Geneva-based designer Josefina Muñoz was invited to take a one-month residency in Yuhang. Each month, RONG Design Library in Yuhang will invite 2-3 guest designers from worldwide to stay and study Chinese traditional crafts and materials. During her stay, Josefina has made investigation to three craft workshops around China. She has then presented her final work in the library. Here’s her diary recapping her adventure:
In December 2017, I was invited to take a one-month residency program in Yuhang RONG library, supported by Pro Helvetia Shanghai. During this time, I submerged myself in the heart of traditional Chinese craftsmanship.
My 5,314 km trip started in Hangzhou, where the RONG library residency is located. The neighborhood that hosted me was surrounded by big woods and parks with beautiful traditional chinese architecture. I was living in the suburbs of Hangzhou, where people are not used to seeing foreigners. During the first few days, I was shocked by the unscrupulous glances of people in the streets. However, little by little, I got used to it and I started to accept them as part of my daily life in China.
During the first week, it was a complete immersion in the Chinese traditional craftsmanship. In the residence building, designers are able to learn about materials and techniques in order to select which workshop to attend based on a region or local expertise. I proceeded to select black ceramic as my material of choice.
As soon as I arrived in the residence, I started to imagine and draw my pieces, since time was tight to make a ceramic project 2000km away from Hangzhou. I was inspired by the beautiful chinese teapots shapes and the Chinese architecture, so I designed a contemporary collection of vases with a Chinese aesthetic touch.
I have chosen Sichuan province, the land of Bamboo, tea plantations and pandas, where the clay workshop is located. Sichuan is also known for its spicy food and a wet weather. According to Chinese traditional medicine, spicy food offers a good balance to a person living in rainy weather.
The Sha (clay) workshop is held by Zhu Shifu, a renewed ceramist who works for important clients in China. It is located in a 500-meters-street full of ceramic workshops in a town called Yingjing, in Sichuan province. The kind of pieces produced in the workshop are mostly for tea ceremony as well as big sculptures. Zhu Shifu learned this 2000-year-old traditional clay technique when he was a child, as there was nothing better to do in this small town than play with clay, as he told me when I asked him where did he learned the technique.
In the front of the workshop there is a shop, where the produced pieces are sold to prestigious clients coming from all around China. The pieces are fired in a traditional kiln made by a hole in the ground and a half sphere cover made in white clay. All the process is made in the workshop, from the production of clay to the sale.
The workshop expertise use to produce, are traditional techniques such of colombin, wheel and hand modeling. In the workshop I could feel the energy of craft very much alive, where everyone has their role in the production of the more of 200 pieces made everyday. The most complicated pieces with the handles were handcrafted by Lu Shifu, who has 20 years expertise in the wheel, while the small objects were handcrafted by Wong Shifu, a young talent of 5-years ceramic craftsmanship.
Black clay is the result of a local white mud with charcoal ashes and mixed with water. The black pieces are obtained by put them in a hermetic clay container to avoid oxidation during the firing, creating a natural black clay glaze. Alternatively, when the pieces are in contact with air, clay oxidizes, revealing a mix of red and green shiny finishing glaze.
This silver finishing can trick the perception of the observer, as it is difficult to say whether the material is clay or metal. The silver finish is obtained by adding wood shavings when the piece is still hot at 1000º approximately. During burning, the sawdust will fall on the surface to form the silver natural glaze. Sometimes during the process, iridescence can accidentally appear. One of my pieces reveals a small surface of this finishing, but it is difficult to know how to exactly control the firing to get this color.
During my stay in Hangzhou, I also visited other workshops specialized in weaving, kite, traditional metal scissors and an umbrella workshop. It is then that I had the chance to meet a calligraphy master who wrote down in traditional Chinese letters the name of this project: “The Soul of Black Clay”.
This residency allowed me to know more about Chinese craftsmanship, which is a strong legacy from the ancient culture of the masters and their expertise.