As I am researching the development of kiln technology in China, one interesting fact I found was the linkage between the yellow loess that lies in a thick blanket over China and the development of high-fired ceramics thousands of years prior to other parts of the world.¹ The loess in turn was blown in from the Tibetan plateau and the Gobi desert. As I was discussing this with my professor, he mentioned other examples of dust being blown from one part of the earth to another and thus impacting the ecosystems, and thus in turn impacting the cultures that developed there.
As I thought of this, I saw in my mind’s eye dust blowing all over the earth directed by the winds, and I thought of the Western conception of inspiration as breath, and considered both the Hebrew and Greek conceptions of “spirit” which are associated with both breath and wind. It seemed an amazing idea that the earth’s winds blow dust that result in amazing innovation in a culture, and in our own culture the idea of wind is associated with both inspiration and our human spirit, as well as the divine Spirit.
2 The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit [wind] of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
¹Finlay, Robert. “The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History,” Journal of World History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Fall, 1998), pp. 141-187
Around 12 years ago when I had finally realized the dream of having a pottery studio in my house, and was toying with the idea about going back to school to study fine art, I suddenly was interrupted by clear direction that I should move to China. While I knew that China was a genesis point of much in ceramic art history, the opportunity that had opened up to me was not related to that facet of China or that facet of my own life. I surrendered and did not look back.
This fall, I did end up going back to school finally, but my graduate studies are in East Asian Studies, focusing on China. I considered taking art history classes in my program, but there were none that matched my interest. So, I have been studying a wide variety of cross disciplinary subjects from modern Chinese literature to Chinese domestic politics to anthropology. One of the classes was in environmental anthropology. I took the class because my work in China has been in the non-profit sector, and thus I’m interested in environmental issues in China. However, the class does not just examine issues, but also how ideas and innovation come from how cultures interact with their environment. It turned out my professor was interested in knowing more about how dragon kilns came to be conceived in southern China, but said he knew almost nothing about ceramics. I told him I did to which he replied that I should make that my research project then. So, I have.
So, as I do this research I find myself meditating on our dust-like nature which I have written about elsewhere. And sort of amazed that this lifelong love of mine keeps coming back around full circle, just like clay on the potter’s wheel.