On the Intoxicating Alchemy of Pottery
In Search of the Color of Dreams
There is a legend most potters encounter sooner or later: in the dim and distant past, Emperor Xuanzong ruled China and although he was certain emperors were all-powerful, he thought it wise to offer the Sun God gifts of red-glazed porcelain ware.
Potter after potter got to work in Jingdezhen, where the hillsides are said to be compacted even today with porcelain shards millennia old. Kilns burned there all night as countless workshops produced cups, bowls, even deep basins for the swimming carp.
But rich red glazes were notoriously difficult to produce. The right red eluded the potters and they were imprisoned and threatened with death.
Cuilan, the daughter of an elderly potter, pleaded with her father to rest. Though he barely paused to eat or sleep, his glazes came out a faded pink time after time. Eventually he, too, was condemned to death, and in anguish, Cuilan leaped into his fiery kiln. Two days later, when the kiln was opened, the porcelain inside was a deep, silky crimson.
The British master potter Bernard Leach was not always a potter. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Britain, he trained as a painter and went to Japan to paint when he was 22. A few months in, he was invited to a party. He describes entering a beautiful tea room scattered with felt rugs on which lay stacks of unglazed bowls and plates as well as brushes and pigments. Writers, dancers, and artists had gathered to paint them. It was February 18th, 1911.
When Leach finished painting his platter, it was dipped into what looked like a pail of whitewash. For a moment he felt unhappy, he wondered if his pattern had not been pleasing. Then he saw all the other pots being similarly “whitewashed” and realized his painted plate had been dipped into “finely powdered glass mixed with water.”
The pots were lowered into a kiln and some 45 minutes passed, then the red-hot pots were removed with a pair of tongs and laid on a stone floor. Leach heard a series of cracking and pinging sounds. He saw their colors alter and patterns emerge. “Enthralled,” he writes, “I was on the spot seized with the desire to take up this craft.”
There is a point at which interest turns into obsession. I think amateur potters know they have reached that point when no shop-bought glaze works to create the colors in their mind, and their dreams consist of zinc oxide and silica, oxidations and reductions. This is how it was with me.
After a couple of years at a tiny studio, I joined a professional one, where I encountered glaze creation. The new studio occupied a basement in the busiest part of Delhi. Above the basement were two giant hospitals along eight-lane roads glued together with traffic. Ambulances shrieked over the howl of cars and buses. But when you walked down the stairs and into the basement, inhaling its mysterious scent—a compound of damp earth, ginger tea, chemicals, and dust—street sounds receded. Down there, you heard only the low hum of twelve electric wheels, the thump and slap of clay being kneaded and beaten, the splash of water in the slop pail, the whoosh of a gasfire blazing at the mouth of the kiln outside—and, at times, a radio warbling songs of love and longing.
Along one wall of the studio were buckets with fitted lids. The liquid inside the buckets was a creamy batter, which was a mix of clay, minerals and oxides that would mingle and transform beyond recognition through contact with each other, the clay body of the pot, and heat. Kiln temperatures can cross 1400 degrees Celsius, hot enough to vitrify: to melt and fuse clay, glaze, and sand into glass. This process creates glaze colors.
The singular action of that intense heat has an element of danger and unpredictability which makes every firing a matter of suspense. It is alchemy of a kind. After a day-long firing and a day-long cooling down, when the heavy door of the kiln swings open and the fired pots come into view, a hush falls over the workshop. You are reminded of Ariel singing of transformations:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
into something rich and strange
The colors of the sea, rich and strange, were in my head when I ground my first glazes. I dreamed of blue with undertones of jade—a dark, rich ultramarine shot through with other colors that came from pale rocks and dark weeds and pink, translucent jellyfish. How would you describe such a blue? Or any color at all?
The British philosopher G.E. Moore, an intellectual godfather of sorts to Roger Fry, Clive Bell, and Virginia Woolf, said color could not properly be described, it could only be experienced:
Consider yellow, for example. We may try to define it, by describing its physical equivalent; we may state what kind of light-vibrations must stimulate the normal eye, in order that we may perceive it. But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to show that those light-vibrations are not themselves what we mean by yellow. They are not what we perceive.
You need a different dictionary of words for colors.
Edmund de Waal’s book, The White Road, lists a series of ancient Chinese names for colors: plum blossom petals stained with ink; fresh onion-like bright green; broken ice the color of eel’s blood; iced water. My favorite name for a color is “sky after rain”, where blue meets green to form a delicate greyish-green glaze called celadon. I hadn’t yet found a way to name the blue I dreamed of.
The first studio at which I learned anything worth keeping was a shed with a cement floor and windows opening on to trees that tempered the white-hot blaze of summer light. The shed was at one end of the roof, the rest of which was dense green with potted palms, bamboos and Bird of Paradise.
The four of us who went there were in our early twenties, working at our first jobs, living alone for the first time. We turned up in t-shirts and shorts, cigarettes squirreled away to smoke during breaks. Our teacher, Bani de Roy, a tall, gaunt woman with a severe expression, moved slowly, spoke with long pauses, and wore her hair in a steely bun. She was a well-known potter, no longer fashionable, and her method of teaching was modeled on the way she had been taught at Shoji Hamada’s workshop in Mashiko, near Tokyo.
Approval was hard to come by. Most of the pots we made ended up in the waste bin. We were scolded for talking too much and working too little, for never getting the walls of our pots even enough. A part of each day had to be devoted to the tedious and smelly job of recycling clay from slop, cleaning the studio, and scrubbing all the tools in it.
Somehow, in my memory it is always summer at that studio. I walked to it jauntily, swinging my bag of tools through heat-emptied streets, past birds hopping around with gaping beaks. The way back was always slower, heavier, and I had nothing to show for my hours in a shed where a solitary ceiling fan made its feeble gesture of dissent against the heat.
At long last, once we had made enough to fire, Bani brought out tubs of her own blue, white, and brown glazes. She showed us how to sandpaper our pots smooth, wipe them clean, paint wax onto their bases, dip them in glaze, clear away mistakes with a fine brush. Then she took the pots away to fire in a high temperature kiln at the professional studio in which she did her own work.
We unwrapped them gingerly a week later. Tears pricked at our eyes. Our pots had warped and exploded in blisters. The glazes had hardened into dead white and garish blue.
The temperature of the kiln had gone too high, Bani explained. It happened. All kinds of thing could go wrong. You throw out the bad pots and begin again, she said.
My teacher’s words would come back to me again and again in my writing life. Throw it out and start again. And again.
To console us, Bani told us of a letter Bernard Leach once received from a Japanese potter friend.
Ando Mura, Yamato, Japan (about 1939)
How your family and your work getting on?
Nearly everyday we talk about you but it is too far Yamato and St Ives . . . Here plum blossom and nightingale came, harbinger of spring. I think you remember this best season of Japan.
This year I had five kilns but only five good works (not good, ordinary) and we wish to break up all the others (50) but if we break up all of them we must ask 100 yen each for the five works. Then who will buy? Can they buy? Well if they cannot buy how shall we live? Think! Only five pots out of 100 pots, two months hard work, 150 yen gone.
I will stop. You know well.
Plum blossom, nightingale and the rain of Yamato—poor, but we enjoy so much. I feel the plum blossom and such kind of flower deeply coming into my mind year by year. Last year I did not feel as I enjoy this year.
I wish to speak to you in the quiet room but I cannot explain well. Bah! English!
Please write to us.
A meditation on the whiteness of white whales in Moby Dick ends with the thought that “in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color” and that “the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of [Nature’s] hues, the great principle of light, forever remains white or colorless in itself . . .”
It was to this idea that my thoughts turned when I flew across India towards Mauritius a few years ago. As the plane descended towards the African coast, the water shone green, blue, jade and turquoise, and the sand was a brilliant gold ribbon. But if I scooped up a palmful from the most azure patch of the Mauritian sea, it would look as colorless as water in a bottle. Like light, water has no color of its own. The color of the sea is affected by many things, from phytoplankton to pollution to depth, and the physics of its changing colors is complex.
It appeared to me that as the color of my pots came from the interplay of fire, water, earth, and air, so did the color of the sea. And as I went on grinding glazes, sieving them and testing them, the blue of my dreams appeared as elusive as my attempt to trap the Mauritian sea’s colors in my hand.
One of the glazes I tried out along the way was a simple combination from Leach’s Potter’s Book. It was called Kawai Celadon, and he had developed it from a Japanese formula. When I fired it the tester tile turned pearly grey, like cloud-filled water: what I had in my hand was Sky after Rain. It connected me in an unbroken line to potters in other countries and other times who had dreamed of a color and tried to fix it onto clay. My Sea Below Mauritian Sky will come too in time. I just have to keep starting again.