The University Museum and Art Gallery at the University of Hong Kong held a public workshop on clay pottery last week to give people a taste of how to make ceramics. Junior reporters Cotrina Fung and Veronica Lin made their own drink containers.
The pottery workshop near the University Museum and Art Gallery at HKU is a hidden gem – a very hidden gem, in fact. It took me a few attempts to find it. But after asking for directions to the T.T Tsui building on campus several times, I arrived at the workshop.
My fellow junior reporter Veronica Lin and I were there to try our hand at clay pottery. We were intrigued to see some examples of clay works made in the past and couldn’t wait to make our own.The first step was to learn the basic hand-pinch technique which can be used to make a simple clay cup.
“Try to get a handful of clay,” said artist Parry Ling, our instructor for the day. Clearly we needed to dive in a bit more. “You are using too little, you can’t even make a tiny cup out of this,” he added.
The hand-pinch technique has been used since ancient times, when people didn’t have advanced tools or machinery to shape the clay and therefore had to use their bare hands.
“Just poke your finger in the clay and mould it by turning the object in your hand,” instructed Ling – but this was easier said than done.
The trickiest part was making sure the clay we were working with didn’t dry out, so we had to keep adding water to keep it moist enough to work with.
We learned that it’s best to add water with your fingertips. This prevented us from adding too much water which can make the clay pasty.
We also learned that it helped to work on the table, as the wooden surface could absorb any excess water in the clay while we kneaded it.
Ling explained that we should keep the walls of our cup thick so that they wouldn’t crack when the pottery is put into the kiln to harden.
After the practical session, we were taken to the art gallery next door to check out some tribal works. We learned that clay pottery items such as cooking utensils and other tools can tell us a lot about the way our ancestors lived.
And after trying to make our own pieces of pottery, we had a new-found appreciation for the skill and time which had clearly gone into the artefacts and art works on display.
Our Neolithic ancestors didn’t use clay solely for functional purposes; while they sculpted clay by hand to make tools and utensils, they also decorated these objects to create art, using string and stone chisels to draw abstract patterns on their clay.
I was inspired by all the little details on the clay objects that were on display at the museum, and wanted to give it a shot myself. So I decided to make a small drink container with similar patterns.
I first started out by kneading a ball of clay on a table to make it more elastic and easy to work with. Then, I simulated what an artist would do on a potter’s wheel, and tried rotating clay with one hand, while stretching it with the other.
After it started to take the shape of a drink container, I used a stick tool to hollow it out. Unlike when painting on a 2D surface, I had to keep in mind the thickness of the clay, making sure not to poke any holes in it, as well as the symmetry of my design.
I then started using string to create patterns on the neck of the container, and used a chisel to create dotted lines. I used the first letter of my name, “V”, all around my container.
“The space left empty is just as important as the patterns you create,” says Ling. Hence, I was very careful not to mark the dots too closely together.
I finished off by inscribing “heart YP” on the bottom of the container.
The museum tour that followed was nothing short of spectacular. It changed my perception of those who lived in ancient China. It turns out that besides fulfilling their basic needs, they also put a lot of thought into the design of their crafts. For instance, the “Li-tripod with stamped patterns” from the Shang dynasty shows that there are a lot of things that they took their craft seriously, even with things as seemingly unimportant as a stand for heating soup.
“The tripod was designed to make sure the soup is heated evenly,” says Ling, “the soup would gather in the three corners, and it was an important technique that people back then used to heat up their soups.”
It’s really interesting to find that civilisations back then were a lot more advanced that I thought, and nice to know that the materials such as clay and porcelain, and the techniques they used in the past are still used today.