(This is Part 2 of our interview with Mr. Lee Shanming and the tour of his Ruyao Ceramics Studio on Jingdezhen, China. The first part can be read here.)
After finishing our interview, Mr. Lee offered to give me a tour of his studio, offering a glimpse into the production process. Here are some photos of his studio:
Because of the enormous amount of air pollution from coal and wood kilns in Jingdezhen, a law was passed prohibiting the use of kilns to electric ones. Aside from this change, much of the work in these small studios follows traditional processes.
This is what the inside of the kiln looks like. As you can see, ceramic cups are on the top and sides of the shelves. These are called the “guards”. These guards are placed here to block the fire from coming into direct contact with the ruyao. This leaves only shelves 2 to 5 which can hold ruyao for firing.
The largest of Mr. Lee’s kilns can only hold 30 cups at most. Many other studios use larger kilns to increase productivity (not to mention the huge industrial kilns used in porcelain factories). Mr. Lee explained to me that because of the delicate nature of ruyao, the temperature must be strictly controlled, and the larger the kiln, the less control there is over the temperature. Using a smaller kiln means a smaller batch per firing, but it also means a lower scrap rate of ruyao destroyed during firing.
To better control the conditions when firing the red ruyao, Mr.Lee uses an even smaller kiln (2/3 of the one we see in the picture). Due to the difficulty of firing red ruyao only around 25% of the pieces survive the kiln and are able to make it to the end of the process and onto a shelf. Ruyao has a high scrap rate in general for ceramics and red ruyao has the highest scrap rate of any of the ruyao produced in the studio. The reason for this is the added difficulty of working with the iron oxide glaze. Ruyao is already very sensitive to temperature during firing, iron oxide is another material that is extremely sensitive to temperature and firing conditions. Because of the extremely sensitive nature of the iron oxide, each batch of red ruyao that survives the kiln will vary in intensity and quality of color. Because of this, we personally inspect each piece of the surviving 25%, choosing the best of the batches for the quality of the red glaze.
Products are air drying after wheeling and before being polished and covered with the glaze for firing again. This photo gives an idea of the size of Mr. Lee’s Studio. Since all the products are handmade and are under strict quality control by Mr.Lee himself, the amount and production rate are limited.
After spraying on the glaze there may be some overspray outside of the desired area. Each pot must be inspected and cleaned carefully by hand.
Mr. Lee in the process of forming one of his pieces.
Spraying the glaze on each piece.
Each piece has to be sanded after shaping.
Each piece is inspected and polished after firing.
I was lucky to be at the studio for the “birthday” of a new piece, a new model of ruyao teapot by Mr. Lee.