Students at the school of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning were given the chance to take a three-week long journey to Jingdezhen, China — the home of porcelain — to work alongside Chinese master craftsmen and learn the techniques of creating art with porcelain last semester.
The porcelain creations are now on display in an exhibit at Clay Street Press in Over-the-Rhine titled “Handmade in China II: Stay Handsome.”
The results of this trip include — but are not limited to — traditional works like spoons and table wear, stylized busts of Mao Zedong dressed as Mr. T and lithophanes formed from molds, all made with porcelain from that region in China.
Guy Davis, a professor in DAAP’s ceramics program and faculty leader of the trip, explained that students had the experience of working in a completely different setting in Jingdezhen. He described the workspace as a factory, in which many studios were set up near one another with a focus on collaboration between craftsmen.
“The sculpture factory there is not like a factory we would think of here,” Davis explained. “It is more like a neighborhood or a community. So, a complex mold that might take me several days here, a specialist in the studio next to me could make it in an afternoon.”
The ability to work alongside these expert craftsmen gave the artists time to concentrate more on ideas and designs and quickly dive into their work.
Colin Klimesh, a graduate student with a ceramics focus at DAAP, said Jingdezhen and the opportunities available there changed his idea of what it means to be a maker of art.
“When presented with the opportunities in China, I really wanted to make the most of it, and that meant allowing others — the craftsman — to be a part of my process, which in turn enabled me to be more productive than I could ever be in my own studio,” Klimesh said.
The specialized craftsmen the group was able to interact with emphasize one of the biggest differences in the Chinese artistic process.
“There’s a thrower, a mold guy, and a kiln guy there, whereas here, we teach students to throw, mold and fire their own work,” Davis said.
Sophie Neslund, a graduate student at DAAP whose porcelain cat head sculptures can be seen throughout the exhibit at Clay Street Press, said it was fascinating to see how master craftsmen interacted with her own ideas.
“It was really interesting noticing the parts that the sculptor saw as important versus the parts that I thought were the most important,” Neslund said.
The exhibit at Clay Street Press is full of varied artistic styles and creations, but most of the pieces blend the feeling of traditional Eastern porcelain with Western ideas and designs. There are lithophanes — a type of relief artwork that originated in Europe — mugs with American catch-phrases on them, and oblong abstract structures all tied together by the pure, smooth material they are made from.
“We didn’t specifically talk about doing an East-meets-West thing,” Davis said. “But, it seems like the gut thing to do is to really respond to the traditions and the history there. Some people are more respectful, some more irreverent.”
By the end of the trip, Davis hoped students came home with a new sense of what quality really means in relation to their artwork.
Neslund said she returned with a renewed sense of humility and humbleness about her own artistic process.
“Witnessing the truly incredible and well-crafted work that these people were making with really bare-bones technology really made me stop short,” Neslund said. “Some of these men work in small rooms with one bare bulb and a single tool and produce work of a caliber that I can only hope to achieve.”