Gesture & Clay: Sunday Ceramics

These are two very different videos about crafting ceramics, yet they both capture the motion of highly-trained hands and the beauty of making.

The first video shows fine art pottery from Icheon, Korea–made on a potter’s wheel, all by men. The technique and attention to detail is astonishing, as they cut, pat, stamp, coax, and dab glaze into clay.

The second is from the British Museum, a collaborative ethnoarchaeological project conducted in Kerala, India. These potters are women, and the ceramics they make are standardized pots, each performing a specific role in the shaping of the pot. You are able to see the entire process, as the women stomp, bash, pat, smooth, and tend the pots.

One pot ends up on shelves in museum galleries, the other over a fire, filled with delicious curry.

My Name is Oxblood

oxblood
Ruskin jar, Black Country Museums.

It hangs there, throbbing heart of ceramic, wildfires under rippling aurora borealis. A rime-frosted pomegranate. A supernova in a jar.

Oxblood, sang de boeuf, lang yao hong, jihong, is the most magnificent and the most difficult of glazes. It is the red red red of heartbeats, misbehaves in kilns, sliding off the shoulders of the pot into a clotted puddle. You must apply it in great gouts of crimson so the copper will reduce and go red instead of green. It is assumed that this discovery was a happy accident, known as early as the Han dynasty (25-220 CE) and rediscovered during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The technique was lost, rediscovered, and lost time and time again.

The folklore around this particular hue for ceramics is also thickly applied, with varied accounts of a Chinese emperor jailing potters for failing to produce the proper color, a potter so frustrated that he threw himself into the kiln, thus producing the elusive red, and a faithful potter’s daughter was so incensed at her father’s imprisonment that she stepped into the kiln, also with a red result.

Much later, the “father” of French ceramics, Theodore Deck copied furiously from exoticized Egyptian, Islamic, Japanese, and Chinese styles, including the sang de boeuf and incorporated a  flambé glaze, applying it to art deco pottery forms. In England William Howson Taylor of Ruskin Pottery (named after the writer John Ruskin) sought the sang de boeuf as one of the most difficult expressions of pottery as an art form. He guarded the secrets of this glaze carefully, and burned his notes before his death. Bernard Moore is his contemporary, producing similar wares and I wondered if there was a rivalry, but I found nothing.

In 1925, the British Museum received a gift from a “generous Hong Kong donor in the name of Keechong Hong.” This gift included a tall, slender vase, described as a “typical specimen, with faintly crackled glaze and red of cherry tint in the thinner parts, but darkening into oxblood where it has flowed thick on the shoulders and above the base.” This compares well with an earlier gift from Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, and shows the celadon lip–the delicate, singular green yielding to the more furious red.

Container series, Liu Jianhua, Pace Gallery exhibitions
Container series, 2009, Liu Jianhua, Pace Gallery exhibitions

It’s this contrast between celadon and oxblood that modern potter Liu Jianhua plays with, the red finally filling the vessel, diving up and inside, like it belonged there all along.

So this, this a from a non-ceramicist–a partial, ragged run through the most elusive of colors, one that maddens, demands the most exquisite attention and craft, and is reborn over and over again.

The title of the post refers to My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk.