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