Each issue we will offer an in-depth biography of a master Yixing potter – their life, work, recognitions and photos of their pieces. In this way, our readers can get to know some the talent and history behind the Yixing they use. Sometimes such masterpieces are beyond use even, belonging in museums or collections as pieces of priceless art. However, it is these masters that teach the younger potters, and their works which they emulate – their innovations which inspire the pots we do use everyday.
A deep connection to the spirit and essence of Yixing separates Master Ke Tao Chung from others in the Pottery City. His quiet, unaffected person and relaxed disposition offer freedom and flexibility to his work, but not without depth. Master Ke’s levity is not shallow. It comes from a confidence and natural bond to the artistic process. Master Ke once said that more than making teapots, one should live them. He truly has devoted his body and soul to the craft, exploring the essence of purple-sand teaware. He makes the most of the medium, expressing the artistic affect he desires, but never loses touch with the function and use of a pot as an ordinary aspect of life. According to Master Ke, “the art of purple-sand teaware is to express the feelings the craftsman has for the Earth, and then to transcend them, so that people can feel the softness and freedom revealed in the Earth.” Much of why Yixing teaware has always been cherished is because it is a living arty a creation that is best appreciated when used to make tea each day. The best teapots are like art in that they summon a second glance after the first encounter, but they also go beyond other forms of art because they are handled and used by the one who appreciates them. And the more you use a great teapot, the more you want to watch it function again. Moreover, the clay itself responds to the loving touch of its owner, developing a sheen that makes used pots twice as beautiful as new ones. It is perhaps at the place where function meets artistic form that the essence of purple-sand art resides. Master Ke Tao Chung, living his art, crafting pots and brewing tea even right now, has found a way to cemekt that essence into his art.
Ke Tao Chung was born in Yixing in 1957. He says that he knew he wanted to be a potter from an early age. In 1976 he was apprenticed to master Li Pi Fang where he learned all his first skills. Two years later, in the fall of 1978, he would enroll in graduate school to study purple-sand art, and was apprenticed to Master Ku Ching Chou. Master Ke says that much of the attitude and approach he takes to his art were learned at school with these masters. Ku Ching Chou recognized the skills in his apprentice and put more energy into his education. Master Ke recalls that he seemed to scold him more than the other students, and even ”hit me on the head a few times.” He went on to say that he had great respect and admiration for his teacher and that he was like a father to him. “He taught me discipline and he taught me to be humble and always continue learning.” Master Ke works very hard. As soon as the clay is mixed and the tools are laid out each day, he begins making his pots. He also learns from his old work which allows himself to improve and grow, free from constraint. He said that “without reflecting on one’s work, one can never move forward.” Looking at Master Ke’s work over long periods of time, one can recognize this progress and ability to learn and grow; not always towards better, sometimes just into new forms and techniques. Master Ke regards his ability to reflect on his own work and maintain the attitude of a student, always ready to learn, as something he learned from his teacher, Ku Ching Chou.
In 1982, Master Ke went on to do more graduate studies in art design at Wushi Light Industry College in Wushi Province. He was awarded the certificate of Senior Master by the union in Chiang She Province in 1993. Since then, his pieces have been on display in museums and private collections all over the world. Many collectors, scholars and lovers of Yixing teaware have taken、a liking to the honest freedom Master Ke expresses in his work.
Much of what makes Master Ke’s art so special is in the way he lives. After all, the character of the artist is always present to some degree in the work itself. Master Ke is gentle and honest just as his pieces are. He has the ability to infer from what is already known, to see beyond the ordinary and complete lines and forms in ways that connect the earth and spirit. He lives simply without much regard for worldly success, and isn’t motivated by money or fame the way some artists are. Most of his original pieces are still in his studio where he learns from them, studies them and also uses them to teach his students. He has been offered a lot of money for some of them, but said that “they are worth more then money,” Master Ke also makes his pots completely by hand. He always emphasizes the importance of being connected to the life and process of the clay. Even the sculpting tools he uses to make his pots are all handmade by him. He insists that all his apprentices, before they can even begin crafting clay teapots, learn how to carve and craft the tools used in the process. “Every aspect of the art should be natural and creative,” he said. This movement towards a more natural lifestyle, free of distraction, says a lot in this modern age. It perhaps best explains Master Ke’s free and open style, and the feeling one often gets holding one of his pots.
Purple-sand teaware is often appreciated by collectors in terms of the six spaces around the pot and their relationship to the form. A teapot is meant to be held, so the form and space between are not just meant to be enjoyed by the sense of sight alone. Holding the pot in the palm, one can feel the quality and design and recognize the ways in which the spaces between the handle, at the foot or base, around the button, under the spout, in the mouth, etc. – all work together with the clay. The hollow where the tea leaves are placed, the space of the mouth where the tea liquor pours forth, all of these are as relevant to the aesthetic of the piece as the clay itself. Master Ke’s work is famous for his sensitivity of this relationship. When looking at his He Chia Huan series, for example, we can recognize his ability and the refinement of space and form together. A tea set should have multiple but appropriate decorations that relate to each other fluidly, just as the space and form of each individual piece should flow smoothly. Many collectors have commended this series of Master Ke’s work for achieving the proper balance between the modern and traditional designs. Much of what makes a master in purple-sand teaware is related to that very talent – finding the place where innovation and creativity can carry tradition forward, We appreciate Yixing teaware also for its historicity; its connection to a long tradition of art and function. The artist shouldn’t lose touch with that tradition. However, creativity and originality are equally important. We don’t want replica after replica of pots that were acclaimed in the past. Master Ke’s He Chia Huan series finds that place where the inspiration of the artist meets the tradition of the past. A tea set should also have a sense of pragmatism about it. Without even touching it, one should be able to see and imagine it being used to brew tea. The function should be apparent in the pieces. Finally, in a good tea set, the pieces should all be paired properly – matching each other and yet finding their own place in the tea ceremony. Master Ke’s work has here achieved all of this.
A lot of Master Ke’s early work was very innovative, both in topic and artistically. Some of these pieces even transcend the traditional five kinds of Yixing teapots: nature, geometric, symbolical, exquisite and modern pieces. Though he was already expanding the art, many of these early pieces show room for improvement. Tien Chu Hu, Liu Chiao Ling Fang Hu, Lu Ni Kua Hsing Hu, E Luan Shr Hu and Se Fang Hu are all examples from this early period.
Many scholars of Yixing say the Tzu Yeh Shih Piao marks a turning point in Master Ke’s career. After this piece he entered an era where his masterpieces were formed. His work after the Tzu Yeh Shih Piao is his most impressive to date. The Lian Hua Sen Mao Hu, for example, illustrates the pinnacle of Master Ke’s attainment. The lotus ornaments are gorgeous and successfully capture the Buddhist metaphor they are meant to inspire. Lotus flowers are born in the muck and darkness of the earth, rising up through the water to blossom in a fragrant and heavenly opening, which symbolizes the spiritual path towards enlightenment. Master Ke’s pot seems to carry with it all these teachings in the lotus ornaments. The lines and movement of the pot and decoration are all exquisitely balanced.
It was also during this time that Ke Tao Chung became a master of the symbolic and exquisite styles of pot, for which he is often referred to even today. Many of his pieces are even an amalgamation of the two styles. The “Symbolic Style” uses different textures and colors of clay together to design animals, decorations, ornaments and other designs. “Exquisite Wares、、are” the pieces that use Zisha clay to mimic bronze wares, jade-ware, daily and religious articles, etc. Master Ke has learned how to combine these two styles to make pots that resemble the bronze urns and jade boxes of antiquity, using different textures and grains of clay to highlight the lines and sharp angles of the pots. The Se Fang Hu and Ling Chih Hu are all excellent examples of Master Ke’s acumen. The two tone si textures of clay bring the contrasting angles into sharp contrast and carry the eyes along the perfect lines. Se Fang uses geometric style carvings to bring character to the shapes and lines.
The placement of the pattern at the bottom of Liu Fang Yun Chung and the subtle hint of balance on the polygonal button are superb. The pot feels like an ancient box, one whose lid fits perfectly enough to almost be invisible. It is, in my opinion, one of Master Ke’s best works to date.
Since the era that most critics call the peak of his artistic career, Master Ke has also been quite successful at creating many round-shaped pots, including many large-sized tea sets in this vein. Among them, the Ching Yuan set is a perfect example. “Ching Yuan” means literally a love caused by fate or destiny. He made this set with the cooperation of his wife Li Hui Fang, who is also a potter and well-known artist. Many collectors have been trying to acquire this set both for museum and private collections. Li Hui Fang’s work is far more practical and simple than her husband, focusing more exclusively on function and use, whereas his pieces are better as parts of rare collections, appreciated as much artistically as for their function. This set captures the two styles together wonderfully and echoes the couple’s love for one another. It seems to capture the romantic energy that inspired it.
Master Ke Tao Chung has established himself as one of the brightest names every to come out of the Pottery City. His natural and peaceful life and his levity all find a wonderful outlet in his pots. Anyone can easily find and appreciate his ability to innovate and design new forms with a kind of natural joy that many have tried to mimic. He currently has several apprentices and of course thousands of admirers. Many future pots and styles will be designed by learning from and copying Ke Tao Chung. His unique method and personality have affected the history of Yixing in a way that won’t soon be forgotten, and many aspects of his philosophy are appealing to up-and-coming artists as well as collectors.
As Master Ke and I sat down to share tea for the last time before I left, our conversation just naturally dissipated into silence. I watched him pouring Puerh tea from one of his rounded pots, gently rocking the pot up and down as he poured, and realized that both Master Ke and his pot would be equally at home on some solitary mountain long ago or a modern city bustling with novelty.