Pottery is at once the simplest and the most difficult of all the arts. It is the simplest because it is the most abstract.
[T]he art is so fundamental, so bound up with the elementary needs of civilization, that a national ethos must find its expression in this medium.
Pottery is pure art; it is art freed from any imitative intention … pottery is plastic art in its most abstract essence.
-Herbert Read, The Meaning of Art (1931)
The first and last parts of these oft-quoted remarks on pottery by Herbert Read remain germane and provocative. The central sentence, however, that having to do with the “national ethos,” strikes our ears as curiously dated, – a perception relating to other cultures in other times.
The potter in this as in most other modern western countries works as an individual without the support of a tradition that assumes him as an integral part of the culture and from which he draws moral and artistic sustenance. Moreover he works largely outside the critical and value system that exists for other visual arts such as painting and sculpture. Our understanding of painting and sculpture is such that we automatically assume and reach for their expressive and/or interpretative aspects, and ignore, as of less interest, the level at which they are craft, however competent, and perhaps nothing more. In the case of pottery, for reasons that have to do with the absence of a tradition that includes the notions of master-potter and attendant connoisseurship, and because of the possible distractions presented by its practical functional side, the reverse is true. We assume its aspects as craft, and we are little conditioned to see its possibilities as the “simplest, the most difficult … and the most abstract of all the arts,” or to recognize in it that life symbolizing capacity that can lift it beyond its functional role (without violating it) and into the area of art.
The development that has taken place in ceramic sculpture in recent years may at least partly reflect the fact that in the sculpture arena the potter feels he may get a more serious viewing. The sense in which he is innately a sculptor, responding first to the peculiarly plastic qualities of clay and to the other elements such as colour and texture that are at his disposal, and incorporating the factor of utility into that primary aspect – that sense is not generally considered. Our society with its advanced technology and throw-away consumer mentality has no need or place for the potter as the supplier of everyday utilitarian objects, nor does it have a ritualistic need for his products stemming from deeper cultural roots. it is not that the potter is without value or honour in our society but that he is assigned a limited role, that of producer of hand-made objects of usefulness or decoration, valued for their individual and hand-crafted qualities in a world of mass-production.
Despite the absence of a supportive tradition and the consequently limited climate of reception for their work, potters continue to be born: those who will struggle with and master their complex, cumbersome and exhilarating craft. And from their numbers emerge, as in any other medium, those few whose commitment to pottery is total and who out of earth and fire, out of the same few forms and variations, set out to create something as old as the human spirit, yet something which did not exist before.
Wayne Ngan is one of them. For the past ten years which, apart from his years of apprenticeship as student and of early formation, have been his most settled and productive years as a potter. Ngan has chosen to live on Hornby, one of the Gulf Islands in the Strait of Georgia separating Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia. There, in the relative isolation provided by a three-ferry separation from Vancouver, artistic centre of the province, in a small community and a natural setting that includes sea and rocks, wild roses and arbutus groves, deer, eagles and herons, he has developed the particular interpenetration between his art and his life which is the essence of his artist’s life. His pottery activity shapes and colours his life and in turn the whole of his life experience is filtered into his work, and his search to strengthen this interpenetration and to develop and change his work according to internal dictates is continuous.
In a very real sense, – that is at once physical and visceral as well as thoughtful and emotional, – he feels the inter-relatedness of all things and himself a participant in the processes of nature and the universe. This existential sense animates and directs everything he is and does. The remarkable house in which he and his family have lived for the last ten years (and which is presently undergoing major change) might better be thought of as an ongoing process than at any stage a completed statement. With the help of his wife who has a fine sense of design, he built it largely out of natural or recycled elements: two chicken houses, various weathered logs and wood culled from the beach, second-hand glass, and whatever other found materials his ingenuity could transform and utilize. The result has a unique quality, a combination of peasant directness and simplicity with a natural elegance which comes from fine proportions and sensitive juxtaposition of materials-white hand-formed plaster, silvered wood, glass, and the turf of a roof which has its own regular crops of wild flowers and grass. A garden on the sheltered side of the house away from the winds off the sea provides much of the summer’s and some of the winter’s produce.
Fifty yards away is his studio, the product of what could best be described as a mutually stimulating collaboration between himself and Lloyd House, a Hornby designer-builder of striking originality who is responsible for several of the Island’s distinctive structures. It incorporates the curves and irregularities of beach timbers into the design of windows, entrances, support structure and a roof which is topped, like that of the house, with a layer of turf melding it into the surrounding environment. A Lloyd House feature, which has since become a more common sight on the Island, is the use in the firing shed roof of beaten-out car fenders, in a fan-like arrangement with glass filling the interstices. Together with a delightful playhouse Wayne built for the children in the same hand-plastered, silvered wood, turf roof combination, the studio, firing shed and house form a village-like compound in which work and the varied activities of daily life weave their inseparable pattern.
Believing in maximum participation in the processes involved in pottery, Ngan made his three kilns himself. In the field outside the studio, devised with a counterweight so that he could lift open the heavy fire-proof door himself, is the raku kiln, inoperative at the moment as the result of a fire. Raku, which he reminds us means “enjoyment” or “contentment,” and which he first began to make around 1966, attracts him as a process because, due to its low firing temperature, it permits the potter great spontaneity and participation during firing. The black porous clay body offers dramatic possibilities and the potter‘s versatility and sense of timing are crucial to the ultimate results.
The shed houses two kilns: there is the gas-fired stoneware kiln from which have come the pieces for which he is probably best known-pieces in the earth colour range using ash, lustre or other standard glazes and often with the brushed or trailed decoration which he handles so skillfully.
The other is his oil-and-wood-fired kiln for salt glazing, a process which he began eight years ago and to which he has been devoting increasing attention. What interests him here is the directness of the procedure which needs only a single firing and requires no glaze since the sodium chloride (salt) which is introduced into the kiln during the firing combines with the silica in the clay body to make its own glaze. The essence of this type of pottery lies in the clay body: if the clay is good and the shape is good, little more is needed. Ngan has experimented, with exciting results as this exhibition shows, with the introduction of other materials, such as seaweed or drift wood, into the fire-box, or forcing fine ash with a blower into the chamber to bring about changes in the surface colour.
Ngan graduated in ceramics from the Vancouver School of Art but he learned little there and subsequently had to learn nearly “everything for himself.” This probably reflects not only an inadequacy in his training but also his own inclination, however long it takes, to push by himself through the grey areas of the unknown to illumination as a means of understanding his results more intimately, – from the inside out. Thus the building and rebuilding of his own kilns as he learns from experience. Chatter, a kind of decoration achieved by making indents around a pot as it turns, he first saw in books on Korean pottery and about a year and a half ago he succeeded after much trial in designing and making himself a tool that wasn’t too thick or thin, that didn’t slip or jump and with which he could apply the old Sung Dynasty technique. Hakeme, the decoration of pottery with a coarse brush, he also first saw in a book, and it took him ten years, experimenting with kitchen brushes or bits of broom to do it for himself and to his own satisfaction. One night some five years ago he was returning home from Vancouver and, unable to get a ride, he had to walk the long miles between ferries across Denman and then Hornby Island to his home. Thinking of hakeme as he walked, he suddenly related it to his own movement on the road in a flash of identification which made the process part of him – just as all his pottery acts he eventually has to relate to other kinds and layers of experience.
Given his own oriental origin as well as the long and great pottery traditions of the far east it was probably inevitable that he should turn in that direction for inspirational sources. He has well thumbed books on Korean and Japanese pottery and on the great Japanese potter Hamada, to whom he frankly acknowledges his debt and whom he refers to by his first name, Shoji, as a familiar friend and colleague, even though he never met him.
In the early spring of 1978 the Japanese master-potter Yoichi Murakami whom he had met in Vancouver, spent several days with Ngan on Hornby Island, sharing pottery experience. Ngan subsequently spent almost three months in Japan as Murakami’s guest, working in his studio, sharing in the firing procedures and visiting other pottery centres. The impact of Japan was stunning in several important ways. There was the experience of seeing, touching, feeling for the first time real pots, great pots of the kind and calibre he had known only through books. There was that of living with a master potter, seeing his life style, seeing the extent of his pottery operation and the support structure of dedicated helpers and friends behind his production.
He witnessed the respect and dignity of the potter-customer exchange which included tea in the tea-house, and the stamping and signing, not of the pot itself but of the beautiful box which contained it.
He noticed that Murakami used local materials, and in travelling elsewhere in Japan, he could see how pottery related to a district and grew out of its own region. Ngan made pottery during two months with Murakami and recalling that Hamada created very few shapes but was able to transcend their limitations to bring out his own expression, he would spend several days making only one series, using the same form over and over again, in order to get to know the form from the inside out. Most impressive and moving perhaps was the firing of the great hill-climbing wood-fired Japanese kiln, an event of almost religious overtones, starting with the ritualistic pouring of saki and the clapping of hands. Such a kiln is very large, and since it requires several months’ work to fill, would be fired perhaps only three times a year in what becomes an extended, dramatic and exhausting work ceremony. Ngan came to see this as symbolic of the total commitment required of the potter – a major and total effort, like a birth.
In Japan, in short, a country where pottery is related by tradition to a symbolic function – like the tea ceremony – Ngan had a deepened vision at first hand of what pottery can be, and of the physical and social connections which bind it meaningfully to its place, which influence the different procedures in its making, and are ultimately reflected in its character.
Ngan wants to work out that deepened vision in his own terms, in the context of possibility presented by his own west coast location. Time will tell where this aspiration takes him in his work, but he knows one place where he can start. As soon as he is able, he plans to build his own large wood-fired kiln and is looking forward to the characteristic softer glazes that this slower and more natural fuel produces, and to the opportunity it will give him to share more directly than before in this climactic and for him mysterious phase of the pots life. From time to time he has made sculpture, and five years ago he returned to the Vancouver School of Art for a brief period of study, thinking to direct his energies into that more autographic form of expression. That urge now appears to have been absorbed into his natural and strong sculptural expression as a potter, a position confirmed by what he learned about himself and his art in Japan. Through his holistic approach to his art, rare in a time that encourages a more pragmatic attitude to craft production, Ngan is making a significant contribution to our national culture. This is in addition to that indicated by the high quality of his work.
By Doris Shadbolt
This text has been reprinted from Pottery by Wayne Ngan (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1978) published in conjunction with the exhibition held from 2 December 1978 to 7 January 1979 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Doris Shadbolt was the curator.
Ngan built a wood kiln in 1984, with the help of a Canada Council Grant. The design was based on a model of a Sung Dynasty kiln he saw at the Beijing National Museum. Ngan’s kiln measures 300 cubic feet and uses two cords of fir wood to fire. The pots produced in this kiln, display a unique combination of the simplest elements – clay, fire and wood. Glazes are not necessary as the firing brings out the soft orange inherent within the clay body, along with flecks of glaze produced by the wood ash.
In 2009, Ngan began working with a foundry in his native Guangzhou, China. There, he has created many new bronze sculptures. In between sessions at the foundry, he enjoys the meditative act of ink painting.
Currently, Ngan divides his time between his three artistic pursuits – ceramics, sculpture and painting. He maintains his studio on Hornby Island and works periodically in Guangzhou.