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Lessons from China

Associate professor studies master ceramic artists' work in the porcelain capital of the world

In the northeastern part of the Jiangxi province lies Jingdezhen, the porcelain capital of the world. When Colorado Mesa University Associate Professor of Art KyoungHwa Oh first stepped off the plane in Shanghai, she heard locals describe Jingdezhen as “the small countryside.” With a population of around two million, Oh couldn't help but laugh. Coming from western Colorado, she didn't consider that size of a city to be small. What’s unique about the city though isn't the number of residents, but how many of them are ceramic artists and how they are all working toward one purpose: to continue the techniques traditional to their culture for more than 2,000 years. This was what brought Oh to China.

Last June, Oh was accepted into The Pottery Workshop Jingdezhen and became an international artist resident. During her 20 years working with porcelain, she had always been fascinated by the ancient Chinese tradition.

“This traditional technique has been around since the 9th century. I wanted to learn it but to do so I needed to understand the history and the culture,” said Oh.

The blue and white combination is a traditional ceramic technique specific to Jingdezhen. The region’s artists use special color pigments called cobalt carbonate and copper carbonate that they mix with tea water. This mixture is used to design and paint traditional Chinese motifs and landscapes on the clay surface. The master carving techniques and the blue and white painting techniques were created and developed during the Song Dynasty. These unique methods have been passed down for generations from master to master.

Oh’s passion hasn't always been ceramics. She first came to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, to be a fashion designer. It was in the U.S. she discovered a love for clay, its texture and the way it feels in her hands. She found when she worked with clay her mind became quiet, peaceful.

She found that same sense of peace walking down the bustling streets of Jingdezhen.

“The first day it blew my mind. I couldn't believe there were that many people working on ceramics. There were more than 1,300 masters working in one sculpture factory.”

Oh said everywhere she looked there were masters of the craft: mold masters, wheel-throwing masters, painting masters, kiln masters and so on.

“I found an entire block that was only filled with glaze shops and it went on forever. I was like a kid in a candy shop.”

Oh finds her inspiration through residencies and workshops, which she attends annually. They allow her to integrate new techniques into her studio practice and network within the professional
ceramic community.

“I enjoy learning through other people and their environment,” said Oh. “When you go to a different place, you feel it through your entire body. I don’t get inspired by just sitting in the studio.”

During her five weeks in China, she took a number of workshops, and CMU students are benefiting from her experience — from community art lectures to the classroom. Oh plans to integrate the ancient technique into her classroom curriculum. •

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Written by Kelsey Coleman