Meet Li Shu Yun 李曙韻

The affairs of tea are the affairs of life and living.

Photo by Li Shu Yun.

Photo by Li Shu Yun.

"I used to be scared of people. I had no fear of spirits or things I couldn’t see, but I was terrified of people. One day I decided that I needed to break out of it — I wanted to bring myself to be able to serve others — so I got myself a job where I had to interact with a lot of strangers. My very first job was in tea, and it was at Tea Chapter.

I left Singapore for Taiwan when I was about 20, and left Taiwan for Beijing a few years ago. It’s just my nature — I cannot stay in one place for too long. Every time I move to a new place, it feels like I have a new lease of life.

When I moved to Taiwan, I was often asked, ‘Singapore is so clean, why did you choose to come to Taiwan?’ Then when I moved from Taiwan to Beijing, people asked, ‘Taiwan is so clean, why would you choose to come to Beijing?’

I like Beijing — the energy, the attitude of the people, and the whole landscape. I feel that my character is very suited to the north.

During the Song Dynasty, 四司六局 (four departments and six divisions) were in charge of the planning and execution of a banquet. Each corresponded to a particular role or service. A 茶人 (charen, tea person) should also possess various skills to put together a tea banquet. That’s why I named my tea room 茶家十職 (the ten duties of tea practitioners).

Photo by Li Shu Yun.

Photo by Li Shu Yun.

Tea belongs to the world, not to China or Asia. China may have the most expensive tea in the world, but not necessarily the best. One of the most memorable teas I’ve ever had was in Darjeeling. I recommend everyone to visit Darjeeling at least once.

Having a 茶席 (chaxi, tea banquet) with no light source except for the flame of a candle is a remarkable experience. You see only your own hands and cup. The rest of you, your tea guests, and everything else fade away in the darkness, and suddenly you are reminded of your temporal nature. It’s incredible, and I’ve only had this encounter thrice in my life.

I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to have a teacher in tea. Personally, I never had one, and everything that I achieved was through hard work and diligence. Without a teacher, you must be prepared to face a lot of disappointment and walk the arduous journey alone.

In tea, you can choose not to learn, but if you choose to learn, you realise that there is so much more that you do not know and cannot understand. Learning never stops — even now, I'm constantly making new discoveries. At the end, I think the question is not about learning per se, but about whether you have a companion on the journey."

Photo by Li Shu Yun.

Photo by Li Shu Yun.

Meet Chang Kuei-Wei, 張桂維

Years of painstaking research and countless ruined firings have rewarded the artist with a breakthrough that earns him a place in the annals of tenmoku ceramics.

Photo by Chang Kuei-Wei.

Photo by Chang Kuei-Wei.

On the ground floor of Chang Kuei-Wei’s studio and residence in Kaohsiung, a large wooden table takes pride of place, bearing tea bowls of various shapes and sizes neatly arranged in a formal tea setting. Here the ceramic artist sits cross-legged on the floor. A sense of mindfulness attends him as he empties the contents of a canister into a teapot, into which he pours a steady stream of boiling water. The rising steam perfumes the air with impressions of dried fruits and roasted nuts. Using one of his tea bowls, he offers me the rich amber brew: “It’s organic Muzha tieguanyin, given to me by a friend who runs a store in Taipei.”

Sitting across me is a ceramist whose works have made their way into the Taipei National Palace Museum (台北故宮博物院), the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Famen Temple Museum (西安法门寺珍宝馆). A native of Taoyuan, Chang (or Zhang Gui Wei, 張桂維) is reputed to be the first person in history to produce gold tenmoku (tianmu 天目) ceramics. “I spent many years researching tenmoku glaze and never thought that this was even possible,” the 47-year-old says, pausing to top up my tea bowl. “All I had set out to achieve was to create tenmoku ceramics faithful to the Song Dynasty originals."

Teatle-Tattle: Was it tough when you first started doing pottery?
Chang Kuei-Wei: Pottery is unlike other arts such as calligraphy or painting in that you need plenty of space for equipment and storage. It’s especially difficult if you don’t have the means to afford these things. After I left the army in 1995, I went to work in a factory that produced ceramics. As soon as I had enough money to buy whatever I needed, I resigned from my job and focused on setting up my own studio.

TT: How did you discover that you could fire gold tenmoku ceramics?
CKW: During my first ten years working with tenmoku glaze, I had unsatisfactory results, so I started adding a lot of things to the glaze recipe in an attempt to get the effects I wanted. Over time the recipe became so complex that I decided to go back to the basics, so I stripped away whatever that was unnecessary and kept only the essential ingredients. I compared that with glaze recipes that I found in extant Song manuals and started experimenting with it. Towards the end of 2010, I realised that my tenmoku wares had a slight golden sheen, so I went on to adjust the recipe and firing technique until I could achieve a rich gold colour in the glaze.

TT: Do you recall the moment you first had success with gold tenmoku ceramics? 
CKW: Yes. Initially, the gold tenmoku bowls only had oil spots around the base, so I did some adjustments to the recipes and firing temperatures in order for the cups to develop oil spots all over. I don’t work with test tiles, so in the process I ruined countless tea bowls in the kiln. The day I truly had success with gold oil spot tenmoku, I was ecstatic. I knew that it was something that never existed in the past, so this was an absolute breakthrough. That evening, my friends and I went out to celebrate and I got drunk.

TT: What’s your greatest difficulty in producing the tea bowls? 
CKW: My success rate for complete flawless pieces is extremely low because of the nature of the glaze; tiny bubbles tend to appear on the glaze surface, and the clay is unable to take extremely high temperatures. Sometimes, the oil spots on the glaze are very pretty but there are bubbles or some other sort of flaw. In a single firing, I might only get one or two perfect bowls. The rest are flawed and therefore destroyed.

TT: Isn’t that a lot of money down the drain?
CKW: This is why you have to consider very carefully the kind of adjustments you make to the recipe or firing technique. Mistakes are very costly. I do everything I can to maximise my chances of success, and exclude everything that I feel is unnecessary or unlikely to work. In the end, the process becomes somewhat like prescribing medicine.

TT: You’ve successfully produced gold oil spot and gold hare’s fur tenmoku. What’s next?
CKW: I want my oil spot glazes to be even closer to actual Song wares. As for hare’s fur, there’s still some work to be done. Right now, the base colour is a shade of persimmon, which is not quite the same as conventional hare’s fur; ideally it should be bluish black. I am currently working to perfect the hare’s fur effect. So far, I only have one hare’s fur bowl that has a darker base colour, but the hare’s fur effect isn’t as fine as I want it to be. My priority now is to perfect the oil spots and hare’s fur glazes until I have absolute control over the glaze effects.

TT: What teas do you enjoy drinking?
CKW: It depends on my mood or on the situation. I like oolong or high mountain teas in the morning and ripe teas or pu-erh in the evening. As potters, we should understand different teas and their characteristics and the type of vessels they are suited to. So a potter should try all types of tea to get a sense of what works with different kinds of teapots and vessels.

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TT: What do you do in your free time?
CKW: I enjoy drinking tea and meditating. I don’t work regular hours; sometimes I’m throwing clay at 10pm or 11pm or firing the kiln in the wee hours of the morning. I enjoy cycling but don’t have very much time for that these days.

TT: If the world ends tomorrow, what would your last piece of ceramic artwork be?
CKW: I’d maintain a peaceful mind and heart and make tea bowls and cups. I used to think that I want to create a lot of elaborate objects, but the simplest ones are often the hardest to make. Some people think tea bowls are easy to produce and so don’t hold it in high regard, but there is so much to the simple form and shape of a tea bowl. Every line, every curve, it constitutes the spirit and soul of the vessel. It’s important to grasp this and perfect the art of making the tea bowl, because the one who uses it will feel it. I no longer have the desire to make fancy things. I just want to focus on a few simple shapes and go through the movement a hundred times; a thousand times; ten thousand times. Then, the tea bowl and I become one.

Meet Janice Hunter

A serendipitous encounter with clay inspired a life dedicated
to pottery.

Photo by Janice Hunter.

Photo by Janice Hunter.

"I'm still being led on a journey of discovery and wonder," says Janice Hunter as she wedges clay with a rhythmic movement on a large wooden table. "I know I'll never grow tired on my way."

Born in Hastings, a beautiful fishing town in East Sussex on the south coast of England, the 66-year-old ceramic artist had her first attempt at pottery in college — an accidental encounter she describes as "love at first sight/touch."

Janice later moved to the pottery village of La Borne in  France, before finally settling down in North Jutland, Denmark in 1978.

Teatle-Tattle: What was it like when you first got into pottery?
Janice Hunter: I started working with clay when I was 18, I spent all my time in the workshops. The wheel I learnt to throw on was a stand up kick wheel made in Stoke-on-Trent. A curious machine. I was surprised to see a similar wheel in Singapore at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, it was very nostalgic!

TT: What types or forms of ceramics do you make?
JH: I work with sculptural ceramics and the elusive tea bowl.

TT: How would you sum up your approach or style?
JH: My method of "intuitive construction" for the sculptural works, which mirrors the way I decorate my tea bowls. Close the mind and let gut feeling take over. Exciting!

Janice's tea bowls are inspired by the landscape of her home. Photo by Janice Hunter.

Janice's tea bowls are inspired by the landscape of her home. Photo by Janice Hunter.

TT: What inspires you?
JH: The magic of Iceland has bored its way into my bones, and the winter landscape of the Limfjorden, ice and water, lines of direction, and shades of coldness.

TT: Tell us about your favourite techniques.
JH: I love to throw with loose sandy coarse clay. I use ribs inside the bowls. And I enjoy handbuilding and the construction of objects from diverse materials and ceramics shapes. In the firing, the glaze melts and acts as an adhesive. I use my stored data for defining the composition of an object. Even then, I get surprises when I step back and look at the results after firings. Security nullifies ambition! You know what can be rewarding? A state of courageous momentum.

TT: What's the pottery scene like at home?
JH: The pottery scene here in Denmark is quite fertile. I work with various groups of ceramic artists on inviting international ceramics guests to show and demonstrate here in our local area in North Jutland. We are in fact known in Denmark for the dynamic scene "up here", north of Copenhagen. An interesting development is the establishment of a new "factory" for the production of ceramics. The Danish state has made a decision to train "designers" rather than hands-on potters. These designers' works are currently produced in Vietnam, China, and Portugal. The initiative "Den DanskeKeramikFabrik" (www.Dendanskekeramikfabrik.dk) is an optimistic one, in that it aims to provide a service which will make large-scale ceramics production in Denmark economically viable. We are all hoping they will succeed.

Janice Hunter's tea bowl used to whisk matcha, served alongside matcha mooncakes from Intercontinental Singapore.

Janice Hunter's tea bowl used to whisk matcha, served alongside matcha mooncakes from Intercontinental Singapore.

TT: Do you enjoy drinking tea?
JH: Yes I do. In the catalogue Chawan 10 Years Hemiksem Belgium, I wrote: "My magical journey with the tea leaf started in England. A proper brew made in a teapot, steeped a while, with lots of milk and sugar. A nice cup of tea was a cure for all. The stronger the better. My grandmother told my fortune with the tea leaves left as dregs in the bottom of the teacup. But never tea on a Friday! Grandmother was very adamant about this. So now I'm making tea bowls inspired by a watery, wintery wonderland of ice and slush. Bowls which are rough and smooth, raw and silky. Touch them, feel them, drink from them." Right now I'm going through different teas that I bought while I was in Singapore. I can't read the labels!

TT: What do you do in your free time?
JH: Nowadays I spend my free time helping refugees settle into their new homes in Denmark. We have a big asylum centre near here. Those who are granted asylum have to have support to start their lives anew. They are all traumatised, you can imagine! The world has come to us in North Jutland. I have learnt so much.

TT: If the world comes to an end and you are to make your last piece of ceramic artwork, what would you do?
JH: I would fill my electric kiln up with a huge "intuitive construction" and turn the power on.

Photo by Janice Hunter.

Photo by Janice Hunter.

Photo by Janice Hunter.

Photo by Janice Hunter.

View Janice's artwork at her workshop or at pottery exhibitions.
Gl. Skolevej 4 A, Tornby Gl. Skole
9850 Hirtshals
Nordjylland, Denmark
Tel: (+45) 9 897 7668
www.facebook.com/JaniceHunter.dk