into the street to look for a car and driver that we can hire for a few hours. There are several cars parked around the central monument in the village. Some have drivers inside others not, some are asleep on the seat. All just waiting for someone to hire them for an hour, or a specific trip. Soon there is a huddle of potential drivers crowding around us. No one speaks English. We choose the man with the open smile. He seems nice. We negotiate a price using drawings of clock faces, some numerals and a lot of charades.


Our driver takes us out of town and into the back blocks to the remote valley and it’s little village where every Southern Song Dynasty tenmoku bowl was ever made. There must have been millions of them made over the 400 years when this place was the centre of the tenmoku universe, from 950 to 1350, more or less. The particularly special thing that defines this little valley and village, is that this is the place where the famous blue oil spot tenmoku bowls are said to have been made. There are only half a dozen of them in the world. If fact any really authentic old oil spot glazed pot of any nature is very rare. Extremely rare! What there is plenty of is hare’s fur. Hares fur tenmoku seems to have been about 99.9% of the production from here.


After a quick look around, our driver returns us back to the nearest town where we are staying. We have plenty of time, so will return again tomorrow. We pay him and he is gone. We eat dinner in the street in a small cafe. Intestines, lotus root, green stalks of a vegetable that I don’t recognise but is delicious and plenty of chilli! Later that night in our room, we are writing up our journals and there is a knock at the door. It’s The Driver. He has come looking for us. We mustn’t have been too hard to find! The only two foreigners in the village. Everyone knows that we are here in this room tonight. We open the door to find our Driver holding out my colleagues’s wallet. Apparently he left it in the car this afternoon. The Driver has found it and has come back to return it. We thank him as best we can without any words that he can understand. But he gets it.

When he’s gone, we check the wallet and all Y600 is still in there. Such honesty!

I am touched yet again by the Goodness of People.

Best wishes

from Steve, somewhere up-river in the back-blocks

Carving Out a Living

While our pots are drying, we go on an expedition to visit a few of the local potteries in the area. This whole city is dedicated to the making of porcelain. there are thousands, if not 10’s of thousands of small workshops all over the city. We go to one of the nearby potters districts. We have come in this direction because there is a potter here that we want to meet. I am travelling with a PhD student from The ANU in Canberra and his interest is in tenmoku. The potter we have come to visit is the local Master of the Northern ‘Leaf’ Tenmoku Style, which they call ‘temu’ around here.

The original dark glazed and buff bodied Northern tenmoku bowls were first made by potters in the Tianmu mountains in Northern China and were used by the buddhist Monks in the near-by monastery for drinking green tea. Monks who came to this monastery left with a knowledge of Buddhism and also a penchant for the drinking of green tea. They also took away the distinctively shaped bowls with the out-turned lip and tiny foot that is the defining character of this style. the ’Tenmoku’ form. The name ‘tenmoku’ seems to be applied to just the dark glaze these days, but it is really the name of this particular shape of bowl. Such that you can have a white tenmoku, or a blue tenmoku, even a hare’s fur tenmoku, because it has a glaze that is a little reminiscent of the fur of the local wild Hare.
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This potter, Master Liu, has dedicated his life to the study of ‘leaf’ tenmoku. a very ancient variant of the form. He seems to be doing quite well for himself these days. He has assistants working in and around the studio. He has his own large gas kiln and a few electric kilns. The show room is new and 5 stories high and quite well appointed, a new two story house, all set in a little ‘muse’, just off the main street. The technique of ‘leaf’ tenmoku is one where a leaf from a particular tree or bush is placed on the surface of the flat black glaze and when fired, the leaf burns out and leaves only a few microns of ash which in this case, contains some special elements that colour the black glaze, so that the imprint of the original leaf can be seen in the glaze surface as a silver or golden ‘X-Ray’ style outline of its radial structure. I ask if any leaf will do and am told, “No, only the leaves of one very special plant will give the effect”. But that’s all I’m told.
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He has taken the old technique to another level, where he can reproduce the effect so reliably that he cuts the leaves into the shape of various animals or even peoples profiles. It’s an acquired taste, but certainly skilful. Clever as hell. Gulley Jimson might say.
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Later, we visit a bunch of local big-pot throwers. Today they are not throwing, but turning their dried, thrown sections of very large planters. It is just an amazing sight to watch these young masters at work. They are just incredible. They make it all look just so simple, and it probably is, if you are born to it and spend all your life involved with it and practising..
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After assembly, they are either carved or painted, then raw glazed. Apparently it takes a week to carve or paint one of these giants with such fine detailed work. Some are just blue on White, while others are polychrome.
Amazing technique!
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After this, there is nowhere else to go, nothing more to see that can top this schwarzenegger-esque extravaganza. I’m exhausted just watching! The amount of material that is churned off in the turning is prodigious. there is a business right there in just collecting all those huge piles of turnings and recycling them, back into clean, iron free, plastic porcelain clay again. We take paradise…..
All that’s left is to have dinner. Egg and tomato stir fry and finely sliced large white radish stir fried with some sort of meat and chilli.

So very nice. Delicious!
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Best wishes
Steve in Jingdezhen

Why Not Both?

Jingdezhen in China has a very long history of making porcelain. Over one thousand years in fact. They had already celebrated their millennium of porcelain making when I was working there ten years ago. The special thing about this place is the clay. It isn’t clay!

What they use here is a ground-up stone. When they crush and finely grind the local stone down into a very fine paste, it becomes plastic. This is like magic. Stone doesn’t usually become sticky and plastic like clay unless it’s very special. This stone is largely composed ofsericite mica, and it is special. It is reasonably rare stuff to find en-mass, in its pure white form. It has a flat plate-like crystal structure, not unlike clay, only much coarser. When these microscopic plates are wetted, they slide about against each other in a similar way to the way that clay does. Of course it’s so much more complicated than that, but this is a blog and not a treatise. Sufficient to say that there are very few places in the world where this kind of thing can happen. Here in China is one of them and the initial place where it was first discovered. Once the knowledge was well-developed in china, the information spread to Korea, where they discovered and developed similar materials, then eventually to Japan. When the War Lord Hideyoshi invaded Korea and brought back potters as war trophies!. My, how the level of respect for potters has fallen! I don’t recall any solder capturing and bringing back any potters as trophies from any recent wars that we have been engaged in!

One of these ‘renditioned’ Korean potters discovered a similar weathered stone on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, and so porcelain making started up there as well. I have visited these sites and made pots there and I intend to go back again and make a more substantial body of work there, just as I have done here in Jingdezhen, that I can bring back and exhibit all together back in Sydney. Hopefully at Watters Gallery.
My interest in these porcelain stones is all based on the surprise discovery 15 years ago, when I stumbled upon a very small deposit of pale rock in the side of a track, out in the bush. I collected a very small sample and crushed it down to dust so that I could test it for use as a glaze ingredient. It made a lovely pale blue glaze of the family of glazes that could be described as being like ‘celadon’ or ‘guan’. These are ancient Chinese archetypes of fundamental combinations of simple ingredients. They are the simplest of glazes, but just about the most difficult to re-create with the depth and subtlety that the Chinese potters achieved at the apogee of their ceramic development, during the Song Dynasty.
I recognised that my initial glaze tests, although crude, had potential to be developed into something special, but more than that I noticed that most of the tests were ‘crawled’. This would normally mean that there was too much clay in the recipe, but this recipe had no clay in it at all. It was just hard rock. Very hard rock. I had to use my jaw crusher, disc disintegrator and then 16 hours in the ball mill to grind it down to a fine powder. I asked myself. “How could such a hard rock have any plasticity. Does it have any plasticity?” I quickly ran to the pottery and mixed a little of the precious powdered rock dust with some water and worked it up in to a paste, then proceeded to try to throw it on the potter’s wheel into a small bowl form. It could just about be done. It was rough and misshapen, but it was a bowl. I fired it and to my astonishment, it fired into translucent porcelain. I coudn’t have been more surprised!. 100% rock dust and water became white, translucent porcelain!
I know the date that I did this experiment, because I scratched the date into the bottom of that first pot.
After 25 years of fossicking around this shire. I had finally found something really exciting and with a lot of potential to carry my work forward for a long time to come. So here I am in the clay making facility in Jingdezhen. The home and origin of single stone porcelain. They don’t do all the production here anymore. Some of the large machines sit idle now. It seems that they only do the final stage of blunging (washing) the clay into a slip and sieving it through a very fine mesh to remove any unexpected rubbish that may have crept in during transport and storage. This ensures that there will be very few ‘iron’ spots in the finished product. The liquid clay ‘slip’, is then pumped into a filtering machine to de-water it back to a plastic, workable state. This de-watering procedure is called filter-pressing. This filter pressing (stiffening) is done in very large  filtration dryers until it is ‘plastic’. ie. stiff enough to fashion into shapes, by moulding  or throwing on the potters wheel.
Once the clay has been stiffened in this way, it is dropped out of the filter press and is taken to the extruder, to be pugged into well mixed sausages for storage and ageing.
The ‘clay’ (milled stone) material is trucked-in as a partially processed material these days. It used to be all processed here, but now it undergoes its primary crushing, milling and stiffening out-of-town, closer to the mine. When I was here last, all of the crushing was done by water powered, wooden hammers. these were typical of the water hammers that are to be found all over Asia, where-ever there is a suitable stream and work that needs doing. The powdered rock dust was then slaked in water and left to sit and dissociate, allowing the water to penetrate into the flakey, plate-like structure of the mineral. Breaking it down into a slurry with enormous surface area and also allowing the local bacterial to colonise the surfaces and work their magic to help enhance the workability and plasticity of the finished ‘clay’. This thick slurry was then stiffened slowly in the air and eventually formed into little white blocks or bricks called ‘bai-tunze’, or ‘white brick’. This is the form that it was delivered to the pottery clay processors.
But that was then and this is now!
Apparently the water hammers were working here up until last year some time. Due to pressure to increase production and through-put, these ancient water hammers were ripped out and the leats that brought the water were filled-in and concreted over. 3 phase power has arrived now and all the work should be being done by jaw crusher, huge ball mills and filter presses. but when we arrive, we find the place devoid of activity. The power is down and has been all day, possibly yesterday also. and who knows when it will be restored? A lone woman sits by idly and bored and waits. Perhaps the old water hammers had some advantages? They may be a bit slow, but they ran for free and all day and night as well. So why no both?
Jingdezhen native sericite stone.
This stuff is beautiful to work with, fine and smooth and so much more plastic and supportive on the wheel. I like it a lot. Of course my stone isn’t semi-plastic sericite, it’s just plain old hard, weathered, aplite. A quick cooled acid rock. It doesn’t become very workable without a lot of effort and time applied. However, I have found that after 6 years of storage in a cool dark place, it comes out not too different to the fresh stuff from Jingdezhen. I just need to buy some time! Time is the most expensive ingredient in my work.
Best wishes
from the patient and timely Old Rocker

Be Careful What You Wish For!

Only a few weeks ago, just after Easter. The Lovely and I were driving back from Canberra, our Nations Capital. It’s a little over a two-hour drive up the freeway. It’s pretty boring but fortunately not too long. I was thinking out loud and said to Janine. “You know, I should try and go back to China and do a little more research into the original bai-tunze porcelain stone that they have worked on and developed for over a thousand years now. I should go back to the Fragrant Garden Studio where I worked a decade ago and make some bowls out of their native stone. That would be a good project. I could exhibit them along-side my own native porcelain stone pots.” The Lovely just nodded and said something like. “Yeah. Go ahead, that sounds good.”

Then two days later, I got an email from China inviting me to take part in a Tea Bowl Exhibition in Fuzhou, China, all expenses paid!
Be careful what you wish for!
How could I say No? Not only that, but I had recently been appointed as an external supervisor to a PhD student studying at the The Australian National University in Canberra, who is researching the origins of the southern oil spot tenmoku tradition of glazes in China. He wanted me to meet him in China and to undertake a research trip to the original sites. This hadn’t worked out last year, but now was perfect timing for such an investigation.
We set about planning it all. After the exhibition was over, a week in Jingdezhen for me to do my porcelain research and then a week in Jian to do the tenmoku research. It all fell into place in a week!
Then a shock message that the exhibition had been cancelled. Such a shame! But I had made other plans and was primed to carry them all out. I decided to go anyway, pay my own ticket and my colleague was also suitably inclined. We’d done all the prep and made all the other bookings, so we decided to go anyway, We had made lots of connections and arrangements, So off we go.
We fly into Beijing and wait for our connection to Jingdezhen. Beijing is a very large airport. I suppose that I’m looking at a post-olympic, trophy, prestige building, meant to impress and it does!  While wandering around the airport looking for the domestic terminal sign, I see this sign, that tells me that I am here!. So helpful! I already know that I’m here. I just don’t know where ‘here’ actually is. This terminal is over a kilometre long. I need to know where here is, in regard to everything else and as the sign has no reference to any map, it is just about useless.
you are here!
We arrive in Jingdezhen and make our way to the hostel that will be our home for the next week or so. The first thing that we do is to check out the surroundings and get our bearings. It’s been a decade since I was last there working and a lot has changed in that time. Ten years ago, this part of the city was all two-story, old buildings. Now there are so many astonishingly tall, high-rise apartments creeping out from the city into the suburbs. My old view from the back balcony of my flat, that I shared with quite a few factory workers at that time, has completely changed. I find it hard to recognise much. Slowly I re-familiarise myself with the old laneways and paths and get my bearings.
My old house, where I lived ten years ago, with the upstairs, roof-top balcony, that was actually the kitchen and bathroom area,
In 2005 I could just walk out onto the main street outside the pottery precinct gate and find any number of little street-food kitchens set up and cooking an amazing range of delicious street food. I could go to a different little mobile kitchen, based on a bicycle or possibly a tricycle every morning and never repeat myself and never get more than a few hundred metres from home. I love the food in China. In this part of China the food tradition is of the hot and spicy kind. Every meal seems to be cooked with chilli, even breakfast. I love it!
Chilli in breakfast, lunch and dinner, grits and jowls and bit of bowels, with steamed greens. Yum!
In those days, all the old homes didn’t really have kitchens and bathrooms as we understand the terms. Often, the sink was out in the laneway and shared with 2 or three other houses. The only cooking facility available to most people in those old dwellings at that time was a pressed coal dust briquette, that was lit in a small circular stove, possibly a recycled 20 litre vegetable oil tin. This contraption would take one pot on top and burn for a very long time, possibly an hour or more. No one would get up and light a full briquette in the morning to boil an egg or make a cup of tea and leave the stove burning in an unattended house. such a waste of money and heat, and possibly dangerous too!
These briquettes are made from low-grade coal with lots of clay in it. This poor cool is powdered and then pressed into a circular block with extruded holes through it to help it burn efficiently. when its spent and all the coal is burnt out, what is left is a soft, bisque fried clay block. Out in the street there was a steady stream of working men and women stopping off on their way to work to buy a few hot dumplings or a steamed bun. They were usually riding bicycles or possibly motor scooters. There wasn’t a peak hour in those days, as there weren’t so many cars and the cars that there were, were all fairly small and compact copies of Japanese ‘bongo’ vans. The miniature brick on wheels design.
Well everything has changed. There is a peak hour now! There are loads of new cars on the street and they are big ones, just like our standard family sedans. Loads of them and they are so big. It’s hard to find many bicycles any more, even motor cycles and motor scooters have almost been phased out in favour of silent, clean electric motor scooters. A lot of people live in modern high-rise now with conventional western kitchens and bathrooms. They have electricity for micro waves and electric jugs. People can cook their own tea and dumplings, or noodles before driving off to work in their car. All this convenience, has meant the disappearance of many of the street food sellers. They are still there, but in little clusters in off-road open spaces. We were able to find a different place to eat each morning, but some were so well hidden off the beaten track, that we wouldn’t have found them without being tipped off to their location. (A little like Canberra really!)
All the old industrial high-rise is being replaced with new high-rise.
This place is in the midst a very severe period of renewal and change. Most people seem to be looking prosperous and happy There are innumerable little private workshops springing up everywhere. Wherever there is an old empty building, someone has moved in and done it up and it’s now a shop out front and a workspace out the back. Ten years ago, these buildings were mostly empty or just used for storage.
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We set to work the next morning and I make 40 bowls on the small pot boards available to me. I make 4 different shapes. I get them out into the sun hoping to be able to start turning them as soon as possible. We are here in the rainy season, so things are slow to dry, but I get most of them over onto their rims by evening. I don’t have the luxury of a slow, even, controlled drying.  The next morning I start to turn the forms so as to rough out the forms to reduce the weight at the base and speed the drying. These one-stone porcelain bodies are quite non-plastic, but I must say that this particular one is very good compared to my own ball-milled ‘Joadja’, ground stone body back at home. The difference being that where as mine is made from a hard, glassy, dense ‘aplite’ or fast cooled granite-like material. This material here in Jingdezhen is a weathered sericite mica and develops a lot more plasticity. Even so, you can’t turn bodies like this when they are leather hard. They just chip and tear. These ‘clays’ , if it’s possible to call them that, need to be molly-coddled a bit and turning is best done at the almost bone dry stage. This allows a better smoother finish, but creates a lot of dust. In Japan, they use a vacuum fan in front of the wheel to create a negative pressure to remove the dust for the workers safety. Here there is no such concern. OH&S is a distinctly ‘western’ luxury concept at work.
I finish all the turning and get them all out into the sun to dry on the third day. I cull them all down to 20, then another cull down to 12. That is all I will be able to carry out on the plane in my back pack. We plan to raw glaze them tomorrow and then into the stoneware kiln the next day, fired over night and unpacked the next morning. We are due to fly out at lunch time. We are cutting it fine, but it is doable. And we do it. It all runs like a Swiss watch. We are greatly aided by Liu Danyun,  The daughter of Master Liu, the owner of the Fragrant Garden International Ceramics Studio, she is most helpful in every way and does all our translating, phone calls, bookings and other organising for us. She is a wonderful friend !
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Although there has been enormous change over the ten years since I first came here, with so many technological advances, Some things haven’t changed very much. Pots are still moved from studio to studio and studio to kiln on wheel barrows, but change is catching up there too! Not very many studios have their own kiln, most places still use the public kilns, and there are quite a few to choose from in the pottery precinct. You probably don’t have to move your work more than 100 metres to find a kiln to fire them, a glaze workshop to glaze them, a box maker to fit them or a crate maker to package them securely for transport.
Although they now have sophisticated spray booths, and the use of dust masks is more common. They don’t always were the mask or turn on the fan and water pump!
The privately owned and run kiln firing services are amazing. These kilns are packed and fired every day, with one trolley being packed while the other is in the kiln firing. They seem to crack the door open at very hight temperatures, even while there is still a decent, strong, bright glow in the kiln, so as to crash cool it.
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Where ever you go there are pots stacked out on the street to catch the breeze and some sunshine to speed up the drying. The pavement is also used as additional studio space in fine weather. Even the street and train line is used as extra workshop drying areas. Nothing is wasted!
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Where ever you go there are pots stacked out on the street to catch the breeze and some sunshine to speed up the drying. The pavement is also used as additional studio space in fine weather. Even the street and train line is used as extra workshop drying areas. Nothing is wasted!
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I’m quite in awe of these people’s ability for hard work, creativity and efficiency in some very difficult circumstances. It’s such an inspiring environment. I don’t want to come and live and work like this permanently, but I’m so very grateful that I have the chance to come and work here on these occasions and experience this life. It grounds me and makes me realise how lucky I am.
Best wishes
from Steve in Jingdezhen

Growing Old Together

Potting, throwing, making clay, kiln packing, kiln firing, kiln unpacking, more wood cutting splitting and stacking, gardening, weeding, pruning, composting. It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Recently we have been doing something different everyday. There is always the garden and the pottery, then the house and land maintenance, but we are also doing weekend workshops over the winter months. We have just completed the 4th weekend in a row, only nine more to go, with a possible tenth.


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We started off the week in the pottery making pots. It’s always fun to get in there and let a few days slip by un-noticed in the joy of making. Clay is such a tactile and responsive medium. I’ve started to make some white tenmoku bowls out of my native bai-tunze porcelain stone. I also make a pot-board full of stoneware bowls and another of blended kaolin/stone based porcelain body. I finish up by making a board of Black ware tenmoku bowls. I plan to fire these unglazed in the wood kiln so that they will come out jet black. I think that this contrast of matt black and glossy white will work out well together. It’s just an idea. I’ll have to see how it goes. It’s starting out looking OK.


The kiln that I welded up last week is back from the galvanisers already. A 7 day turn around! unheard off!. What has gone wrong? It usually takes these buggers at least 2 weeks and more, usually 3 or 4. I’ve even waited 6 weeks for one of my jobs to get through their process. Still, it’s back here now and I’m very pleased, it takes the pressure off. I drove up to Sydney on Monday morning to collect it – to make sure that it was done. I have spent an hour or two each morning this past week grinding, etching, sanding, filing, priming, undercoating, and finally two coats of top coat will go on the inside to make sure that it is really well rust proofed inside for years into the future.

The customer has no idea what has gone on inside this kiln frame. It’s all covered over in Stainless steel, but I know that it is the best way to insure that this kiln will last a working life time and more. I don’t have to do it. I decide to do it, because it’s the right thing to do. No one will ever know, but I know. I build them as if I was going to own it myself. I want it to last for 20, 30 or maybe 40 trouble-free years.


I know that this effort will be rewarded. I have some kilns out there in Universities and TAFE colleges that are fired on a regular basis, every week and have been now for almost 30 years. I know their history and I also know that they have had only minimal maintenance issues over that time. I’m proud of that. If I buy something, I want it to last, all my life if necessary, with no built-in obsolescence. I want it to work perfectly, for as long as possible, and then to only need minimal attention.  Something like the replacement of the thermocouple or temperature meter. This is my aim, and I’m all-in to go for it as best I can. It’s the product that I want to own!

Another little wood fired raku/midfire portable wood kiln rolls of the production line. This one fitted with all-terrain 200 mm. tyres, for wheeling over wet lawn and/or soft gravel.

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I started weeding the last of the tomatoes from the summer garden and made a huge couple of heaps of compost of all the weeds and old tomato and spinach plants. At this time of year, the Worrigal greens (tetragonis) seem to spread everywhere. It’s a native plant that is something like spinach, but growing prostrate, and spreading wildly. It seeds prolifically at this time of year and there will be numerous seedlings appearing in the spring.

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The garlic that I planted in March is all up now, early, mid-season and late varieties. All seem to be doing well. I also planted bush peas and broad beans on either side to accompany them and to fix a little nitrogen as well, while they are at it. We’ll see how the rest of the year pans out, and if the rainfall continues.

One plant that has thrived in all this rain has been the avocado tree. We have a bumper crop this year, hundreds! We’ll eat what the hail, birds and possum don’t ruin.


We had such a sustained hail storm last Saturday week. During one of our wood firings. The hail on the tin roof was so loud that I went and put on my industrial ear muffs! One of the potters measured the decibels with her phone app at 89 decibels. That’s as loud as my chain saw, according to the warning sticker! The hail continued and lapsed, then returned 3 times in all during the afternoon and evening. It will have made a mess of the avocados. However the vegetable garden is entirely under cover of both chook wire and small mesh plastic netting now, so I was able to look out of the kiln shed window and watch the hail bounce off the fine plastic netting. After the storm, I wandered out for a quick look, there was no noticeable damage to any of the vegetables. That netting was such an exertion of time, money and effort, but it was worth it in every way. This is part of the pay-back now. All those vegetables saved from a shredding from the hail.

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In the evenings, early mornings, or whenever I can fit it in throughout the day, I manage to find a little time to play my cello. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s changing over time as the wood ages and settles in.

We are growing older together, Nina, me and this cello, the difference between us being that it’s the cello that is getting better with age !

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Fond regards

Pau Harrison

Note to self: Don’t buy plastic crap

Now that the weather is closing in, it’s a lot cooler and the days are shorter, and for some unknown reason, it keeps on raining. We have gone from bush fire protection and hazard reduction, to digging drainage ditches. Fortunately we have missed the flooding that is happening just now up the north coast and in Queensland. I suppose that it helps that we live on top of a high ridge of hills. We are very well-drained here.

One good thing about constant rain, is that we don’t have to be worried about bush fires or bother to water the garden, but that time saved is now spent in unclogging drains and cleaning gutters and downpipe sieves.
Some years ago, I thought that I’d save some time and buy a plastic gutter sieve/storm water head thing. What a piece of short-term rubbish that turned out to be. I should have known better. Actually, I do know better, but I’m lazy. I just gave in and bought the easy option. I’ve learnt my lesson – yet again. Now just a couple of years later, it’s all cracked and broken and has become an embarrassing piece of plastic junk, destined for land-fill.
Last week we were at the monthly meeting of the Royal Society. This month’s lecture was from Professor Richard Banati  about the fact that plastic never really decomposes, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces and traces of it can be found in all life forms where it is ingested along with other food, it builds up in the higher order species and all of it is destined to end up in the top predator. Guess who that is?
Here is a reprint of the Royal Society promo.
“The talk by Professor Richard Banati from ANSTO and Sydney University Faculty of Health Sciences. Plastics in our environment.
Estimates suggest that the planet could have another 33 billion tonnes of plastic by 2050. 33 billion tonnes of plastic is equivalent to filling 2.75 billion garbage trucks enough to wrap around our planet 800 times if lined up end to end.
Scientists estimate that more than 250,000 tonnes of large size plastic litter the ocean surface, this does not take into account  the micro plastics which are  plastic fragments derived from the breakdown of larger plastic debris, both at sea and on land. Over time, a culmination of physical, biological and chemical processes can reduce the structural integrity of plastic debris, resulting in fragmentation of  2-3 mm in length and 0.1mm in diameter.
The whole issue of product life cycle analysis has so far focused on the litter aspect and not the contamination that cannot be seen without studying at the atomic scale.
Richard and his team at ANSTO are collaborating with scientists from Monash University and University of Tasmania and studying whether the trace elements typically found in plastic and  in the stomach of birds, these trace elements are also found in the growth of young bird feathers like the annual rings in trees, thus indicating the effects of degrading plastics in the food chain may affect birds, marine animals as well as humans.        
This is an important chapter of how we deal with plastic waste as hazardous, threatening the health of people and wildlife.?
Professor Banati said that the only way out of this mess is to stop producing the stuff. Not too likely I don’t suppose. We are all addicted to the stuff through our ignorance, indifference and/or laziness.
Anyway, I try not to buy too much plastic crap, but I’m only human and I am lazy with it too, so now I have the job of fixing this broken plastic gutter fitting. It’s all cracked and the collar is broken off, it’s dead. It’s going to land fill. My only real option is to replace it. But not with another plastic one, not again! I decide to use some of our left over off-cuts of kiln building material that I am so reluctant to take to the metal recyclers, just in case I can find another useful life for the little bits here and there, around the place. It doesn’t take long and I find just the right piece of off-cut stainless steel sheet. I adapt my idea in my mind at the concept level and change the dimensions of what I was imagining, to suit what I have. I sketch it out in chalk on the welding bench. I re-design it to use all of what I have with no loss through cutting, then I go searching for some other little bits of stainless sheet off-cuts to make the sides.
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An hour later I have a rather nice stainless steel rain water head with a 45 degrees diagonal stainless steel leaf-sieve clipped on and ready to go up on the roof. It’s rather rough, but a joy to behold for me, because it is waste forestalled and made entirely out of scrap destined to go to the recyclers, except that it has now been re-imagined and re-purposed into something that will last longer than me or the building that it is now attached to.
I’m no plumber, but this doesn’t have to hold water, just redirect it. I think that it will actually work OK. I don’t have any plumbing training, but I do have a little bit of imagination, some determination and a desire to subvert the system.
Now all I have to do is make a duplicate to replace the one next to it, for when it breaks. Which can’t be too far off?
But then, I’m still stuck with plastic plumbing pipe.
Note to self, don’t buy plastic crap – if there is an alternative.
Nothing lasts, nothing is ever finished and nothing is perfect.
and this could not be more true when applied to plastic roof and gutter fittings.
Best wishes
Steve the lead-free plumber who is trying to reduce his dependance on plastic.
Dr. Steve Harrison PhD. MA (Hons)


Potter, kiln surgeon, clay doctor, wood butcher and Post Modern Peasant.

A world tour of our garden, in 3 meals.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, a world tour of our garden, in 3 meals.

Gardening is a very enjoyable activity. It gets us out into the fresh air, it’s good exercise and It provides most of all we eat each day. As the autumn progresses towards winter, the cooler weather encourages us to seek out more warming cooked meals. We indulge ourselves in reflecting on the people and places that inhabit our collective memories. Our conversations trigger memories of these people and places. Fond recollections of some past events and friends remembered through pots and food. We don’t attempt to make Italian, Spanish, Japanese or any other type of national cuisine. We make Australian food. Real food, home-grown, eaten fresh where possible, but when preserved, we do it without any added chemicals or preservatives. Preserved in glass jars, not plastic. and all home cooked. We just take the influences that we recall and weave them into our dietary choices, them combine our thoughts with what we actually have available to us from the garden.

This is what happened yesterday, in between, potting, gardening, wood cutting, kiln building and building maintenence. There is time for everything, in its own time.

For breakfast I cooked eggs in passata with a few cloves of garlic warmed in good olive oil first.  The passata I used on this occasion was made from little yellow, pear-shaped tomatoes that I preserved a couple of months ago, at the height of summer. The passata is heated up and the eggs cracked in and covered to gently simmer until the whites are firm. I served it up on a piece of rye sour dough toast.

I must say that it was just right for a cool, misty, foggy, morning breakfast. A little cracked pepper makes it perfect.

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We don’t quite lick the plates, but there is certainly nothing left.

For lunch I made and hotch potch from the left over baked vegetables that Nona Nina made for last nights dinner. Brussel sprouts, parsnip, leeks, carrots, pumpkin, onions, zucchini and beetroot. We had that garnished with preserved spicy plum sauce from our summer orchard fruit.

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These left-overs were added to some chorizo sausage, our garlic, olives and home-made dried tomatoes from the summer excess. A lovely way to use up everything that we have in different and interesting combinations. We haven’t bought any meat since Xmas as far as I can recall. We aren’t vegetarians, but we don’t eat a lot of meat. So this is our little indulgence, veggie hot-pot with chorizo. Hot, spicy and nicely warming.

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For dinner we decided to have Gyoza. I had previously bought 500g of lean pork and asked the butcher to mince it for me. I divided it into 4 parts and froze 3 of them for later. The 125g of pork mince is just the right amount to make gyoza for two. We fry the pork with lots of garlic in olive oil and some finely diced garden veggies. Then Ninako fills the small parcels with the mixture and I simmer and steam them in a sauce made from the last of the small red and yellow tomatoes from the garden, a few beans and some chillies. When this is reduced down, it makes a delicious simmer sauce.




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It all mellows out very nicely. 7 each is just the right number of gyoza dumplings for one hungry potter. This sauce, although not culturally authentic, is very well matched to what we are enjoying, and most importantly it is entirely ours, from our garden. This is our Australian ‘gyoza’ influenced local dumpling experience. I’ll have another go at it some time in the future, and I’m sure to enjoy that too. Nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts. This meal certainly didn’t!

It’s such an indulgence to tour the world of our recollections with such wholesome and tasty food, and almost entirely from our own produce.

We are very lucky people and I am grateful.

I have arranged to donate one of my recent bowls from my Watters Gallery exhibition to the fund-raiser appeal for the Nepalese victims of the recent earthquake. The pot will be auctioned soon. Please see below;

I believe you will have heard about the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal.

With the help of Vicki Grima, The Journal of Australian Ceramics editor, I am organising a fundraising project called CLAY FOR NEPAL (#clayfornepal15) to raise funds for the Nepalese people affected.

The first part of the project is an AUCTION of ceramics from around the world.

In conjunction with the AUCTION, Adriana Christianson, has offered to help me organise a BUY NOW STORE offering more affordable items for immediate purchase.

Both events will be happening from Friday 15 to Sunday 17 May 2015.



PREVIEW of available works for both events here

Thank you for your support,

Vipoo Srivilasa

contact :



All funds collected, less any event expenses (eBay and Paypal fees), will be donated to Oxfam, Nepal Earthquake Relief Appeal.

Vipoo Srivilasa is authorised by Oxfam Australia to collect funds for the benefit of Oxfam.

Vipoo is a very nice and thoughtful bloke who has taken on this endeavour of his own volition. It’s a credit to him and I am proud to be associated with the enterprise. Janine and I have donated cash through the Red Cross, but this is a way that we can do more, by doing what we do best. Which is making beautiful, thoughtful, meaningful objects.

 Best wishes


Stevbu and Ninako, gardeners of local produce and international flavours.

Play is the Best Part of Work

Our New Small Wood Fired Kiln

There is an amazing potter in Switzerland called Stefan Jakob, who specialises in raku firing. <>

He has been to Australia a few times. He is the inventor of the IKEA garbage tin raku kiln. It is a really impressive little kiln that is cheap, compact and very efficient of wood fuel. It fires raku really well and is such great fun.  It is such a great idea that I wish that I had thought of it:)

We organise wood firing weekend workshops here through the winter months and some of them are for wood fired raku. However, Janine uses these little wood fired kilns to do her earthenware glaze firings.

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Stefan worked with us here on a few occasions on his visits and he gave us one of his kilns each time he stayed. Having seen them work, it got me thinking that there might be another way of thinking about small efficient, portable, wood fired kilns. The only drawback to his fantastic idea is that the internal size of the garbage can is quite small and limited. So I decided to build a slightly larger size version of his concept. I made one lined in ceramic fibre like his original, but square and about 5 times larger in volume, so that we could fire larger and taller pots for the potters who come here for our raku weekend workshops.  Now I have just finished a couple of slightly larger square ones lined in light weight refractory insulating bricks. The great advantage of custom building the stainless steel box is that it can be whatever size and shape you think you might want.


Because this RI brick version is a little too heavy to lift and carry around like the garbage can kilns, I made this one in a custom-built stainless steel box on a galvanised RHS steel tube frame and lockable castor wheels. It has all the same advantages of the smaller fibre lined garbage tin kilns in that it is great fun, portable, very quick to fire, very efficient of the wood fuel and being top loading it is very safe, quick and easy to load and unload for raku.


I’m always busy. The kiln factory is full with a large gas-fired, front loading kiln, a relocatable top loading gas kiln with an extension ring and two of the new small wood fired raku kilns.



We had our first firing in it the other day, just to test it out and it worked really well.  Just 45 minutes up to 1100oC from cold, and then a 15 to 20 minute turn around for the raku. We used such a small amount of fuel, fallen branches/brush wood from the garden. Our big gum trees are alway dropping dead branches around the yard, so it was just 5 minutes work to collect enough for the firing.


This kiln sailed up to temperature so easily that I think it will be no trouble to take it up to 1200oC mid-fire and even stoneware in the future – when I get a bit more time.


This is about half of the amount of fuel that was used to get to 1100oC


I don’t propose that it will give any wood fired effects in such a short firing time, but it will melt glazes perfectly well. I did some research on one of my locally collected milled stone glazes a while back and I tried firing my little test kiln to stoneware in just 30 minutes with a 10 minute soak. I was able to do 6 firings to stoneware in one day and learnt a lot. If I kept a close eye on the temperature and used test rings to gauge the melting, I was able to get some lovely, soft looking, satiny matt glazes. So it is possible.

With so little at stake in a small kiln and the firing being so quick and easy, there is nothing to loose and everything to gain.  But more than that, it’s important to me to be able to make my ideas come to life and experiment with different concepts in my own way and in my own time. Play is the best part of work.