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Dancing With Clay: Lee Jen Yao's Xiaokou Vase Is A Dream Come True

Article by: Liao De Ming/ Photography by: Chen Ming Chong

It is an unforgettable experience for those who have witnessed a clay throwing demonstration by Lee Jen Yao.

It was early spring, when the weather took a warmer turn, but the air was still chilly. Clad in a black tank top, black work pants, and a pair of "China Strong" sport shoes, Lee looked at the clay in front of him in concentration. After taking some deep breaths, he got himself into a Tai Chi posture and rested his palms on the clay. The music began and the wheel span. The drumbeat at the beginning of the score announced the sensuous encounter of man and clay to follow.

He began by sprinkling some water onto the clay. Working the clay up with both palms, he smeared his arms with clay water upwards and downwards a few times as it went, as if entering into another space and time. The clay began to take shape with every stroke. Getting slenderer and more defined, it became the object of his affection. With intense gaze, Lee gave his object undivided attention, breathing gently but pressing into the right spot with force. Then he reached the neck and the mouth of the vase. Lee stared at the body of the vase. He gave it a firm grip at the neck. as if squeezing it’s breath, then he released his grip and became relieved. His fingers found their way to the rim and skillfully, he shaped it into a flower with rolled-back edges.

The critical part was the mouth, measuring only 0.1 cm. It was very important for the vase to breathe, withstand and survive the intense kiln fire. A small needle was passed through the mouth, and the exquisite piece was accomplished. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead and his back although he had wore something light. According to Lee, the success rate was only 1% at of 100 xiaokou vases (literally, vases with small mouth); and sometimes, in shaping 200 pieces of Dan Ping,(a vase with a slender neck and a bulging body), one may only get a single successful piece. These vases are difficult to come by.

Lee Jen Yao's shaping skill has exempted him from criticism for life. Currently, there are only two persons in Taiwan recognized with this qualification. He began practicing clay throwing techniques in his school days at Da Jia Senior High School, the never stopped, continuing to pursue his study at Lian He Vocational and Technical College and Chaoyang University of Technology. He had also worked in a factory with this qualification. He began practicing clay throwing techniques in his school days at Da Jia Senior High School, the never stopped, continuing to pursue his study at Lian He Vocational and Technical College and Chaoyang University of Technology. He had also worked in a factory where he had to make five hundred mugs every day earning only 400 NTD - even less than the 800 NTD one could make by picking fruit in an orchard. Lee Jen Yao, however, insisted on training the hard way.

At five every morning, Lee Jen Yao wakes up to practice Qi Gong, calligraphy and clay throwing. It is the time of the day when he is enwrapped in tranquility and gives his full concentration. He will then go for his morning swim, which he has been doing for ten years. Not only is this a great way to relax, it is also a refreshing way to kick start his busy day.

Ken Tao Yuan, diagonally opposite the fruit and vegetable market of Zhuo Lan Town, Miao Li County, is a courtyard incorporating natural landscape, dining and recreational activities - the design of the space was masterminded by Lee Jen Yao. He designed the park by adopting the concept of the five elements, where the landscape resembles the Chinese character "眾" meaning "everyone" ); this reflects his hope for harmonious togetherness. The park not only has star fruit, it is also a place to appreciate clay pieces, explore the art of pottery, painting, calligraphy, as well as enjoy enticing BBQ, Hakka style ground tea and coffee. There are also arched bridges, meandering streams, wavering willows, delicious food, carps and classic cars.

Collecting vintage Mercedes Benz is one of his hobbies. It is said that he found "the feeling of touch" when he was washing a car. As concentrated as he always is, he felt the flowing lines of the car's body, the way he would with the surface of his clay creations.

Lee Jen Yao takes pride in his "feeling of touch" - he was once a member of school volleyball team with outstanding control over the ball. This contributed to his marvelous control in the process of clay throwing. Practicing calligraphy and Tai Chi, on the other hand, strengthens his application of force when he shapes his clay pieces.

To Lee Jen Yao, hardship is to be welcome, not shied away from. On colder days, he just wears a tank top when he works with clay, and he deliberately carries out the firing process in bad weather conditions. He likes to have his creations " going through" the trying moments such as during a typhoon or a passing cold front. Due to uncertain wind and temperature, this causes more difficulties in controlling the kiln fire; a simple mistake may lead to the spoilage of his work. Uncertainties also create possibilities for him to produce unique pieces of art.

You will be forgiven for mistaking Lee Jen Yao as a gardener in Ken Tao Yuan when you met with him the first time. He is always busy with the gardening chores and dresses like a worker. Occasionally, he will help deliver oranges planted by his parents. He calls himself "an honest worker". To him, the laudable qualities of an artist include intelligence, concentration, sincerity and determination. Besides, an artist must be able to accomplish his works with steadfastness and truthfulness.

Life is not always a through road, and fate has dealt him a heavy blow. On June 18, 2005, a fire ravaged all his hard work at Ken Tao Yuan. However, the incident did not devastate his hope; he spared no time for mourning. Instead, he abstained from his comfortable bed, slept on the floor and persisted in having a disciplined life, as he pondered about his next move.This determination is in line with the words of wisdom he takes to his heart: "Opportunity favors only the prepared mind, success favors only those with perseverance."

Xiaokou Vase was the turning point for Lee Jen Yao. Today, Lee Jen Yao's creations have 523 collectors and he looks upon each of them as his teacher. They are the driving force for him to continue his creative odyssey. One of his xiaokou vases was sold for NTO 2,888,888. For every piece of artwork sold for over NTD 1 million, he will buy himself a pair of "China Strong" sport shoes, as a reminder that: "I have dreams and I realize them."

Eighty eight pieces of xiaokou vases by Lee Jen Yao, will be exhibited at the display hall of the Cultural Affairs Bureau, Taichung City. Most of his works were fired when he braved the windy, typhoon weather and experienced tremendous difference in temperature. During the exhibition, Lee Jen Yao will perform "Tai Chi Calligraphy" and "Clay throwing of xiaokou vases", It will be a true experience to enjoy his live demonstration of mastery skill and legendary concentration.