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The Sanbao Experience

The small van carrying me from the airport arrived at Sanbao, just before the evening meal. Stepping out of the vehicle and looking around, my inner thoughts told me that I was about to experience an adventure unlike any other that I had known. This would have a profound effect upon my life and art, as well as my interpretation of Chinese ceramics, the Chinese people and their culture.

The walled residency compound, rich with the rust colored adobe surfaced walls welcomed me. Red banners hung vertically on each side of the entrance, displaying large calligraphic characters, wishing prosperity and long life to all who entered. Paper lanterns suspended like giant crimson cherries, swayed lightly in the breeze. We crossed the threshold and entered an inner courtyard that was a beautiful garden of subtropical fauna and delicate flowers. A gaggle of ceramic, Chinese mythological characters and heroes, partially hidden amongst the thick foliage stared at us as we passed by. A narrow wooden footbridge carried us across a small tributary to the entrance of the inner court. After climbing a few steps of hewn stone, past numerous clay pots, bowls and piles of fused Ming and Qing shards. The cackle of a few chickens as they went running by, greeted us. There was a small band of puppies, a delicious smell of food cooking and the soft banter of other artists partaking of their evening meal. We had arrived, and my education was about to begin.

The Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute, founded by the international ceramic artist Jackson Li, is quietly nestled on the banks of a small river that meanders down through a lush green valley, surrounded by steep, densely treed mountains and rolling foothills. The valley is a quilt of waving rice fields and vegetable gardens. Jackson Li founded the institute about five years ago. It has since grown to international stature, promoting a clay art exchange throughout the world. The residency program offers visiting artists and residents full clay studio facilities, sumptuous meals and most comfortable accommodations. Sanbao is truly a “Club Med” for ceramists and potters.
Sanbao was also to become my gateway to the city of Jingdezhen, noted for the famous blue and white porcelain ware that was a key trade item on the Silk Road and during the time of the wind filled sails with foreign clipper ships. The staff of Sanbao was to become my mentors. They encouraged me to discover the local and distant landmarks. They invited me to delve into the mysterious Chinese cultural activities, to appreciate their music, and experience the generous hospitality of the local residents.
I established myself quickly and soon followed the small road to Jingdezhen. Although some of the resident artists preferred to purchase bikes or use foot power to travel back and forth to Jingdezhen, I found the best way to travel about was by taxi. This mode of transportation was an experience in itself.
Jingdezhen is a small city. The guidebook Lonely Planet lists the population at about a million, four hundred thousand strong. The city lies on the banks of the Chang Yang River near Gaoling; a small village that was rich in supplies of the kaolin clay which is a crucial ingredient of porcelain. The Chang Yang River was the conduit to the sea that allowed the blue and white porcelain to reach all parts of the world.

I found Jingdezhen to be a bustling center of activity, dominated by the ceramic industry. Some inhabitants say that one third of the city of Jingdezhen creates porcelain objects. One third supplies the logistics and the remaining third provide the support infrastructure, such as families, schools, government agencies, local merchants and professional services.

The city was at one time listed as the most polluted city in the world. That was because it used coal and wood as its primary energy source to fire the hundreds of kilns required to convert the clay to the “white jade” porcelain. Today the story is different. Nearly all of the coal-fired kilns have closed down leaving only tall chimneys as monuments of the past. More efficient, natural gas kilns have since replaced them. The strong smell of sulfur, in the air, has all but disappeared.
I found that I could stand on any street corner in Jingdezhen, and I would see something connected with the ceramic industry. The Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute points out that there are seventy-two steps required to make a porcelain product. One person will be responsible for one task. They are highly focused, expertly trained and extremely dedicated to producing a quality product. They become masters at their chosen activity.
The city was like a large factory without a roof. It was not uncommon to see ceramic ware, at all stages of completion, being transported throughout the streets and alleys of the town. Ceramic objects would move from studio to studio, factory to factory. Each move was to complete the next step in the process. There were the throwers, trimmers, glazers, decorators, kiln masters, transportation jobbers, wrappers and shippers. The ceramic object would be sold and delivered to the customer thus ending the process.

I walked about Jingdezhen amazed at what I saw. There were factories making large-scale vases, some fourteen feet high. I saw teams of young artists moving about forests of pots, some composing landscapes, others drawing dragons. I saw a man walking down the street, carrying a large pug of clay on his shoulders. He turned up a narrow alley, and I followed. He led me through a narrow walkway, between two buildings, into the small courtyard of a clay studio. There a group of artists were creating large ceramic tiles, four foot by four foot, sculpted, in bas-relief.

Another day would find me wandering through the antique market looking for treasure. The antiques on sale, however, were probably made the day before. Nevertheless, they are at times considered being of superior quality than the originals. Another day found me exploring the back alleys of the city and finding an abundance of slip-ware studios. Thousands of green-ware forms, both contemporary and traditional, were basking in the sun, waiting for a customer. Hardly a day passed without a discovery.

Yes, Jingdezhen is a Mecca for ceramic artists, ceramic lovers and anyone interested in visiting China. Did I have time to create a body of work during my two-month stay at Sanbao? Yes, I did some artwork, but not as much as I would have wished. There was so much to see, so much to learn and so much to experience. My adventures became the start of an education that will continue for the rest of my life.