Thursday, February 13, 2014

Xiaosheng Bi - Discovering a Porcelain Garden

I don't know about you, but I have a weakness for glass in its myriad forms. I love how the light reflects off of it and how color is so deep and shallow and layered all at the same time. And I like how it feels to the skin: cold, smooth, hard.

When I get in my glass revelry, I usually don't think of ceramics. While I love a good turquoise or cobalt blue glaze, things fired in a kiln and made of dirt fill a different spot in my mind. I generally think of them in terms of "texture".

Well that all changed when I walked past the studio of Xiaosheng Bi, 
a master potter, who works miracles with porcelain.

I happened upon his studio at the VisArts center, where I saw this exhibit by Lauren Boilini and this exhibit by Michael Sellmeyer. Along with their galleries, the VisArts center also has studios that juried artists can use. They are lovely 2nd floor spaces with huge windows and white walls and great light. Super dreamy. Maybe when I grow up, right?

He was right across from the Michael Sellmeyer gallery and as I walked out, I just kept staring at the flowers growing out of his ginger jars. And there were more inside, and the door was open, so I walked in. At first I didn't realize he was there. Eventually, I noticed him by the sink. I probably mumbled something about how much I admired his work (I find flattery is always an excellent segway when one has done something awkward) and somehow I got him talking about his methods. 

You always want to get an artist talking about his methods, if you can. That's where the joy is for them. You can feel the energy building off them as they talk about creating. Watch their eyes as they talk. They look at the things they've made and see them in all the stages of creation. It's magical.

Each of these ribs was carved out of the clay by hand to just the right 
depth and width by loosely following a bendable ruler

I asked about working with celedon glazes and he told me the kiln he was using was tricky, because it was electric and most kilns are gas fired. This changes the outcome of the pieces and is less predictable. He has to use special kinds of celedon to make it work. When I commented on the clarity of the glaze, he told me he only uses the whitest raw Chinese porcelain clay. "Isn't that super expensive and rare?" I asked. "Yes it is," he replied, "but it allows me to get the colors I want to show through." Fair enough.

I am always curious if an artist favors certain pieces of their work. So I asked Bi what his favorite piece was. He looked around the studio and scratched his head and said, "Well, I love them all." After thinking another minute, his eyes lit on a shelf near his desk  covered with celedon tea cups with delicate inky blue designs on them and he smiled and said, "But I think this technique is very pretty. I love these colors together."

He told me how he loves their simple shape, and the fact that they are so obviously not machine made. You can tell he finds great pleasure in what he makes as he hold them in his hands and turns them to show what he considers their most pleasing side when I ask. He is a very modest man, and I realize I have asked enough questions about his personal opinions. 

So I change tactics and point to his desk to have him tell me about what inspired the gorgeous creations there. He told me that formal Chinese gardens are the basis for most of his ideas. The pedestals here are reflective of the lava rock used in a garden as a rough contrast to the smoother elements of grass and water.

And the same tension of smooth and rough works beautifully in ceramic as well. All the disparate elements work together to emphasize and balance one another. The rough base against it's smoother top. The round, but layered stripes to the simpler flat base. The flowers at the top, jagged like the base, but made of smoother, more delicate things. It all just works so well. And the more you look at it, the more you see the subtle beauty of it. 

I did say he was a Master, right?

And the flowers, it is so hard to imagine that they are really made of clay.

The centers are rolled between the hands into narrow "snakes" about 1/8" in diameter, and then wrapped with another piece of flat, paper thin porcelain that makes the petal. Each portion of the flower is delicately glazed to best reflect is natural, yet idealized form. The intricacy really takes your breath away. 

Oddly enough my favorite thing in the studio had nothing to do with flowers.

I couldn't quit staring at this tea cup. I loved the roughness of the design against the "just barely there" aqua of the glaze. It was hypnotic. I still think about it, a month later. Bi told me that he had intended a smoother finish, but left the clay in the air too long and it had started to harden. When he cut it, it cracked and buckled, but he liked the effect, so he went ahead and fired it anyway. I'm so glad he did. It brings me such delight to look at this photo and think of all the yin and yang involved in this piece. So much serenity in the tension.

One of the miracles of porcelain is it's sheerness. The cup you see above is the same one I love. Despite the thickness of the sides, you can still see the light through it. And don't you love that little pool of celedon glaze at the bottom? Makes. me. weak.

After swooning I bit, I pulled myself together to see what other wonders awaited.

This piece was painted with a glaze that protects any spot it covers from being removed. Bi said he paints this on and then uses a liquid to remove a certain portion of the uncovered clay to create the relief design you see. The glaze gathers in the lower areas, accenting the white design. I am still geeking out that it wasn't carved.

Here are a few more pieces done with the same technique, but fired without a glaze. I love the matte white. It looks so modern, despite being done by a man trained in techniques that go back thousands of years. And it shows you just how white the clay he uses is.

This piece was done with a similar technique to my tea cup. Except this time, Bi let it harden on purpose to recreate the effect. I thought the penguins were charming, with their tiny little eyes. This piece is mid process and still needs to be glazed and fired. 

Here's another piece from the same series that was finished. 
Don't you love all the variation in color as the glaze gathers in the nooks and crannies?

My poor iPad had a hard time there trying to decide what to focus on. Sorry about that.

With so much beauty, how do you choose just one?

There were so many other things I wanted to ask, but I had only paid for an hour of on-street parking and my time was up. 

Sadly, I had to go. 

But I am so happy I took the time to ask what I did. I had forgotten that a balance of tensions is what makes the serenity of an Asian garden. And I had never thought of porcelain as a source of light. Or a tea cup as a metaphor for nature. Such wonderful ways to think about things.

And when I get a bit more allowance, that tea cup is mine!

Talk to you soon,
CM Shaw

What have you all done lately that changed the way you thought about something?
Leave me a comment and tell me your story.

By the way:

Here is an article from the Chicago Tribune with a lot more info about the techniques used by Xiaosheng Bi. If you didn't believe me before that you were looking at the work of a master, you will after reading the article.

Here and here are two more articles about his work.


  1. Weak with LOVE. I can't believe his pieces! The teacup is amazing and the teapot, and that white matte carved vase... I need that. And how do you make plants like that that don't break? I'm with you, I never knew ceramics could be so beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing, knowing the amount of time he puts into making these pieces... it helps so much to see creators who bring this kind of light and beauty into the world. He takes me to another level.

  2. These ceramics are just so amazing! I love the (not) carved pieces the best, I think? those tiny flower topped pieces were brilliant too though - I really appreciate you sharing this art! I debated whether to say this or not - but what the heck, I read your best of 2013 post, and took away that you are deliberating new ideas for your blog, and then read that you felt you had f'found your voice' and I just wanted to say that after reading through several of your posts ( as if I have nothing but time, to read peoples ENTIRE blogs, lol!) THIS post felt to me as if I was hearing your 'true voice', partially just in your excitement at talking to another artist about their process, but also in your descriptions of the art itself! your descriptions helped me see details in the art I hadn't previously noticed, and it also made me feel like I was seeing these beautiful creations in person... I sincerely hope this isn't offensive to you - I am obviously not any sort of Blog Critic - just wanted to share a thought, since this post really resonated with me, and I enjoyed it immensely. THANKS!!!'
    p.s. is there such a job as Blog Critic? maybe I could get paid for reading blogs hour after hour?

    1. Thank you so much for your comments! And for taking the time to read through my stuff. That really means a lot. And I'm so happy my commentary helped you connect with the art. That was totally what I was going for. You just made my day!
      CM Shaw

  3. Take his class at Montgomery College Rockville. Its by far my favorite class. I've taken it twice and this semester is my third. Love the blog.

  4. Thank You so much for writing this wonderful blog about Mr. Bi. Just as his work exudes beauty and tranquility, so does he . He has been my Ceramic instructor since 2006. I suggest to anybody who has an interest in wheel thrown ceramics to take his class. He is an amazing professor.