LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Could we open the conversation with your introduction to pottery?
SONGXIAN JIAN: I am a potter based in Jingdezhen, China. For five years (from 2017 to 2022), I studied and worked in Japan where I develop my interest in ceramic art. Before my transfer to Tokyo, I considered applying for a degree in product design and I had no idea that I would learn pottery instead.
With Japanese brands such as MUJI and Uniqlo, there is a common belief that learning design in such a design-driven country is prospective. I had the same theory. However, encountering the exhibitions of pottery in small shops and galleries around Tokyo changed my mind and I turned to crafts. I used to have a stereotype of ceramics, that it is out of fashion and it is so common to us through everyday exposure that we are barely aware of their existence. I could not have been more wrong! Countless potters and craftsmen in Japan do such an amazing job, enabling ceramics to shine in everyone’s daily life. In return, people treasure and show respect to handcrafts by incorporating handmade bowls and plates into their daily rituals. The moment I realized that pottery is an important part of life – it triggered me to turn to a ceramic course.
LŠ: What attracted you to the field?
SJ: The handmade process attracted me. Sitting behind the pottery wheel when I throw the clay, I feel at peace. Nothing compares to that moment of pulling the clay up. It’s a fluid, skillful and unforgiving practice that places your mind into a state of pure concentration. Muscle memory kicks in and your whole body has to be engaged.
I prefer making pieces by hand rather than from mold, which is essential for me. I believe that each handmade piece has its own identity shown through carefully considered details that reveal themselves through usage. From my point of view, handmade objects seem to be eternal – containing a strong power that goes against mass production.
LŠ: Is there practice by a specific potter that impacted your work?
SJ: There are so many potters, that are my inspiration and deserve my admiration, such as the work of Lucie Rie, Chinese porcelain from the Song and the Ming Dynasty, as well as Jomon period stoneware. I was shocked by Taizo Kuroda’s perfect white porcelain when I first had the chance to see it in a museum setting. Taizo Kuroda was one of the most prolific Japanese contemporary ceramists. His work is described as if the material’s pure white reflects the color of the artist’s spirit – in the constant pursuit of truth.
Following graduation, I moved to the Izu peninsula as an apprentice for Nikaido, also a place where Taizo Kuroda set up his studio. I aimed to hear from Mother Nature during that period, just as Taizo Kuroda did. I used to dig up natural clay and played with it until something interesting would emerge.
LŠ: Could we discuss your schooling in Japan and the important lessons/ techniques you learned there?
SJ: I still remember the days I attended Musashino Art University, – a place that enlightened my view of pottery and life. We learned every aspect of pottery – starting from basics such as throwing the very first bowl – simple but fundamental. Usually, the school workshop was unlocked at 8 am, thus we would have time to prepare the clay before the classes began. There are no fixed seats in the ceramics course, and we shared the workshop space and kitchen, furthering our friendship and making us feel at home.
According to my sensei, three critical elements contribute to good work: clay, fire, and handicraft techniques. Let’s talk about the clay first. Since we were beginners, no sooner have we qualified to use advanced clay containing rich fine iron dioxide that appeared as dark iron dots under the reduced atmosphere that we finally grasped the skill – and became experienced. It would help if we did not rely on advanced clay to make our vessels. A skilful cook can cook a delicious meal with the simplest ingredients. So, does a potter!
Firing is a romantic but unpredictable process as it cannot be fully controlled; in some ways, it depends on fortune. Every year, we deliver a ritual called Huigo-sai to show our respect for the kilns and pray for good results. Maybe it is a little superstitious, but I do believe that regular maintenance of the ritual is necessary. Lastly, the technique reveals your ideas, philosophy, and personality.
LŠ: How and when did you join the studio of renowned Japanese potter Akihiro Nikaido? Could you share some of the memorable experiences you gained?
SJ: After graduation, I had an amazing opportunity to be an apprentice for Akihiro Nikaido, whose studio is located in a small highland in the Izu peninsula with a breathtaking view of Mount Fuji right on the horizon.
Yet as it was the time of the global pandemic, following my graduation I struggled with visa extension. With the help of my tutor Nishikawa, who bridged the conversation with the studio of Nikaido, I got an opportunity to meet with the artist and present my work. I remember driving 150 km from the suburbs of Tokyo to the Izu peninsula for the interview. And luckily I passed the process!
My time as an apprentice for Akihiro Nikaido has had many unforgettable and learning moments. Such as with a fellow apprentice, we were asked to tidy up the whole studio and backyard, where we helped Nikaido fire his works in the kilns. The Japanese tradition and philosophy are that a tidy and clean space can mentally contribute to a good mood, which helps good work performance. When you organize the clutter, from a different perspective, you are also cleaning up your mind – which means getting rid of chaos both physically and mentally. This practice also became my habit even though I no longer live in Japan today.
LŠ: You are currently based in Jingdezhen, the Chinese capital of porcelain. When did you move back? How has your pottery production/style changed?
SJ: In May of 2022, I moved to Jingdezhen, as you mentioned, the Chinese capital of porcelain and another Jerusalem for all porcelain artisans and potters, representing ceramic fashion in its long history. Since my arrival, I have realized that there is a considerable difference between Jingdezhen and Japanese porcelain, which spurs me to accommodate the new environment.
The relationship between humans and ceramics is remarkable. A solid connection links ethnicity and food, with an apparent but sometimes not eye-catching fact that tableware suits local food quilt well in function and aesthetics.
To me, Nikaido was so influential, creating work characterized by sharp, ancient, earth-looking utensils such as mugs, palettes, pitchers, etc., dominated by the shades of browns, rusty reds, dark purples, and whites. With a no-glazed surface, the texture and tactility of local pottery representing Mother Earth’s materials, serve Japanese cuisine like sushi and tempura with good plating.
However, that doesn’t work for Chinese dishes, which indulge in a rich sauce, even with hot soup. Now, you understand why blue and white porcelain is so widespread in this ancient country – it’s beautiful and functional enough for dishwashing. I need to consider local cuisine, and eating habits and change my ceramics to adapt to local settings. There have been thousands of years of this old craftsmanship, so finding your unique voice in a sea of ceramics can be excruciatingly difficult, especially in Jingdezhen. Blending what I had learned in Japan and my cultural background encourages me to continue.
LŠ: How do you produce your pottery in connection with the local community?
SJ: From all over the nation, skillful potters, imaginative artists, and travelers with a shared affinity for crafts gather at Jingdezhen to pursue their dreams in ceramics approaches.
My studio is set up in a derelict factory area. It is accessible to the clay ingredient shops, and the town’s biggest pottery market open on Saturday mornings. The factory has an interesting story – it used to produce pigments and pattern stickers for porcelain on large levels. After a substantial economic decline swept the country in the late 1990s, it was closed for a substantial period until its new hosts – the young artisans, came and the place once again became a ceramic paradise. Today, one can find different categories of pottery art in the factory space, including blue and white vessels, which are pretty traditional, alongside the contemporary production.
The local community is very tightly knitted. People like sitting together and having tea time with friends; that is the typical social activity. There is also a popular theory in Jingdezhen that only when one truly understands tea can one make a good teapot. Makes a lot of sense!
The theory reveals the secret of any pottery practice – the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know; it is an endless process. Nobody in our community regards themselves as a veteran, even though many have decade-long practices. To remain humble and perform cautiously; is all I learned from the Jingdezhen community.
LŠ: Which contemporary potters are experimenting in the field the most in your opinion?
SJ: Florian Gadsby, a British potter and Instagram star who shares his studio daily online inspires me a lot. Gadsby has a strict pottery educational experience. He graduated from the Design and Craft Council of Ireland’s ceramics course and apprenticed for Lisa Hammond. Gadsby was also based in Mashico, the cradle of the Mingei movement in Japan, where he learned traditional Japanese pottery skills and developed his pottery philosophy. His video activity shared via YouTube reveals his process, which helps enthusiasts to also grasp the skill.
In my opinion, Gadsby somehow managed to reach a suitable position in pottery production; a simple but enduring color glaze often covers his pieces of designed form; that blends the Eastern aesthetics of Zen with Western awareness.
颂贤 Songxian is Jingdezhen- based potter. He studied in Ceramics course, Department of Industrial, Interior and Craft Design, Musashino Art University (2018 – 2021). Following his graduation he was Assistant of Akihiro Nikaido, a Japanese ceramist based in Izu peninsula, Shizuoka. Following his work for Hakuten in Tokyo, he moved back to China in 2022.
He set up his studio in Jingdezhen (2022).
For his work follow his Instagram profile: songxian_6008