A few weeks ago I accompanied my potter wife to the NCECA* convention in Milwaukee. I’m not an artist, but am always interested, sometimes enthralled, listening to experts describe their enterprise -whatever it might be. At the very least it can be invigorating to watch the approach of truth and beauty at the hands of a mere mortal. Occasionally, with attention and luck there will be a flight of transcendence and such was the case with Ching-Yuan Chang who you see on stage above.
Mr. Chang makes his delicate pots by first scoring (like this: /////) several smallish slabs of clay an inch or so thick and then gently throwing the slabs against the floor till they are so thin that the spaces between the lines have become linear protrusions. He then trims them and assembles the pieces into a vessel of one sort or another; a cup, a pot, a vase. It was fascinating to watch him work while slides of his fired and finished pieces flashed on the screen to the right along with photos of the landscape around Taipei.
There were two sessions. The first was from 1:00 to 4:00 PM on a Thursday and the second from 9:00 AM to noon the next day. I was there transfixed for the whole six hours. He made many different vessels, talked about his career path, related his take on the life of an artist, and with a serenity unavailable to me answered many questions, some repeated many times. “I like to keep things simple” was a frequent refrain.
Toward the end of the second session a petite and elderly Asian woman approached the microphone and asked: “Mr. Chang, I would like to know why you choose to make functional pots and not something sculpture or figure.” I’ve listened to enough related conversations between ceramicists to know that the response to that question will range from a polite demure to inane verbosity.
Mr. Chang said “Something happened to me many years ago that I remember to this day. I was staying with friends in Japan and they asked me to walk their young child down the block to kindergarten. I did so and watched in wonder at snack time when each child was given a drink in a small handmade ceramic cup. One was dropped and it shattered. My Japanese is not very good (my friends speak English), but I finally figured out how to ask ‘why not unbreakable?’ ”. Teacher smile and ask if I speak English.
I nod, she answer: “Well, they are each unique individual pieces made especially for us. Very delicate. The children usually develop favorites and return for the same one every day. But also almost every day one or two are dropped and become shards on the floor. Even in kindergarten there is realization that something special is gone forever never to be seen on this earth again. Like friend. Good lesson.” A hush fell over the room and I thought of those small faces looking down and then up. Ya, good lesson.
* (National Council for Education in Ceramic Arts – the acronym is better than the mouthful, isn’t it?)