Taming the Dragon

img_7810After my last trip to Shuiji and the source of Jian Ware, or as it is known locally Jianshan. The primary focus of this trip was to attend one of the firings of one of the two operational Dragon Kilns in the area. There was a secondary focus and that was on the 600-700 other potters in this small rural town who were producing Jianshan in electric kilns with reduction cooling.

Clicker a short video of Taming the Dragon

It is easy to set up a business producing black glazed tea bowls in this town, you need little skill. You need one rolling head jigger machine, a number of plaster mounds of bowls, a pug mill, a potter’s wheel for trimming, a ball mill and an electric kiln. There is a least one advisor/teacher in the village who helps people set up. The black glaze is easy here, just a local rock crushed and ball milled with a little rice ash and some of the local red clay added. The clay body is everywhere in the valley and delivered in bags, often left in the street until ready to be used, plastic and ideal for the moulding process. The firing is simply bisque the bowls, dip them in glaze then into the electric kiln, to be fired quickly to top temperature, around 1300oC, then during the cooling small bits of wood are dropped into the kiln to cause reduction.

IMG_3251.JPG There are of course differences, everyone develops their variation of the techniques, but over all the results are quite similar. Mostly it is pretty ordinary, there are some who excel but they are rare, and it is becoming a problem, as most of these small businesses are focused on making money and not aesthetics. The moulded pots are often way to heavy and thick and any result is seen as acceptable for sale.

This is contrasted by the few Master potters, two of whom work with traditional wood fired dragon kilns, whose the focus is on quality. The kiln I worked at often only had success rates of 20% in a firing of 5000-7500 pots. Those considered fine represent less than 1% and in this firing they were much less, though the success rate overall was closer to 50%. The pots fired in their wood fired kilns are quite different, they are protected from fly ash by being placed in saggars, so they are not part of the Japanese wood fire aesthetic practiced in the west, but they are none the less products of a more traditional process. One of the potteries, still throws all its pots and raw glazes them for a once firing, whilst the other does employ some moulds for at least part of their production.





4 thoughts on “Taming the Dragon

  1. Thankyou Len,
    Really enjoyed reading your blogs..Tenmoku ..takes me back . When i was on Living with Bruce Arthur at the back of Dunk island in 1977 i had just left school, and i was digging the local clays and throwing on my leach kick-wheel,i met John Gilbert the founder of Old Ballarat Pottery who was visiting the island..he offered a job as a production thrower (so off i headed to Ballarat with my leather sandals) there among a team of 20 plus throwers,Peter Pilven,Richard Owen,Jenny Lyall etc etc..there must have been at least 40-50 people employed, a massive commercial operation. It had one glaze..”tenmoku”..6-7 massive gas fiber kilns churning out pretty poor designs, and very mediocre tenmoku finishes, that were exported around the country.It was not a good introduction to tenmoku for me, i had little respect for the glaze(and the commercialism of the Old Ballarat Pottery) and no idea of tenmoku origins.
    Luckily through my contact of Bruce Arthur (dunk island)and John Olsen i met Geoffrey Davidson a studio potter in Dunmoochin(who had taken over the workshop from Robert Mare) on Cliff Pughs place.(Near Cottlesbridge/Eltham) I was taken on an apprentice in 1978, studio workshop based on the tradition of Bernard Leach and Japanese, met many potters in the area.I lived in a little daub and wattle shack on Peter and Helen Laycocks Land and rode my pushbike everywhere through the bush.It was in Dunmoochin i was introduced to the quality of the tenmoku,the oil spot ,the Chun,ash glazes…later to work with Michael Pugh(Sunshne Coast) and explore the shino,Peter thopmson in Kuranda and anagama,and with Steve Bishopric and and loved my Journey into the Japanese Creamics Tradition.
    25 years ago, the love of jazz took over, add a few lifestyle changes,kids and a wife, and i was no longer making pottery.Regardless,I have never lost my appreciation and love of the these traditions.
    What a wonderful time in the Song Dynasty , Japanese potters lived in, when their goal was for quality and aesthetics,not commercial gain.
    Keep up the good work Len, and hope you are well
    Henry Holt


    • Henry

      It is so lovely to hear from you, tell me a bit more about yourself, what you are doing now, your family, where you are living?

      I’m not posting a lot at the moment, ANU want me to publish with them first, but it is time to do a bit more soon.


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