Shenhou County, Yuzhou, Henan
A study of an ancient kiln site in Shenhou, Henan
Except for the teaching and administrative part of my job in this fellowship, all communication between me and the residents is becoming my largest gaining in my practice. I enjoy this kind of old-fashioned way chats with the neighborhood on the street, purposelessly. Some of them take a walk after eating dinner, and some of them cool off under trees in this little county. Everything goes slowly and peacefully, while everyone slows down their steps. After talking with some local parents and elementary students, I found the absence of professional art education. The Chinese government has implemented nine years of compulsory education. Still, art classes in actual schools have often been overlooked or crowded out by other subjects such as math and literature. Even though traditional Jun ceramics surrounds people, most of them have no recognition of generic ceramic arts or the arts. To the public, Jun ceramics have become an iconic symbol in the historical culture. Nevertheless, one of the essential distinctions between parents in Henan and Yunnan is that they were more than willing to send their children to participate in the non-profit program. Some parents in Henan are even more than welcome to invest in their children’s education. They were aware of the demand for art education in rural areas. So the advertising and enrollment of local students have been very smooth and successful, and some parents are fully supportive of our public education organization. However, most of the parents in Yunnan just considered us as babysitters for their children’s summer vacation.
Multiple layers of feldspar, iron oxide, and clay are deposited underground.
Study of local clay and materials with Qi Huisuo
Qi Huisuo’s personal studio
The conversation with Mr. Qi remains in my mind. I enjoyed talking with Mr. Qi the most. Qi Huisuo works as the main designer for the Song Dynasty royal kiln though, his job as designing for mass production ceramics never limited his vision.
In China, especially in Chinese rural areas, there is a large number of people like Qi Huisuo. They never identify themselves as a contemporary artist, but what they are creating and sustaining is true honesty and art. Not like most traditional Chinese ceramicists, Qi is generous, open-minded, knowable, and welcoming. He would love to share the ceramic knowledge that he researched for years. Working as a designer for a mass-productive industry isn’t as fun and cool as it looks. The pre-research and study of local clay and stones is a much time-consumable phase in the ceramic industry. He took a big responsibility of qualifying all designs for all blowing mass production.
Conceptual thinking and creative art education are essential absences in their elementary school, especially speaking to Shenhou County, after my street interview with the residents. Most of the children and families I accessed in Shenhou are much more educated, urbanized, and open-minded, especially compared with the situation we met in Yunnan. They have relatively rich art materials, convenient transportation, and favorable life conditions. Surprisingly, parents in Shenhou value the importance of kids’ education, and invest the most in this aspect, especially compared to the situation in Yunan. However, the lack of support for arts in elementary education proves that unequal development and resources of arts are common in the countryside.
To the ten-day workshop, I have committed with designer Qi Huisuo about the main concept of our teaching for these children — creative thinking.
The first art lecture
The parallel creative writing workshop took place every afternoon.
In pursuit of answers, we’ve embarked on a bold experiment, and education serves as the simplest and most direct experimental process. With the generous support of the largest porcelain factory in Shenzhou, the Da Song Kiln, and the Maharam Fund, we organized a summer ceramics camp focused on ‘contemporary art.’ This art workshop involved 30 local schoolchildren selected from the public. In this camp, we deconstructed the concept of ‘contemporary art’ and dismantled all preconceived notions about Jun porcelain. The result was an array of whimsical creations from a fully-charged kiln. For ten days, there were no rules, no requirements, and no homework. We not only supported the students with a studio art class but also invited a literature volunteer to guide the kids in writing statements and poems. In the first lecture, I introduced some contemporary performance artists who would have utilized the interaction between their bodies and clay to present their ideas, like my professor Nicholas Oh, and RISD alumni Nayoung Jeong. In addition, I also displayed some famous post-modernism and abstract painters, like Keifer, and Hilma af Klint. It is pretty brave and radical to discuss contemporary arts with these 10-year-old children in ritual. Out of expectation, the class was very communicative, enthusiastic, and inspiring. Most children are interested in abstract art with thoughtful patterns, colors and constructions. Kids’ active replies and exploration of those conceptual works also evoked my imagination about the abstract arts, which is way beyond the knowledge I learned from art history. Some kids’ parents audited our lecture and then they participated in the discussion naturally.
Meanwhile, the tug-of-war with the kids is exhausting. To be honest, the 10-day process of the workshop is also a big challenge for these little kids. Whether we can categorize these brief, heartfelt children’s creations as art is uncertain, but they unquestionably glowed with the radiant light of childlike innocence and sincerity. Like a charming, nonsensical melody or a handful of poetic verses, they encapsulated the pure essence of childhood and pointed to the innate artistry within us all.