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

Article by: Su Ying Chun, Photography by: Chen Ming Chong

In March, spring is at its most pleasant. The land is burgeoning with new life and blossoming with flowers after a long fall and winter. Artists set out to usher in a new beginning with a plethora of creation, adding life and vigour to the world. Although it was still cold outside, we arrived at Tan Shui looking for Fa Yao (the Fa Kiln), an art studio in the middle of a secluded and tranquil mountain.

After a short drive into the mountain, we passed by a shady road lined by tall trees There was clear trace of tyres on the path. A short distance on, we reached and passed through the main gate of Fa Yao. What welcomed us was a space perfectly incorporated into nature, and the owner of Fa Yao, Jiang Yu. In the courtyard, there was lots of firewood and two wood-fired kilns built by Jiang Yu. Jiang Yu said he has built approximately 30 wood-fired kilns over the year. The kilns have been built and dismantled, until they churned out satisfactory pieces. His attitude towards wood-fire kilns is echoed in his insistence on wood-fired works.

In 1998, Jiang Yu concentrated on pottery creations with heart and soul after he had been bowled over by the tactile feeling of clay. Later when he came across wood-fired pieces, he was amazed by the mystical strength of fire in creating works of art. He pondered about the intricate relationship between fire and earth. After years of trials, he finally came out with the wood-fired pieces that brought out the peace and unadorned beauty of Nature and Earth.

About ten years ago, Jiang Yu was greatly touched when he saw Tienmu glazed pieces in a magazine on antiques. Through a small bowl, he virtually saw the radiant starry night. Since then, he has immersed himself in the study of Tienmu. Two years ago, he attempted to make Tenmuku by way of wood-fire kilning, producing Tienmu pieces different from what we usually see.

Fa Yao is filled with Jiang Yu's Tienmu creations. Instead of being colourful and eye-catching like what we normally see in the market today, Jiang Yu's Tienmu works are mostly earthy and. tranquil, with an understated charm. Jiang Yu's affection to simple and unadorned works explains why he has adopted an ancient method in selecting the clay and mixing the glaze. Through modern throwing skill, he shapes the iron-rich black soil, applies ash glaze and fires the pieces in wood-fire kilns to create the earthy-look of these Tienmu bowls.

New ideas do find their way into his recent works - a sense of innovative variations enhance the plain textures. In these works, the glaze coatings "peel" off from the surface, layer by layer, the way a golden cicada sheds its shell. There are exquisite silvery drip lines on the unrefined surface, lending added tactile and visual interest to the tea bowls, making them ideal for tea appreciation. In addition, Jiang Yu says the Tienmu tea bowl series will improve over time - the way a Chinese style teapot will be nourished to feature a natural gloss, thanks to extended reaction between the tea liquor and the bowl's surface.

When asked how he manages to produce such unusual Tienmu works, he explained that it is mainly due to his fondness for its age-old texture and the mellow feel of wood-fired pieces. He wants this property and texture for his Tienmu tea bowls, Through repeated wood-fire kilning, he has found new inspiration from traditional kilning methods. He has carefully observed nuances of colour changes of the glaze and studied the property of each portion. After gaining a rough idea of the changes taken place in the kiln, he has managed to produce works with more stable properties.

Nevertheless, the success rate of wood-fire kilning is low as the temperature is hard to control, and the available space inside the kiln is limited. However, it does not stop Jiang Yu from pressing ahead, as market trend is not his main concern. What he looks for is a kind of self-affirmation. He further elaborates, his Tienmu tea bowls seek to achieve harmony between the user and the tea bowl, while showcasing the traditional form of Tienmu. Meanwhile, the many variables and the natural style of wood-firing challenge Jiang Yu's skill. Optimistic and determined as he is, he has cultivated inner peace and balance through wood kilning. The processes also has enabled him to improve his temperament. With this new-found calmness, he is able to create Teinmu pieces that are mellow and natural.

Jiang Yu's mind and soul is expressed through wood-fired Tienmu tea bowls. Users may appreciate and enjoy his Tienmu spirit while using the tea bowls. After admiring Jiang Yu's Tienmu pieces, the words of Cui Yuan of Eastern Han Dynasty crept into my mind: "not being tainted in the dark mud, but shining through the opaque" Jiang Yu's Tienmu tea bowls are best appreciated when the mind is in a state of calmness - that's when viewers can see the inner brightness shineing through the apparent down-to-earth bowls.