Among the consequences of the information age is the abundance of resources available to all, making our time one of the most phenomenal periods ever of intercultural growth. Greater accessibility of travel to distant places, satellites that beam pictures from remote corners of the globe, all forms of mass communication bringing distant cultures within our reach, along with multi-national commerce, have conspired to exponentially expand source material for an artist. The artists included here in their quest for a personal expression realize there is no escaping globalization and the long history of ceramic art. Instead they have embraced it.
My use of the term “contemporary American ceramists” includes the United States and Canada. These artists either exhibit in the United States, have studied here, or are currently expatriates. The cultural closeness between the two countries is blurred even further when filtered through the Chinese tradition. The interests and attitudes that we need to focus on and compare are between the contemporary ceramists, Yixing ware and the Chinese scholars. Within this chapter and earlier ones, some of the points are covered in greater depth. It is these underlying connections that help to further illuminate the reasons why so many contemporary Americans have become completely engaged in the study of Yixing ware.
Comparisons begin with the Chinese scholars’ desire to collect. They pursued anything that seemed curious or unusual—from paintings to objects of antiquity to newly made creations. Scholars assembled a large library of books, loved to engage in intellectual discourse and enjoyed extensive travel. As the Ming scholar Li Zhaoheng remarked, “One of the basic requirements is to walk 10,000 miles and read 10,000 books.” The scholars maintained a close student-teacher relationship. They respected the work of artists who preceded them. In the hope of achieving the full flowering of their intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, the scholars carefully chose aesthetic surroundings, wanted a politically stable and just government, sought a supportive spouse and desired a degree of wealth and the independence it confers. Under these conditions the scholars could devote their time and energy to the arts. Although the ideal life was not based on material gain, considerable resources were needed to pursue their interest in collecting the objects that filled their homes and studios. A similarity also stems from the Taoist/Buddhist ideals that gave the scholars a deep attraction and reverence for the beauty in nature. This aligns with the ideals of many contemporary artists who share that reverence and have been linked with (Zen) Buddhist attitudes. Other connections include the types of jobs they undertook, their attendant problems and the reactions and resolutions that were sought, By the end of the Ming Dynasty there was a trend among scholars, those who had the financial resources, to have more than one residence and reap the benefits from different manners of living. Many of the contemporary artists leave their year-round homes to take a summer residency or they have a summer studio to escape the heat, seek solitude or engage the company of other artists.
Yixing ware was first brought to the attention of many ceramics students at the Kansas City Art Institute, where they saw the outstanding collection of Yixing ware at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Ken Ferguson, who taught ceramics at the Kansas City Art Institute, had been the resident director at the Archie Bray Foundation from 1958 to 1964, when he left to take the teaching position in Kansas City. Subsequently, several of his former students went to Montana to become residents at the Bray. KCAI students represented here are Gail Busch, Chris Gustin, Geo Lastomirsky, Bruce Morozco, Richard Notkin and Kurt Weiser (who became the Bray’s resident director from 1977 to 1988). Ferguson was a graduate of the New York College of Ceramics at Alfred University and sent many KCAI students there to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree. Along with KCAI graduates Gail Busch and Chris Gustin, seven other artists—Chuck Aydlett, Chris Berti, Bruce Cochrane, Kim Dickey, Louis Marak, Peter Pinnell and Eric Van Eimeren—are Alfred graduates.
With the Holter Museum of Art as the anchor of a supportive arts community, the natural scenery, relaxed atmosphere, frequent stopovers by a variety of artists and collegial interactions among friends induced Richard Notkin to come to Helena in 1994 to build his home and studio where Eric Van Eimeren and Richard Swanson are also year-round residents – There are a number of former Bray studio residents included here — Chuck Aydlett, Lesley Baker, Susan Beiner, Gail Busch, Kim Dickey, Leslie Ferst, Chris Gustin, Pete Pinnell, Betsy Rosenmiller, Kathleen Royster and Jason Walker—bringing the total with Helena connections to fifteen. Pete Pinnell said it best,”It’s remarkable how it all intersects in this little town in Montana. The most influential twentieth-century artists working in clay have all spent time working at the Bray.” Clearly, their knowledge and appreciation of Yixing ware followed wherever these artiste found a place to live and work.
As I continued to review the work of the contemporary ceramists, distinct patterns began to develop. The connoisseur of Yixing ware identifies them by style. They are the naturalistic which resemble tree trunks, plants and flowers; the ribbed/segmented which are stylized fruits, flowers and plants; the geometric which includes spheres, cubes, cylinders and rectangles; plus a fourth category of miniature teapots used for kung-fu tea, a thick brandy-like infusion. To my eye the contemporary ceramists form the following four categories: nature, storytellers, manmade and pots. Like the Yixing styles, these are not mutually exclusive as many works overlap categories and so can be placed in two or more areas.
Nature, the category with the largest representation, corresponds to the use of trees; rocks; plants and flowers. Gayle Fichtinger’s logs, Bonnie Seeman’s gourds and Geo Lastomirsky’s rock compositions distinctly fail under this heading. Storytellers use their imagery to share parables or fables or relate personal anecdotes or universal allegories. Red Weldon-Sandlin, Susan Thayer and Richard Shaw are a few example that fit this grouping. Pots are those works using the traditional vessel form. Most of these are functional and express beauty in conjunction with usage, relating directly to the Yixing tradition in that way. For others in this category functionality is incidental. Although water can flow through them, they are filled by ideas- The worb of Peter Pinnell and Bruce Cochrane help to define the former, with Chris Gustin in the latter part of this group. Manmade uses the ceramic likeness or the actual manufactured, fabricated and machine-created parts as the compositional components. The use of this imagery as form vocabulary is uniquely contemporary. Marilyn Levine, Jason Walker and John Goodheart are prime examples.
Sometimes the references to Yixing ware are historical while some are personal, using the teapot as the vehicle for their message. Some are elaborate with an effusive use of imagery, while others show an economy of means. Other works have no teapot reference because they are based solely on the philosophical aspects of the scholars, aesthetic. Some are innovative in their form vocabulary, while others stress a classical formal approach or have been filtered through European extractions.
This chapter of contemporary work has purposely not been placed under specific headings to avoid the contradictions that can occur when pieces overlap into other categories. Each viewer can make his or her own decision. Discovering and electing the categories will engage your intellect and enrich your enjoyment, I hope, as much as they have mine.
Of all the artists represented in this catalogue, Richard Notkin’s work is the most tightly focused on the Yixing tradition. He was the first to successfully adopt the artistic precedents instilled within the Yixing aesthetic, and so any discussion of contemporary American artists inspired by Yixing ware must begin with him.
Using Yixing teapots as a template for expressing social commentary, Notkin has used this springboard for the past quarter century. While earning worldwide attention from all who know and love traditional Yixing ware, at the same time he has influenced a great number of artiste including many in this volume. Kim Dickey said,”. . . as an undergraduate it was a revelation to see the work of Richard Notkin, which confirmed my own commitment to making one-of-kind functional ceramics that marries sculptural expression with utilitarian form, Bruce Morozco said, “Making sculpture using hollow-forming techniques with clay was first brought to my attention when I saw what Richard Notkin was up to at the Kansas City Art Institute, I was totally into the look of his work and this brought me to my first exposure of Yixing ware.”
Looking beyond their function, Notkin discovered that the small, quiet teapots from Yixing had narrative qualities that revealed themselves as profoundly powerful works of art. Although his clay color and compositions echo the teapots of Yixing, his choice of symbols and use of imagery make them very Western, bringing new meaning to the format.
The initial pieces in his Yixing Series were the Cooling Towers and Sidewalk teapots. Coming full circle, they appeared in the exhibition “Echoes: Historical References in Contemporary Ceramic Art” (1983) at the Nelson-Atkins, back in Kansas City.
The use of symbolic language has from the outset been a part of the Yixing tradition. Each Yixing teapot embodies an auspicious meaning, recognized and contemplated by the scholars when drinking tea. From the beginning of the Yixing Series, Notkin’s symbolic imagery confronted us with not only the obvious dangers of electrical energy generated by nuclear power, but the symbiotic connection between the nuclear energy industry and the nuclear armaments industry. Yixing ware, conversely, gave no hint of the turmoil of the times. Notkin’s art has distinguished itself from traditional Yixing ware because the scholars, art did not portray issues of social greed, corruption or warfare.
Their unwillingness to do so could be construed as an abdication of their social and artistic responsibility. Notkin’s expression is endemic to America’s counter culture and a reflection of our constitutionally protected freedom of speech. The scholars held fiercely to a belief of loyalty and honor to their rulers. Additionally, they had no protections and so rarely sought radical or revolutionary measures as a means of attaining their ideals. The scholars would take a passive role and shape their goals to follow accepted imperial edicts. Although they never led movements to overthrow dynasties, many became increasingly involved with politics toward the end of the Ming era after the execution of numerous innocent scholars.
The Yixing teapot One Thousand Nuts provided inspiration for Notkin’s Nuclear Nuts series, which directly focused on the threat of nuclear weaponry. For the Chinese, a mushroom (inverted here as the lid whose stem becomes the knob) confers longevity. The nuts and the multi-seeded pomegranate symbolize fertility and the seeds, abundance. Notkin’s teapot turns the symbolism of its Yixing counterpart upside down. He re-inverts the mushroom, re-modeling it as a nuclear mushroom cloud. He then uses a lightning bolt as handle to hint of energy and the immediacy of the threat, nuts become feet and a sense of the gamble, or risks, is seen in the spout of stacked dice. In total, his symbolic visual vocabulary reads: “Our flirtation with nuclear weaponry and nuclear energy is a dicey proposition. Look what can happen. It’s nuts!” The Yixing version symbolizes life, fertility and procreation. Notkin’s symbolizes death, radiation and destruction. The message here becomes even more poignant and horrific when a pot of tea, that retreat from daily cares, might be brewed with radioactive water.
In December 1991, Richard Notkin spent a month traveling in China, accompanied by the Taiwanese artist Ah-Leon. Ah-Leon served as guide and interpreter, while helping to initiate Notkin into the world of Chinese tea culture. Over the years, the two have shared and exchanged many cultural and artistic perspectives. The cross fertilization helped Notkin in his reinterpretation of the Eastern teapot aesthetic, while Ah-Leon’s work expanded to encompass Western sculptural ideas that excluded the teapot. Ah-Leon, a master of the Yixing teapot tradition, has also been a highly influential force among a wide group of American ceramists. By virtue of the many workshops and exhibitions he has given, several artists have learned his perspective—so much so, they were compelled to reference him in their statements.
During 1991 trip Notkin had stopped to see the K. S. Lo Collection at the Flagstaff House Museum of Teaware in Hong Kong. Notkin had arranged to meet with K. S. Lo, author of The Stonewares of Yixing. Dt. Lo’s passion reaches beyond his book and fine collection of teawares. He had played the role of patron similar to the one carried out by Chen Mansheng one hundred and sixty years earlier. K.S. Lo took on the task of reviving interest in Yixing ware at a time when its quality and unique creative ideas had disappeared. Like Chen Mansheng, Dr. Lo sought to raise the quality of the wares by commissioning work set to standards, He began by challenging the teapot makers to produce pieces equal to the quality of the best of the late Ming dynasty teapots, restoring the sense of craftsmanship and innovative designs that had been lost.
In the early twentieth century, with the disappearance of the scholar class and the political turmoil brought on by the fighting factions of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, quality Yixing ware and all the arts in China went into decline for nearly three quarters of the century. Only inferior copies of classic late Ming/early Qing dynasty teapots were being produced. Save for a very few remaining Yixing masters, the rest of the teawares were at the low end of craftsmanship.
During the “Cultural Revolution” (circa 1968), the individual potters were reorganized into production brigades, each of which was given a collective name. The teapot makers, including those previously regarded as masters, were no longer allowed to impress their Individual chopmarks on their teapots, but instead were required to use only the chopmark of their production brigade, often on the underside of the lids. The bases of these teapots were stamped only with a chop containing the four calligraphic symbols “Zhong guo Yixing (Yixing, China).” These production brigades were controlled by politicians and bureaucrats who generally knew nothing about the arts. In keeping with the spirit of the “Cultural Revolution,” these authorities forbade any hint of individual style, often forcing formerly celebrated master potters to make the most basic and mundane of the mass-produced wares, a misguided attempt to remove the status a particular potter had attained during years of personal innovation and dedication. Not until 1979 were most of the ideological excesses and repressive restrictions of the “Cultural Revolution” lifted.
It was in that year that Dr. Lo made the first of his three journeys to Yixing. Dn Lo showed the potters pictures of the best late Ming dynasty teapots, challenging them to make pieces of equal quality. With an offer to buy the teapots, he commissioned twenty of the top former master potters to work for one year, creating teapots of their own unique designs. Dr. Lo did include a proviso with three conditions. The first asked that in addition to any chopmarks that might be used, each teapot was to be signed and dated by the potter with his own hand (this was to prevent future forgeries, as most of the classic teapots have been repeatedly counterfeited, often using the actual chops, if not the forged chops of the original potter). The second condition was that, after the teapots were completed, Dr. Lo’s associate, Mr. Yip, would inspect them, rejecting any that were not up to the highest standards of aesthetics and craftsmanship. The third condition was the teapots could not be duplicated and sold to others; each piece was to remain unique. The conditions placed upon the potters were eventually lightened and the designs commissioned by Dr. Lo were recreated to fill the demands of a growing market. The latest revival of the Yixing teapot industry had begun, and in the last twenty-five years, the artists of Yixing have once again been exercising their artistic inheritance.
During their visit, Dr. Lo challenged Notkin to help in the international rebirth of Yixing ware. Picking up the mantle, Notkin began to set up exchanges between Western and Chinese potters. To that end, he brought the first artist from Yixing to the United States, Zhou Dingfang, in 1999. The fruits of his efforts have made Richard Notkin the unquestioned leader most responsible for the American Yixing revival.
The theme of nature permeates all Chinese thought—philosophy, religion, architecture, medicine and the art of the scholars- The scholars’ art was imbued not only with symbolic value, but they assigned human emotions to plants and flowers. This stands in contrast to the Western tradition of art, which uses the human body as the basic means of expressing human emotions. The formal elements of nature contain within them a vast and rich conceptual universe, a sentiment shared by many contemporary ceramic artists.
Kathleen Royster’s work expresses her interest in Yixing ware through the use of organic forms. The strength of Royster’s work is her symbolic use of leaves, thorns and fruit. These elements speak of vulnerability, pleasure and pain. Derived from her life experiences, she uses them for their polemic and contradictory values. Roysters interaction of these elements suggests their symbiotic relationship. The leaves, for example, may invite the viewer in, but twisting vines with thorns remind us of the consequence of this enticement. Her variations of Be Still…speak to this emotional tension. The feminine pear shape is sliced revealing the skin, Eliminating the protective layer to expose the flesh intimates pleasure and vulnerability. The leaves can only offer an inadequate protection. The long thin stem, which makes for an unbalanced footing, furthers the suggestion of susceptibility. What she subtly portrays is a visual drama of self-reflection.
Several years ago Bonnie Seeman dealt with the illness and eventual death of someone very dose to her. The ordeal affected the way she thinks about life, death and the struggle for survival. This has become the driving force expressed in her work. She was moved by the desire and determination of people who were ill, their spirituality, inner strength and dignified beauty. However Seeman’s works are not meant to dwell on the concept of dying. They are about beauty, abundance, the affirmation and regeneration of life.
Her naturalistic, exquisitely detailed teapots, derived from nature, at first glance might be considered an extension of European traditions. Some of the forms are similar, and she works in porcelain. Bearing in mind that European teapots emanate from Yixing prototypes, Seeman states, “I feel a stronger connection to Yixing teapots, I have become a collector of these teapots and over time I have found that my work has become more and more influenced by them.”
Seeman’s Pomegranate Teapot, made of porcelain and glass, has part of its skin peeled away suggesting vulnerability and revealing the fruit inside. White her hope is to show the beauty that can be found in nature, what she references is the process of survival. The pomegranate with its many seeds is one of the Chinese symbols of the Three Abundances, representing long life, numerous offspring and happiness. Teapot is the shape of a gourd. For the Chinese the gourd served as a talisman to ward off evil. Because its shell is so durable, it too came to symbolize longevity.
Like Bonnie Seeman, Claudia Tarantino reproduces fruit as a metaphor for the cycle of life, its elegance and transience. Tarantino often uses the ripe fig, another heavily seeded fruit, that grows in abundance near her home in San Anselmo, California. Tarantino’s porcelain vessels bring us to that brief moment when the fruit is at its prime, ready to burst and give forth seeds for the next generation. Her use of soft colors, sensual surfaces and exotic blossoms speak about ripeness and growth, the pregnant woman swollen with life.
Citing Yixing teapots as one of her earliest sources of inspiration, Betsy Rosenmiller’s slipcast and handbuilt teapots respond to the power of nature and memory. Although her works draw upon the idea of the teapot and are perfectly capable of holding and pouring tea, they are not designed with function in mind. For Rosenmiller, leaves play an important symbolic role. Applied onto the surface, she uses them to represent budding and growth or death and decay. She considers the teapot as a conduit to memories, tradition and ritual, a sacred object that can make the commonplace an event. The vessels used for special occasions—a teapot, a pitcher or cup—can become the touchstones of that celebration. “A handmade ceramic piece can enhance the ritual of a meal because it has a soul, if not a soul of its own, then a small piece of mine which remains in the piece.”
Earlier I noted the gardens built by the scholars; however not all scholars had the means to create such complex gardens. At the very least, a pastime they all would engage in was the cultivation of penjing (potted plants) or basin scenes (adopted by the Japanese, known as bonsai). As a way of uplifting their spirits, scholars ingeniously contrived small basin scenes using rocks, small trees and figures to form vistas representing famous sites. The scholars followed certain criteria, stressing the color and shape of the tree, as well as the rocks. The material of the basin was also important, and here again Yixing ware became essential Most scholars had smaller courtyard gardens where they grew trees and flowers or placed potted plants on steps. Viewing gardens was considered to be part of a total, absorbing experience. When particularly beautiful or interesting flowers were in bloom, it was a cause to invite friends, brew tea and diant poetry.
Several of the contemporary ceramists representing their interest in plants have been drawn to Yixing teapots that reference tree trunks, brandies, seedpods, nuts and gourds. Canadian expatriate and Seattle resident Carol Gouthro is probably the most impassioned gardener of the group. She has contemplated Yixing ware for over thirty years and in 1999 made her pilgrimage there, A self-confessed obsessive about gardening, she tends a full sun garden, a native woodland garden, a shade garden, a bog garden, as well as an herbaceous flowerbed. To inform her clay work, she seeks out plants with unusual forms and textures, adding color and fragrance to her criteria for selection. Incorporated into her teapots and goblets are acorn motifs, pod forms, flowers and branches to serve as feet or handles and different organic fronds for other compositional components .
The work of Susan Bostwick is inspired by the rural landscape that surrounds her Illinois home, but more directly by the hours spent raking fallen fruit on her hands and knees in the garden. The issues she explores are simple but to her feel sacred. She is sensitive to the possibilities of beauty in the simple arrangement that may be lying at her feet. The ideals behind Yixing ware, along with a craving for ritual, guide and affect her choices. Bostwick’s work, constructed in earthenware and finished with layers of slips, stains, glazes, oils and occasionally bronze, reflect memories and the cycles that come with changes in the weather, the seasons and life.
Amy Lenharth, another passionate gardener, received her undergraduate degree in horticulture. For years she worked as a landscape and flora! designer. When she began to work with clay, organic shapes and leaves soon became a part of her form vocabulary. Lenharth’s porcelain and stoneware teapots, like many of the Yixing pots, combine a love of nature with function.
While in graduate school in the 1970s, Kathryn McBride saw her first Yixing teapots at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. What caught her attention were their highly refined craftsmanship, details and precious size. Interpreting the same fruits that inspired the Yixing masters, she has brought those same attributes to her cups and teapots.
McBride lives on the northern edge of California’s Monterey Bay. Her work has become as much an expression of her childhood memories as they are the fruits of the rich soil and temperate climate. She approaches her work with the memory of a little girl who would pick fruit that her grandmother baked into tasty pies. She creates her teapots, in the shape of a persimmon or pomegranate, with the same patience, care and attention to detail as home-cooked food. McBride intention is not for them to serve drink, but to bring forth a reminder of the innocence of youth and times at home with family.
Kim Dickey’s plant interpretations also speak an abstracted rather than a representational organic language. They are part memory and part imagination, informed by years of following her mother in the garden. Dickey’s Dahlia Bush has a clear affinity to the Yixing potters in her use of material and in utilizing a single flower to tell a story.
Some of Dickey’s vessels, like Jewel Weed Bow! Set, reinterpret bocage. Like Yixing teapots, these too are a marriage of sculptural expression and utility. Influenced by eighteenth-century European ceramic designs that were imitations of natural forms, they balance the wholly organic with an ornate curvilinear rococo style. Whereas the European examples, in many cases, managed to suppress the lifelike feel of the organic model Dickey breathes life in. Her five-piece stacked place setting, The Fall Set, might have been the perfect accoutrement for Chinese scholars who liked to convene in the garden to sip tea and share a meal. The scholars put their stamp of approval on works of art that exhibited naturalness, fine detail and great refinement, declaring that works of meticulous execution possessed the scholars’ spirit The top of Dickey’s set has a cup, supported by a stack of nesting dishes. Each dish could be used for a separate course. After one is removed, another is revealed. As the set is disassembled, the participant has descended into the final course.
John Click has been making teapots for over forty years. The inspiration for his Fruit Teapot series comes from the small orchard of fruit trees that encircle the farm that his home and studio occupy. In 1995 he met Yixing artist Zhou Dingfang at the international Potters Conference in Aberystwyth, Wales. Zhou Dingfang is well-known for her allegorical trompe I’oeil teapots. Glick subsequently traveled to Yixing in the spring of 1998, visiting Zhou Dingfang at her studio. He reminisced, “I was fortunate enough to acquire a tiny teapot in the shape of a dragon kiln complete with piles of discarded pots and a chimney. Beyond that quite lovely realm of use lies another more fanciful territory that touches on the imagination, the teapot as storyteller Zhou Dingfang’s Dragon Kiln teapot is a perfectly functional teapot as well as a beautiful story.”
An omnipresent design motif in Yixing ware is a variety of tree stump teapots, mostly of cut pine representing one of the Three Friends of Winter, Jeff Irwin has used these quite often as a point of departure. He paints onto his white earthenware teapots an application of black engobe. This approach was influenced by his early interest in German Expressionist woodblock prints. In 1984 he traveled throughout China, eventually making his way to Yixing, While in China he came upon stone rubbings taken from stelae and tablets whose appearance looked like woodblock prints. What he had discovered were rubbings made by the scholars as models for paintings and calligraphic carvings. This discovery led him to Chinese woodblock prints. Woodblock printing had first appeared in China during the Tang dynasty. By the Song dynasty classical texts and historic writings used this technique for pictures that explained the text’s content. There were also pictorial publications that used the woodblock printed image as their central theme. The imagery reached such a high level of excellence they were thought of as artistic objects worthy of appreciation by the scholars.
In the later part of the nineteenth century, white unglazed porcelain with black enamel motifs began to appear in scholars’ studios. Irwin’s, as well as Jason Walkers black-and-white teapots portray a personal iconography that becomes a narrative examination of political, soda! and environmental issues. We gain insight into their thoughts and commentary through the use of titles. Irwin’s Takeout Teapot with Trash and Walker’s Fist Into A Wasp Nest are painted in a way that both enhances and defines the formal aspects of the composition and in other ways visually obscures them. In the end it all works to provoke questions while directing us to examine the ambiguities of reality, illusion and perception.
Gayle Fichtinger realistically reproduces cut wood in unglazed red clay, directly relating to the Yixing tradition. In 1613, Chen Zhongmei made a teapot in the form of a bundle of bamboo. The bundle represented the use of bamboo as the primary fuel for cooking and heating water for tea. Fichtinger’s logs are sculptures, not functional objects. In this way they present wood as an icon, giving thanks and showing reverence to that source of heat and light.
Fichtinger approaches each split log as if sculpting a portrait. The personality of each is meticulously sculpted knot by knot, worm hole by chew mark, revealing the nuances of growth rings, saw cuts, scars, lichens and bark patterns. The intent is to deliver the object for consideration. In direct harmony with the scholars’ aesthetic sensibilities, they are simple, unaffected and meditative. These are not a romanticized narrative; they simply share an allegory through their direct physical evidence, leaving nature to tell its own story. The narrative intrinsic within it is for us to discover What becomes important is that we are attentive to the clues that reveal the balancing act between mankind and nature.
The Chinese scholars felt art should be concerned with capturing the randomness and unpredictability of creation. To that end, their interests gravitated to the acquisition of rocks and stones. As early as the Tang dynasty, rocks were collected as objects of connoisseurship. An omnipresent feature in the scholars studio and garden, important stones were celebrated in paintings and poems and so were given a place of honor, acquiring the term “scholar’s” rode Scholars became all but addicted to “strange rocks.’ During the Song dynasty, individuals developed such an intense passion that their obsession led to a virtual rode mania, The value of a scholar’s rock does not lie in its material, as is the case in the West with what we regard as precious stones. For the scholar they were a symbol of the living earth. These isolated landscapes were mountains in miniature, a microcosm that represented the place where scholars wished to ascend to clarify and purify their thoughts and spirit.
Stones were valued for their shapes, colors and textures. Their forms, not limited to one image, could hold many possible evocations. At once figurative and abstract, these rocks reveal how the scholar recognized the conceptual link between nature and man. Placed on the floor or on the scholar’s desk, they were objects of contemplation. While scholars admired larger rocks, they were equally drawn to others of smaller dimensions. Pebbles compact enough to be held in the hands were avidly collected, particularly if they displayed odd shapes or markings. Their smoothness served as fondling pieces, and scholars enlisted their subdued color and translucency as aids to meditation. Poetic names and legends surrounded curious phenomenon such as the yuhua or “rain flower” pebbles found near Nanjing, which are variously patterned with asymmetrical-colored swirls or with remarkably regular spots and circles. These pebbles are said to have been crystallized from the flowers thrown from heaven while a great Buddhist monk preached, In Chinese mythology, rocks are regarded as petrified “cloud roots”.
Fantastic porous rocks from Taihu, the lake on which Yixing is located, came to symbolize magical mountains populated by immortals. The stones removed from the lake, with eccentric shapes and lots of large cavities, are a naturally eroded limestone with various combinations of minerals and chemical components. Specimens, as large as fifty feet, were excavated from the lake or its underground caves and placed in gardens. For the scholar, such awe-inspiring rocks were visible embodiments of integrity and incorruptibility.
Rick Hirsch is among the artists whose work has unexpected yet strong ties to Yixing ware. He owns a fine collection of Yixing teapots, yet he does not make teapots or anything in unglazed clay. However Yixing ware led him to discover the art of the Chinese scholars. and so his work has gathered references from and consciously draws on objects other than teapots that were created for the scholar’s table. The large collection of scholar rocks he has assembled is at the artistic core of his current work. The large bowls are containers of implied use that have placed in them artfully shaped weapons, pestles and ladles. The bowls, positioned on pedestals, seem as if they were wrenched from nature. Resonating like ancient artifacts, the rich patina on the base, bowl and tools suggests usage and the effects of time.
In Chinese art, objects harvested from nature were almost always mounted on a beautifully crafted wooden stand. The delicately carved bases were well matched, making them more than just a pedestal for display. As early as the Neolithic period, ritual objects were placed on pedestals or platforms as a means of elevating them into the realm of the sacred. Therefore, a rock mounted on a wooden base becomes an isolated landscape and so is elevated into art. This is analogous to the Dada concept of placing everyday objects in a museum or gallery where they are transformed by virtue of being introduced in that context. Marcel Duchamp’s signed urinal is a prime example. When these objects are removed from their setting, they revert back to what they were. Rick Hirsch’s bowls placed upon their pedestals also become sanctified, making them objects requiring our contemplation.
Barbara Frey also uses the image of rocks. Frey, a member of the group in 1996 who worked at the Purple Sand Factory #5 in Yixing, slab-constructs her teapots. Taking the shape of boats, they are comprised of porcelain stones created in homage to the smooth round stones she finds on the shores of Lake Ontario. Frey colors the slabs prior to construction, infusing Mason stains and flux washes into the porcelain to give the day its color. Here color becomes integral to the structure, achieving a fusion of form and surface that allows for clarity of detail.
Like the teapots of Yixing, hers are relatively small-scale and rely on the beauty of an unglazed surface. Unlike Yixing ware, Frey’s teapots are nominally functional. Liquid can pass through them, but that is a secondary concern to the symbolic references she accommodates, Frey stacks and arranges her porcelain stones and pebbles to form boats like those omnipresent on the canal banks of Yixing that are loaded with pots. The canal-barge teapot in my collection was inspired by this ubiquitous sight. Throughout history boats have been symbolically linked to the idea of a journey or passage, a connection between the past and the present, this world and the next. Frey’s vessels can take us on a voyage of discovery that brings with it many associations. The journey may take us past a winding shoreline, by rolling landscapes, then shift to consider their kinship to Yixing teapots, then back again in time for tea.
Geo Lastomirsky was introduced to Yixing teapots as a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, Like much of Yixing ware, his work is small, intimate and delicate, using rocks and wood as source material. Embodying the full spirit and understanding of Yixing ware, subtlety is at the core of Lastomirsky’s work. His rock-formation teapots are about an unwavering quietude we experience when finding ourselves alone, high on a mountain path or deep within the confines of nature. Fully internalizing the feeling of nature, Lastomirsky shared, “I am constantly struck by the sheer majesty of the natural world and the power it has over me. The monumentality I seek to build into my work is a reflection of the places of excruciating beauty I have visited. I have stood where nature is supreme and felt subordinate to it. At those times my senses and everything I know from my urban existence have been overridden as these places say to me, ‘I am the patience of the ages.'”
The artistic skill and meticulous craftsmanship of his piled stone teapots, which take up to six weeks to produce, earned the respect of the Yixing potters who invited him to the First Yixing Symposium for Western Potters in 1996. He made subsequent trips to exhibit at the First Yixing international Art Exhibition (1998) and as an invitee of the Alfred University Summer Workshop at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Art Academy (1998). In 2001 he was a featured speaker and exhibitor at the Yixing International Ceramic Art Teapot Symposium, along with Richard Notkin and me.
In addition to using a Yixing-Like terracotta clay, Lastomirsky also employs porcelain, gleaning from the experience of working in Jingdezhen. His process for Teapot #51 is a careful paring away of the extraneous to reveal the spirit within, analogous to the way scholars altered a scholar’s rock. Teapot #41 evokes a feeling of gazing at China’s famed White Cloud Mountain. We are asked to contemplate not only the meaning of the abstraction, but at the same time search for the teapot’s handle, lid and spout. Unexpectedly, the top of Lastomirsky’s mountain becomes a lid. Fragrant tea can stream through a fissure in another rock to pour down like a graceful waterfall, spilling gently onto the stones below and flow off into the river. In the end, it is that balance between Eastern and Western thought that finds its way into Lastomirsky and out to his work.
Bruce Morozco’s artwork portrays animated life forces and ritual with roots in Chinese Han dynasty, prehistoric Japanese jomon and Yixing ceramics. In the early 1970s while he was a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, peers Chris Gustin, Kurt Weiser and Richard Notkin, in conjunction with the collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, drew Yixing ware to his attention. During that time Richard Shaw came to KCAI as a visiting artist Shaw had recently completed his first collaboration with Robert Hudson. As Morozco reflected, “If those guys were all into Yixing ware, then it certainly was going to influence my work as well, Yixing ware made me feel a sense of integrated and complex visual concerns that seemed so contemporary and fascinating. I also was very attracted to the natural clay body which appealed to my pure sculptural sensibilities.” The Yixing treatment of the teapot as sculpture and the disregard for glazes allowing the clay alone to speak had a lasting effect.
Chris Berti carves brick in a way that is also analogous to how Gongchun carved the teapot. Since brick is fired clay, his carving exploits the quakes of the natural color and unglazed surface much like Yixing teapots. Using the stone-carving tools his grandfather left him, Berti’s approach is tantamount to exposing an artifact or fossil, By unearthing the brick’s sub layers he not only reveals a form, but the aggregates and varied colors of carbon coring that are contained within them.
The art of carving was an area that the Chinese scholars had fully embraced. Besides carving onto the sides of Yixing teapots, they enjoyed carving bamboo, ivory, rhinoceros horn and porcelain. Carving has a long artistic tradition in China, its earliest known use in sculpture, dating from around the third century BC, is a carving of an imaginary beast fashioned from a lacquered tree root. The scholars had first carved calligraphy in stone where the finest examples were done on stelae and tablets. By the late sixteenth century, seal carving became one of the most important artistic expressions of the scholars, reaching maturity during the Qing dynasty. Although scholars might be brush painters, poets or calligraphers, they could distinguish themselves by seal carving, and those who specialized in it were in great demand. A cultivated person could not allow himself the use of seals that showed a lack of learning or taste, and the quality, sensitivity and delicacy of the carving became the subject of intense scrutiny and endless debate. In the nineteenth century when teapots were hand-built with slabs and press molds, many Yixing potters began to carve in a variety of styles and techniques. Birds, delicate flowers and descriptive scenes of figures in landscapes or garden settings, almost like paintings in relief, became highly individualistic objects for the scholar’s table.
Chris Berti’s symbolic narratives are a reaction to the images he sees everyday: birds, insects^ a cup or a boat. Placed on a plinth-like base, his carved forms reveal an essential spirit, making ordinary imagery feel significant. Chinese scholars often used the image of a boat, usually with the inclusion of a person fishing (themselves or another scholar) to symbolize solitude, reflection and contemplation. Berti uses it in much the same way. Expressing his life’s experiences, Berti’s Broach is a small rowboat. In this context, “broach” refers to the nautical term of being turned broadside to the wind by heavy seas with a risk of capsizing. Therefore, Berti’s dory is empty, devoid of passengers or cargo. This suggestion may be taken as an autobiographical statement of solitude. A native New Yorker, Berti now lives on the prairies of Illinois. Away from friends, family and the cultural centers of the east he may well be symbolically sharing the loneliness and solitude one feels while living in a distant locale.
Michael Sherrill is primarily a self-taught artist; many Chinese scholars were also self-taught. The well-known bibliophile Yao Shilin (1561 -1651), for example, confessed that at the age of twenty he was still illiterate, but had supported himself by painting portraits. The scholars, like Sherrill, gained acceptance from their formally trained colleagues based on their artistic accomplishments.
Sherrill’s studio is located at the end of a long dirt road in the rolling countryside of western North Carolina. Like the Chinese scholars who sought out mountain retreats for the purpose of meditation and to become closer to nature, he seeks in his work to reflect an understanding gained from this setting. Observing the beauty of nature’s forms, his tourde force replications, in porcelain and steel, are a pure study of nature and the ephemeral. The color palette is rich and subtle, each hue and shading fully integrated as clay and color become one. A tool for meditation, his work freezes nature in time allowing us to study its nuance over long periods, thereby permitting us the opportunity for deeper insights.
In China I happened upon sculptural objects shaped by nature, which the Chinese call gen yi (root art). Little-known in the West, the twisted tree roots and gnarled wood forms of root art were collected and judged by scholars with the same standards as rocks. In Chan Buddhism, gnarled and twisted forms of ancient trees were read as nature’s code of transformation. The symbol of the ancient withered tree was an object of contemplation toward enlightenment and transcendence.
Although I had been acquiring Yixing teapots for many years, they never had a direct impact on my own ceramic work. As much as I was enamored with everything about them, I simply did not see the teapot as my vehicle for expression. Now Yixing ware led me to a potent catalyst that sparked my interest as a source to directly draw upon. At long last, the Yixing effect had taken hold.
When viewing Cup and Stand, one inevitably sees the bird form, while at the same time seeing the vessel reference. When we look at a Yixing teapot, we might see a tree trunk, a dragon or a bundle of bamboo, but we simultaneously see the teapot. This hybridization of sculpture and vessel is one of the lessons Yixing ware provides.
The more abstract forms of root art lend themselves to a wider range of possibilities. Reminiscent of clouds, one might see them take the shape of a dancing figure or recognizable animal, then change again from a shift in the wind or the movement of the viewer. In Blue Root and Arrecife, my hope is to create a new kind of form that empowers the viewer to bring forth the image. Made by twisting, twirling, tearing and spiraling chunks of clay, these components are manipulated and assembled. The concept is to control the growth process while allowing for unexpected forms to appear For centuries, beginning with painting, this approach had been a feature of the scholars” art.
The use of chance, a controlled accident, is an inherent part of a raku firing, which is how I finish my pieces. This perfectly matches my construction process and appreciation of the ephemeral in nature. Raku is about fragility, and each time a piece is removed from the kiln it can be lost.
The fusion of symbolic forms works well with the teapot vocabulary and is often replete with indirect messages. Since natural phenomena were felt to be the visible manifestations of the workings of the universe, it evolved that the representation of these phenomena in Chinese art became the symbolic language of abstract generalized forms. Chinese scholars had long used avian subjects on teapots, in paintings and other articles used in the scholar’s studio. Many scholars owned caged songbirds (as Chinese do today), which they loved as an auditory accompaniment when strolling or sitting in teahouses. They used birds to symbolize longevity, fidelity, strength and endurance.
Birds appear as a primary decorative motif for a number of contemporary artists. As the Chinese scholars carved birds on Yixing teapots to represent various qualities of human nature, Phil Cornelius is similarly using them as a mirror to hold in front of us. Cornelius was among the group of sixteen American ceramists who traveled to Yixing for the First Yixing Teapot Symposium in 1996. As in the Yixing prototypes, Cornelius deals with pure form and the use of a monochromatic finish to enhance the shape of his battleship, tank or silo-like images. Using ultra-thin slabs of porcelain to construct his teapots, their delicate construction speaks to vulnerability that he plays against a form vocabulary that references strength and machismo. As a child growing up in California, he played in orange groves. While in college he was drafted into the army. The balance between those worlds seems to come into play. Teapots that might suggest one statement if restricted solely to military motifs become tempered with the appearance of birds that perch as handles, lids or spouts, Birds are the first to flee at the arrival of danger Their presence signals that, although danger is about, for the moment all is well.
Annette Corcoran, a long-time bird watcher, is inspired by birds that migrate past her home near Monterey on the California coast. Corcoran initially gained knowledge of the scholars and Yixing ware while studying Chinese history at the University of California, Berkeley. When she began working in clay, around 1970, she started by making small gourd- and pumpkin-shaped teapots. Her nature-inspired work evolved from there. While on her second trip to China, in 2000, Corcoran’s dream to visit Yixing was fulfilled. There she visited the homes and workshops of some of the grand masters and had the opportunity to meet many of the younger generation of artists.
Corcoran depicts her bird imagery with near ornithological accuracy, influenced by the American naturalist painter, John James Audubon (1785-1851), she poses her terracotta and porcelain painted birds as if in their natural habitats. The birds become integrated with the teapot when branch-like handles become the perch or, as for Red-Shouldered Hawk, the finial on the lid serves the purpose.
The witty and creative solutions of Yixing teapots have given a number of artists a license to explore. The introduction of manmade components, in conjunction with clay, is a recent phenomenon that represents building on a tradition. The Chinese scholars sought out and celebrated nature. Our time has been overrun by technology. Its inclusion into the contemporary ceramic oeuvre is as warranted as it was inevitable.
Yixing sensibilities have served as a guide and continue to inspire the studio explorations of Eric Van Eimeren and John Goodheart. Van Eimenen’s interplay between organic and industrial elements marries both traditional ceramic techniques with mechanically engineered parts, making his work simultaneously incongruent, but playful. John Goodheart ties into Yixingrs visual usage of geometric forms. He articulates rigid structures, creating geometric vessels with hard eds and smooth surfaces. Goodheart combines taut, austere ceramic forms with odds and ends from the laboratory—glass beakers, flasks and tubing that provide a quasi-scientific aspect to the work. His pouring vessels are presented on a metal shell The addition of a cup, with tubes and piping winding around, under and between the containers, completes a circuit. This implies the transfer of liquid and the alchemic change of clear water into green tea.
Mythology, fairy tales, folklore and fables were subject matter for many Chinese scholars. They depicted in paintings and poetry what became an educational tool for generations of children to gain moral training and wisdom from these parables.
Daina Heisters’ work carries us into her world through the use of children’s stories. Combining diminutive scale and the use of natural imagery in homage to Yixing ware, her Humpty Dumpty teapot melds the fairy tale, whose outcome we know, with imagery from the Edward Munch painting that has become the most expressive icon of the anxiety-ridden mind.
Red Weldon-Sandlin’s inspiration also lies in children’s literature. Her intent is not the training of children, but to evoke the memories of childhood and re-sensitize adults by way of her dreamlike Imagery. All her compositions include a book that becomes the title of the piece and then serves as a gateway into the meaning of the work- In Behind Quiet Veils of the Blue Willow, there exists an intricate melding of references to traditional form; historic surface decoration, symbolism and cultural history, working in unison to unite her story. Among the things we discover is the vehicle that drives the allegory: the teapot. Here, the teapot does not simply refer to its Chinese antecedents, but also to the English copies made in Staffordshire. The shape, in this case, is less important than the surface decoration. In 1780, the Englishman josiah Spode developed a method of transfer printing blue underglazes onto ceramics to recreate Chinese designs, Spode’s Blue Willow pattern has itself become iconic, rarely out of production in over two hundred years. “Behind Quiet Veils of the Blue Willow” is the tale of young Chinese lovers. The daughter of a wealthy merchant falls in love with her father’s assistant. Confined to quarters, she escapes with help from a sympathetic servant. When the two lovers run away, her father places a curse upon them. As they sail off a terrible storm develops, sinking their boat and drowning them both, Legend says the two were turned into doves. So whenever such birds appear in the sky, we are to think about the two young lovers happily together at last.
Several contemporary artists have acknowledged in their statements the influence of European ceramics in conjunction with Yixing ware. As I have previously cited, Yixing is where the teapot was invented, so in their research it was revealed that all European teapots were based on Yixing examples. Processing all the sources, we see the results of the varied attitudes and sensibilities converging and diverging.
As a student of ceramic art history, Michelle Erickson became keenly aware of the Asian influences on early eighteenth-century European porcelain manufacturers. Although Erickson has made a concentrated study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English ceramics, it serves her mainly as a jumping-off point. As the Elers brothers of Holland took their skills and knowledge of Yixing ware to Staffordshire (circa 1690), Erickson’s work adds to this transmutation of cultural and stylistic migration, taking it one step further by adding a contemporary American sensibility. In Black Teapot with Bluebird, the teapot is reminiscent of English pottery and the handle, spout and base are modeled on Yixing prototypes. For Deity Pot, it is the teapot that is wholly reminiscent of Yixing ware, The vibrant color palette reflects her modern American sensibility, In the aggregate, Erickson’s efforts clearly reflect the crossroads where skill and scholarship meet artistic intent, reinforcing the rich cross-pollination of our ceramic heritage.
Susan Beiner has looked to Yixing ware while at the same time considering seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German Meissen and French Sevre porcelain teapots. Beiner, another who has been to Yixing, brings this sensibility to European porcelain extractions, realizing those manufacturers had sought their inspiration from Yixing prototypes. In addition to Meissen and Sevre ceramics, her form vocabulary has its origins in the rococo style, especially those teawares made in silver.
A design motif that she repeatedly incorporates into her work is the metal screw. Using it in the composition and the title, she takes advantage of the double-entendre. Screwed Too has a silvery metallic finish, reminiscent of pewter-encased Yixing teapots. The intertwining elements of Fruitful Screw suggest other metals used to cover Yixing pots such as brass, copper and, as early as the late nineteenth century, aluminum.
The Yixing artists’ ability to skillfully use clay to recreate nature has been the single greatest source of fascination for contemporary American ceramics. The eighteenth-century Yixing master, Chen Mingyuan, remains the standard bearer even to this day. In addition to Yixing ware, depictions of nature in porcelain also excited the imagination of scholars, in the mid-eighteenth century, Chinese potters began experimenting with porcelain to imitate a variety of media. Faux bois (the illusion of wood) was used to decorate bowls and dishes. Using an iron-red glaze of differing hues, the potters were able to recreate the look of wood’s grain, veins and knots.
All great trompe I’oeil creations carry the hallmark of meticulously detailed, lifelike realism that seems indistinguishable from the genuine article. Therefore, when viewing trompe I’oeil ceramics, the process of engagement usually begins with questioning how the object was made. The most convincing illusions are so dazzling they always seem to beg the question, “Is it really made of clay?” The moment the attention of the viewer is no longer distracted, the message instead of the process can be contemplated.
By its very nature, trompe I’oeil is a device that elicits the viewers’ involvement in its meaning. The meanings that emerge are dependent upon the viewers’ recognition of those images and their subjective experiences. This is far more important than any specific content the artist might have imparted to the forms. For the artist, that is when the work becomes a success.
The list of American trompe I’oeil masters represented here is formidable, and their work never fails to be a source of wonder and amazement. Near or at the top of anyone’s list of master illusionists is Richard Shaw, Shaw’s technical wizardry transforms cast porcelain into paper, wood, glass, metal and the like. Heretofore, Shaw’s work had never been associated with Yixing ware. The central forces cited in his work are the American nineteenth-century trompe I’oeil painters John Peto and William Harnett, along with French and German porcelain makers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Conversations I had with Shaw in 1998 revealed that Yixing ware had been, since the early 1970s, an art form that had fully influenced and inspired him.
The key aspects in Shaw’s oeuvre are the compositional components he selects and the way he arranges them. They all seem as though they are in use or used up, as if someone had just set aside some everyday articles and walked away, perhaps abandoning them or awaiting the owner’s return. The residual effect is the humanity it gives the allegory.
Shaw’s repertoire of subjects and subject matter is extensive. Since the focus of this publication is Chinese scholars and tea ware, I selected his Paint Box with Dollar Bill Teapot. Here the teapot is composed of the frequently used tools of the artist, the implements used to earn money. The scholars handled their Four Treasures (writing brush, inkstick, inkstone and paper) each day. When it was necessary to use them as a means for earning money, they would “go farming with a brush.”
Practically all of Richard Shaw’s compositions reference a functional vessel- He so deftly incorporates the lid, handle or spout they become hidden. A treasure hunt then begins to try and locate the working parts. The outward facing domino on the top of Shaw’s Domino Box Teapot is the spout The spoon set into the teacup submerges into a red brown tea-like glaze. When the spoon is lifted, it reveals itself as a knob for the lid and the red brown tea is exposed as the lid. Chinese scholars were enthralled by objects such as “trick” or “surprise” cups. Found in a scholar’s collection was a cup with the figure of a small Buddhist monk placed on the inner wall. The miniature figure concealed a small hole at the base of the cup, A finger was placed over the hole while passing the cup to a guest. When the finger was removed, the liquid poured out of the cup to the amazement and despair of the tricked guest.
Scholars traveled extensively, deeming it an essential aspect of learning. The poetic vignette Shaw has arranged in Mary Jane Teapot would have captivated the scholars as easily as if he had used a scholar’s shoe and valise. The toe of the shoe becomes a spout and the handle of the suitcase works to pour the tea, Mary Jane Teapot might be interpreted as the removed shoe of a weary traveler taking time for a brief respite and a cup of refreshment.
Much of the work of Marilyn Levine also relates to travel The suitcases, briefcases, knapsacks and jackets for which she is well known symbolize the concretized artifacts of some personal experience. The individual story, as it relates to each work, is always left to the suppositions of the viewer. Different aspects that become manifest in the work may not only allude to some life event, but to her source material. As she wrote in a letter to me, “My way of thinking about my influences is that they go through a giant blender before anything emerges in a piece of my work. Certainly Yixing has been one of those things” Cup with Zipper Lid has its link to Chinese teacups that are made with fitted lids designed to keep the brew warm. Her P.H.V Strap, a sixty-first birthday gift for Peter Voulkos, is reminiscent by its form and configuration to a brush rest. Chen Mingyuan used peanut shells, casually arranging them in a similar fashion. P.H.V. Strap seems as though the belt was removed from a pair of trousers, wound up and set aside. Levine’s strap was not intended as a brush rest, but the similarities between form and style make for an interesting comparison.
The work of Marilyn Levine suggests age and use. The trompe I’oeil sculptures executed by Canadian artist Karen Dahl appear more pristine. When viewing Dahl’s work, her varied experiences must be accounted for. Dahl, a former symphony violinist, had lived in India as a child Sensitized by these diverse experiences, her work may not look aged; however, they empathize with people and events of the past Like the others, her sculptures do not merely create illusions of reality, but have the capacity to elevate everyday objects into works of art that tell extraordinary stories. Her still life Dragon Seed uses a variety of ordinary symbols that bring to mind stereotypical misconceptions of Chinese culture. They are counterbalanced by the inclusion of a trompe I’oeil book, the Pearl S. Buck novel Dragon Seed. The story that Dahl brings to light is the tragedy of the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Chinese mainland during World War II. When people a half world away suffer the catastrophic effects of despotism, it is easy to ignore or desensitize ourselves from the heart-wrenching devastation that war inflicts upon the innocent. Dahl takes this tragic story and uses it as a poignant reminder for today.
Victor Spinski, like the Yixing master Chen Mingyuan, uses the teapot as a point of departure to redefine the still life as a three-dimensional composition. Throughout his career, Spinski has worked with many different materials. He eventually settled on tromp I’oeil ceramic sculpture, finding the challenge to be the most difficult physically, technically and intellectually. The intellectual component may have had the greatest allure. As an undergraduate, Spinski majored in both fine art and Russian literature.
His three-dimensional still life sculptures are often cathartic portrayals of societal issues he feels need to be voiced. Not restricted to those issues, he portrays a variety of subjects, all of which involve self-reflection. His depiction of Box with Paint Cans addresses the theme of the artists tools, where truth and beauty are sublimated for the almighty dollar. In Carving A Teapot Spinski portrays his other tools, ones used for sculpting-the hammer and chisel. This is perhaps Spinski at his best. Here he cleverly plays upon the theme of the first Yixing teapot that was carved from a single lump of clay. Typically, a teapot is shaped from humble clay. Here Spinski is telling us the teapot has a rightful hierarchical place in the art world* Sculpting it like a classical figure, the stone is cut, shaped and polished to reveal the “stoneware” teapot held within.
Like the Chinese scholars whose collections gave impetus to their artistic expression, Paul Dresang’s collection of antique tools, ethnic art and vintage toys serves him in the same way. His teapots have their genesis in the things that surround him. They have the look of elegant machined parts assembled by a master craftsman. Composed of hand-built and wheel-thrown elements, he uses a residual salt firing to finish them, imparting to their surface a “peach- blush” skin (a paler version of the Yixing monochrome).
When his oilcan teapots emerge from a trompe I’oeil leather bag, their context completely changes. Thought of in one way, the metaphoric implication of teapots in bags alludes to Japanese tea bowls and the individually made boxes that are designed to house them. In that way, these sculptures lend themselves to the idea of ceremony and ritual. Read another way, the spout of the teapot takes on a phallic connotation. When set into a soft, smooth leather bag whose sides gently widen to receive it, the metaphor changes and takes on erotic attributes.
Playing on historical erotic and fertility symbols from many eras and cultures, David Furman’s trornpe I’oeil teapots, like Yixing vessels, incorporate images from nature. In their arrangement, the sexual allusion and phallic imagery are obvious, Furman composes his brightly colored porcelain fruits and vegetables into teapots by grafting the masculine representation (spout)—made of zucchinis, cucumbers or bananas—onto feminine imagery of rounded plump melons and pumpkins that serve as the body.
Works of erotic art have long been created in China, as fertility and sexuality were the concern of various cults. Tomb excavations dating from the Neolithic period through the Han dynasty have unearthed a number of such works. Appearing in every dynasty thereafter, erotica is usually found in the form of paintings and figurines, in the Ming and Qing dynasties, finely made works of erotic art were produced by many artists. For a scholar, they were probably a diversion from the long and boring hours working in some distant outpost Since Confucian ideology emphasized morality and family virtues, erotic art, nudity or any overt sexual themes were hidden from open view. A folio of erotic paintings would often be mounted in lurid pink with green silk ribbons to forewarn of the explicit nature of the contents.
The scholar, as related to his stature in the community, needed to maintain a gentlemanly bearing. However, it is known that scholars enjoyed getting together to carouse. We normally think of scholars gathering to read poetry in a genteel atmosphere while sipping tea. But for centuries, the conventional view was that tea and liquor did not interfere with each other In fact, when it came to pouring vessels, there was little difference between porcelain wine pots and teapots (Yixing ware however was only used for tea). In the Tang dynasty scholars would have soirees where they would compose poetic verse and discuss literature, philosophy or any number of issues while drinking rice wine or other potables.
Drunkenness has always been looked upon with empathy in China. The prevailing attitude among scholars had been that being inebriated would relieve psychological constraints. With their imagination and creative powers freed, scholars produced many works of art. If the scholar Li Bai was given a jug full of wine, reputedly he would write one hundred poems. The scholars were more inclined to challenge each other while sipping wine. Poetry competitions became a source of entertainment and might take place in a public teahouse, restaurant, public bath or brothel. In time, scholars shied away from liquor for practical, if not dignified, reasons. Alcoholic beverages became too expensive because the grains needed to produce them were needed for daily sustenance- Tea, a much cheaper stimulant, was the alternative and eventually became the popular choice.
Joan Takayama-Ogawa has a unique position in the American/ Yixing continuum. She was pleasantly surprised when I saw in her decorative and richly colorized work the use of a form vocabulary that echoed those from Yixing. However, her connection goes far deeper than I imagined. Joan has been looking at Yixing ware since she was a child because of her family’s confection of many fine American and Asian ceramics. This included a keen interest in Yixing ware and small red clay teapots that were made in Tokoname, Japan.
Known as one of Japan’s seven ancient kilns, Tokoname has been the site of ceramic production for hundreds of years. In 1878, Koie Takasu invited Jin Shiheng, a native of Suzhou, who excelled in producing purple clay tea wares, to Tokoname to teach local craftsmen his techniques. Sugie Yasuhei (Jumon I) was among the first to learn the techniques. He, along with Yamada Jozan I, and Tozan I, became major figures among the teapot makers. Yamada Jozan I, known for his flawless technique at the potter’s wheel, became a distinguished teacher of a large number of disciples. His younger brother, Tozan I, was also an outstanding craftsman of red clay teapots and an expert carver of seals. Today, the Handmade Teapot Association, with a membership of over one hundred, still produces Japanese Yixing ware.
Joan Takayama-Ogawa’s paternal family comes from Tokoname. They have been producing ceramic ware for six generations. In 1987, Joan visited with relatives in Tokoname and Sugie. “Of particular interest were my relations from the Jumon I line who are still making diminutive red Yixing-inspired teapots. I am certain it rubbed off.” Takayama-Ogawa uses the clay as a canvas to make her work deliberately colorful, unlike the monochromatic Yixing ware- Still, the Yixing tradition serves as a springboard as she holds fast to the use of balanced form, imitative imagery, intimate surfaces, and natural references. teapot, Tropical Paradise, clearly uses the Buddha’s hand citron as its model, while her other works use simplified geometry, a hallmark of the Yixing style. The bright colors and emphasis on social commentary make these distinctly American. Still the echoes of Yixing ware are extant in a fluid progression from Chinese, to Japanese, to American sensibilities.
Chris Gustin, another artist who has visited Yixing, developed an interest in Yixing ware as a child through his family’s collection of teapots. A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and Alfred University, he was also a resident at the Archie Bray Foundation. Function is incidental to Gustin’s teapots although water can flow through them. The oversized scale of his soft geometric, cubist-like constructions indicates that functionality is not his concern, but the format of teapot as a vehicle for artistic expression is.
Peter Pinnell was a member of the 1996 group that had gone to Yixing, Pinnell’s utilitarian teapots amalgamate the Yixing influence with his interests in architecture, textiles, glass and metalwork. This works in conjunction with his lifelong source of inspiration, the rhythmic patterns found in the farm fields of the American Midwest Unlike artists whose work is inspired by an intimate relationship with particular plants or flowers, Pinnell’s visual vocabulary is served by the macrocosm of nature. The surface decorations expressed on his teapots are inspired by plowing patterns, crop stubble and the contours of wind-blown snow. The muted colors convey the serenity of dormant fields.
The Yixing emphasis on strength of form, enduring style and an artistic presence in a well-functioning vessel are the guiding principles of Shelley Schreiber’s geometrically shaped teapots. Schreiber came to be influenced by Yixing ware through a workshop taught by Ah-Leon, the Taiwanese artist who became well-known for his Yixing-inspired work. Schreiber, an accomplished teapot maker when she met Ah-Leon, found his perspective incorporated modern twists for throwing and altering forms in conjunction with the exacting standards of the Yixing aesthetic. The results of her study are a subtle expression, with an attention to detail, in teapots that are functionally accurate.
Alfred graduate Bruce Cochrane, who has been to Yixing twice in the past ten years, invited Yixing master potters Ran Chunfang and his wife Xu Chengquan to Toronto, where they taught him the forming processes and philosophy of the Yixing tradition. His wheel-thrown pots, which he cuts, alters, and then reconstructs, incorporate several traditional Yixing techniques like the double-slab lid, foot detail, spout making and press-molded elements.
Cochrane’s pots, like much of Yixing ware, are based on geometric elements. Instead of being stylized fruit or bamboo, his are architectonic, relating to structures such as barns and silos. For his austere coloration he taps into other Chinese ceramic traditions employing celadon glazes of the Song dynasty, the Sancai (three-color) scheme of the Tang dynasty, as well as ash glazes.
Cochrane is a studio potter whose vessels are meant for use on a dinner table. His work can be characterized as being at the core of the new pottery-making tradition, representing that place where intellect and scholarship meet craftsmanship and utility.