Tales of Clay: into the studio of Dai artist Qiu Laoshi

Posted by Lorenzo Barbieri on

An artist’s studio is his temple and source of inspiration. The way he displaces each single piece of teaware he creates, the books that can be found in his creative space, the care he places in checking the kiln, like a father does to his newborn and inattentive child, are all small details that can help us understand the true nature of his creations. In the case of Qiu Laoshi, his studio is also his home. The warmth of the fire produced by the gas kiln (气窑 qì yáo) and by the firewood kiln (柴窑 chái yáo) mingle with the fragrant smell of the food that his family cooks in a nearby room, surrounded by the green ocean waves of the rainforest canopy.

 

Dai teaware artist studio in Yunnan, forest, handmade teaware
Qiu Laoshi's studio is a lively house and workspace hidden in the wild rainforest of Xishuangbanna, a Dai Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan province.

 

A home for the creative mind

An art that goes beyond its material vessel, Dai teaware is the ultimate expression of Yunnan nature. The latter is also a recurring theme in all Dai minority culture, and thus in Qiu Laoshi’s art. The patterns on traditional Dai clothes and the colors they use to dye them are all inspired or derived by nature.
Not only teaware, but also bowls and plates are made with the same simplicity and accuracy that is required for the most delicate cups and teapots; each single gesture, from eating to drinking tea, is bound to nature. And all these efforts do pay off: food feels even more delicious, and each cup of tea more fragrant. 

Every piece of teaware is intrisically unique, as not only it is completely handmade, but the soil it is crafted with and the glaze that makes it shine are always different: when entering the studio of Qiu Laoshi, multiple shades of white, purple, grey, green, black, red, and so many other colors that our amazed and distracted eyes cannot yet discern, open to our view like variegated rainbows, always filling us with the same amazement we felt the first time we saw it. The few centimiters of wall and floor that are not filled with ceramics - finely made pieces of artwork by the master, focused and inspired attempts by his apprentice (only one at a time), and imperfect pieces awaiting to release their full potential - are covered with beautiful ethnic portraits (a reminiscense of Qiu Laoshi’s past as a painter), flowers (yet another sign of the ubiquity of nature), and books.

 

Dai teaware artist studio in Yunnan, forest, handmade teaware exhibition
A glimpse into Qiu Laoshi's studio: his creations are displaced all over the room, becoming both object and space

 

It all starts with passion

 

Qiu Laoshi welcomes us with a timid smile, revealer of his great shyness and modesty. He was born in Banna, where our tea trees grow, and we immediately felt with him a similar connection we had with our forest trees, filling our hearts with an indefinite feeling of commotion and relief, like we had met someone who speaks our language and finally understands us, after wandering hopelessly through foreign and unknown lands.
We met him in 2016, when he already had matured 9 years of experience with pottery. He wasn’t born in a family from which he could inherit clay or skills: only his passion drove him to put his hands in the wet clay, and start giving life to it. His professional path that started with teaching painting as a university professor, eventually led him to an art that could preserve the local heritage of the village he grew up in, and its ancestors. To the people who ask him if he still paints, he answers with a humble smile: “To master one art is already very difficult, to allow the mind to focus on another complex art”. 

 

Interview with Dai teaware artist Qiu Laoshi, in his studio in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan
Vivian Zhang, Eastern Leaves founder and Academy teacher, discussing with Qiu Laoshi while drinking tea in a Dai gaiwan of his own creation

The authority of the kiln

 

Dai pottery is an ancient craftmanship which can be probably dated back to a thousand years ago, but up to this date only a limited group of people is able to make it, even within the borders of China. However, this preciousness and rarity gained it protection as a national heritage. Art is born from prime need: before being a valuable piece of art, Dai pottery was used to make everyday tools, or bowls for religious offerings. Qiu Laoshi maintained and improved both the aesthetics, and the functionality: in the past, pottery was fired at comparatively low temperatures (600-900°C), which resulted in an increased frailty of the materials that would often break. Moreover, they were not glazed, so they tended to absorb the smell and taste of food. In Qiu Laoshi's kiln, the high temperatures (up to 1380°C) spread a rain of ashes on the teaware, giving a different effect each time the ashes touch the clay. However, all of his attentive work and careful material selection could be vain in the blink of an eye. The final judge is never the human part, but the kiln, which decides the fate of the pieces that will thrive and show their beautiful colors, and those that will be destroyed. The kiln is thus treated like a deity and, as such, small offerings are made - and even a little elephant statue is put on top of the kiln, to propitiate the goodwill of its fires. Qiu Laoshi's woodfire kiln can contain simultaneously about 200 small cups, which will be cooked for 30 hours, sometimes twice, and in some cases for 2 to 3 days. The fire can never be left alone: just like a vestal keeping high the flame of a temple, there is always an attentive eye checking the running kilns in Qiu Laoshi’s studio, and their opening is a feast of joy and wonder.

 

Qiu Laoshi Dai teaware artist studio, wooden-fired
Fire is Qiu Laoshi's constant companion: it nurtures the artist's creativity, and in exchange he fans its flames.

 

On the value of waste  

 

Back in the day, as tools needed to be made just for regular occupations, any common local soil and sand would fit, but for Qiu Laoshi this is not the case: each soil used for one of his creations is carefully selected among the most famous and world-renowned areas for pu’er tea production; Yiwu, Nannuo, Mengsong, Bulang, are only some of the examples. Special attention is put on sand too: Qiu Laoshi always mixes his clay with sand from Mekong river, also known as Lancang river, which flows through all of Yunnan dividing the tea mountains in Xishuangbanna into ancient and new mountains. It is also one of the main water courses that helped spread Yunnan tea seeds in southern Asia. But even the same river does not always provide the same sand: Lancang river is huge, and each of its banks offers many types of sand of different thickness and colors. Qiu Laoshi was deeply charmed by Yunnan’s local plants, soil, animals (peacock and elephant, two revered animals in Yunnan, are often part of his creations), and decided to make them the muse and material of his artworks. Each of his pieces is not only made with local mountain soil, but also glazed with ashes that can come from local grass and herbs, nut shells, tea trees, and - most surprisingly - elephant faeces. The latter are already used in other Asian countries like Laos and Thailand, mostly to make paper. His pioneering attempts to apply this technique to teaware have led him to test by himself the ideal concentration of ashes and the best feces quality. All materials are verified and come from local sources: he collaborates with a sanctuary for elephants to collect the right amount and quality of faeces he needs for his artworks, and he selects them with extra care, just like he does for all of his materials. He also uses kaolin from rare sites in Mengsong, rather then the original and most famous Gāolǐngtǔ 高岭土 from Jingdezhen. As if searching the same complexity and proximity of materials, Qiu Laoshi says his favorite tea is Pu’er, and he most enjoys Yunnan teas like Dianhong.

 

dai teaware cup for pu'er tea, handmade by ceramist artist
a cup by Qiu Laoshi, glazed with ashes of elephant faeces

 

Redefining Perfection

Choosing a specific wood for the glaze does not only mean paying homage to the forest, but also protecting it: Qiu Laoshi often also uses rubber trees as ashes for his glaze; this kind of intensive plantations are quickly destroying the endemic plants in Xishuangbanna. The choice of materials, the percentage of ashes and clay, the season, the kiln, are all factors that will influence the final result of the crafting process. Deceased tea trees, trimmed branches, and elephant feaces, commonly seen as waste materials, are a real treasure for Qiu Laoshi, and he selects them carefully to understand which will give the best result to the clay. Here, a new concept of perfection can be found: the final piece is never perfect because of its impeccable angles, for its umbreakable glaze, or for its shiny color. Perfection can be found in the harmony of nature translated into object, into the balanced proportion of clay and glaze, temperature and time, master’s ability and fortunate casualties.

 

Dai teaware cup for gongfucha, loose-leaf tea, pu'er and green tea, handmade and artisanal
another creation by Qiu Laoshi, decorated applying a thicker layer of glaze, which will naturally crackle over time and repeated usage, changing its appearance as time goes by

 

Qiu Laoshi's way of tea and clay

Thus, the artist is not only master in handing the changes in shape of the clay and its hardening in the kiln, but he is also a deep connoisseur of the natural elements that surround him. Just like we do with tea, he takes his raw materials from nature, and to nature he owes protection and care. Even the same mountain soil will give different results in color according to the amount and type of sand it is mixed with. Unlike an yixing artist, who often takes months or even years to finish a series of perfect pieces, Qiu Laoshi's workflow is like a rainstorm of ideas, shapes, and colors, that keep nourishing the art and culture of the land.

When asked about what is his favorite color on clay, he simply answers: “The color of nature: if the teaware are put on the floor and they fit into the landscape without conflicting against it, it means they kept their natural origin. Any chemical or in other way artificial manipulations of the clay that are not made by the artist’s hands or his kiln, are simply not necessary. Ashes will give the necessary coating and shine to the teaware, while being scientifically proven as healthy both for the artist who touches it, and for the person who will use it". "Ceramic reflects the heart of the one who makes it" - he further explains - "If the materials are not safe, even the smallest crack in the ceramic can hurt the heart of those who drink from it”. By using all-natural and verified materials, there is also no worry about waste: as if wanting to manifest the ultimate power of the circle of life, all his pieces are made by nature, and to nature they will return, once disposed.
At the end of our talk, he deems himself satisfied with how his artwork is evolving, but his quest is far from over. He will continue reserching materials and testing kilns, challenging himself and improving his technique and design, until he reaches his own natural, simple, harmonious, rural perfection.

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