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.