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Portrait Of A Potter : Xu Junxiang And His Beitou Pottery

Article by: Liao Deming, Photography by: Chen Mingchong

A two-storey brick house with a small pond amid an expanse of green under the azure sky - Xu Junxiang's ceramic studio is as conducive to creativity as it is hospitable. Located at Bajia Shan the Shihmen Township on Taiwan's North Coast, the studio is surrounded by - perfect for an artist - and the existence of a kiln nearby confirms it being the choice location of a ceramic artist. There are logs of acacia trees around, ready for the next batch of pottery to be fired in the kiln.

Xu Junxiang, 35, has grown up with ceramics, far back as he can remember, Xu's parents have been producing and selling pottery and porcelain items. The shop, known as Yu Yuan Ceramics Art, is located at Section 6, Zhong Shan North Road in Taichung. He spent a good part of his childhood in the shop, lending a helping hand and learning about ceramics in its myriad forms. To his parents, Yu Yuan is not just a way to earn a living; it is also a means to continue the rich heritage that is Peitou Pottery. And this remains the most meaningful creative pursuit for Xu.

Peitou pottery traces its origin to the fine clay of Datuen Shan

Long before Yingko became a pottery production hotspot, Peitou's fame in ceramics had been established. The first kilns in Peitou were set up back in the Qing Dynasty. During the Japanese Occupation, Peitou pottery from the Guizikheng Creek region was a craze in Japan. At that time, each and every travel guide cited Peitou pottery as the foremost local specially. These items were made with the unique kaolin clay (white clay) from Guizikheng in the foothills of Datuen Shan. At the time of the Japanese reign in Taiwan, Peitou's fireproof bricks and tiles were equaled. Today, such tiles can still be found on the facade of prestigious vintage buildings around Taipei, including the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, the Court of Justice, Taipei First Girls' High School and the Ambassador Hotel, proving Peitou pottery has the endurance to test time.

Growing up in a family running a ceramic business meant that Xu looked at Peitou pottery in a different light - it is art embedded in clay, and this soon developed into a self-entrusted mission to. bring this cultural heritage further. When he graduated in 1994, Xu studied with Master Wu Yutang of the Taolin Ceramic Art School. Master Wu was am. authority an glazes. What impressed Xu most was the master's dedication and undivided attention in the pursuit of ceramic art, Wu said, the study of glaze is overwhelming and requires more than a life-time for one to grasp hold of. Upon hearing these words, Xu promised himself that he would adopt the same kind of determination in his artistic pursuit, even until he is eighty, like his mentor.

Real masters are those who try and try again when they make errors. And trying is like second nature to Xu. This single-mindedness has paid off as he's churned out beautiful pieces in coloured glazes over the years. Never satisfied with what he has achieved, Xu has sought to break through the bottleneck with new ideas and techniques. He moved to Yingko, where he stayed for a year. He enrolled in are classes and craft schools there, learning three media, pottery, metal and glass. With this knowledge, he made creative attempts as multi-media, and. has since injected the concept of sculpture into his work. Besides adopting hand building and wheel throwing, he also has experimented with teapot sculpting techniques to coming up with unique pieces.

The first wood - fire kiln in an oil tank

Four years ago, Xu visited Bizen and Shigara in Japan, and was bowled over by wood - fire kilning. After retuning to Taiwan, he put up his first ever wood - fire kiln, which was once an oil tank.

Though he had experience using kilns owned by other people, he knew what the shortcomings were. For one, he had to adhere to the rules set by the kiln owners; this way, there was very little room for experimentation. Meanwhile, most kiln owners will not share their knowledge about kilning, especially the tips and tricks to successful firing. Later, Xu moved to Shihmen Township on the North Coast, and began his "affair" with an oil tank - he cut it open, put in fireproof bricks, and experimented with this "wood fire kilning laboratory". In this DIY kiln with an inner cavity of 40cm x 40cm x 80cm, he continued experimenting for two years. Each firing Xu kept watch for 20 hours. He was committed to recording each step in the process, and taking note of mistakes and observations along the way. Two years of persistence brought him knowledge and confidence. It was at this point that Xu put up a real kiln next to his new studio in Shihmen, with a 50cm high kiln wall, providing three times the capacity of the oil tank he had been using.

Wood fire kilning involves ash deposit, fire marks and special kilning effect, but the use of each is a matter of the ceramic artist's creativity. Three to four tons of wood is used for each firing. The process is similar to a four-day-four-night marathon, albeit in extremely high heat. The success rate is only about 50%. For Xu, who is determined to try on and break through, all the hard work is worth it.

Ash deposit, fire marks and a special kilning effect:

Innovation by way of trial and error

To continue the tradition of Peitou ceramics, Xu takes great pain in preparing the clay for his wood, fired pieces. He uses original mineral clay from Yangming Shan and mixes it with the famed mountain's natural mineral granules. Only wood from Acacia trees is used to fire the kiln at the very high temperature of 1250℃. Under these conditions, the finished works showcase a rich palette of hues, thanks to the mastery of his firing technique. Ash free falling along the dancing flames inside the kiln deposits and is incorporated into the pottery pieces. With the variation of space and height between the pieces, unique fire marks are created. Finally, oxidation and reduction taking place inside the kiln also lead to s special kilning effect on the pieces, giving each piece an individualistic character and unique appearance.

Xu may be a bit shy at the start, but once he begins sharing about his creativity, he is very much in control, exuding sincerity and confidence. In his simplistic yet inspiring studio, we appreciate the outdoor scenery, a good pot of tea, a solid long table, and of course his hand-thrown coloured pottery with understated elegance; his innovative wood fired pieces and his observations and ideas. Xu wants to open his studio to more pottery aficionados in the future - as a platform for dialogue and exchange. He is dedicated to passing on the heritage of Peitou pottery and bringing it back to its past glory right here, at the wood fire kiln of Bajia Shan, Shihmen Township.