Jui-Hua Lin: a short novel about Taiwanese potter
I wanted to write about Jui-Hua Lin at the beginning of my residency in Taiwan this spring, but first I wanted to get to know him.
Everybody calls him Mr. Lin. He is not so tall. He is strong, dark tanned like Taiwanese with short and thick black hair. I really like his hair. His wife says he was very handsome when he was young – and he was. I saw a great deal of photos from his younger days, even from his wedding. His wife kindly showed me some albums. In it there were also documented photos from his different kiln building projects and events. He, along with his potter father Lin Tien-fu who is now 91, built Zhunan snake kiln ceramic center in Zhunan, Taiwan. The Zhunan ceramic center pottery is well known and established. The whole family along with some outside people, who have now actually became part of this family, now work 7 days a week although their schedule says only 6. People from all around Taiwan and other countries come and are interested to see Zhunan snake kiln. Zhunan snake kiln is not just a kiln, but a large compound of galleries, pottery studios, working wood-fire kilns and old historical kilns brought from all over Miaoli county.
Mr. Lin is a potter, a ceramic artist, but also a wood-firer. In fact, he is the best wood-firer in the world, since he set a Guinness world record for The highest temperature in wood-fired kiln: 1563°C. And I had a privilege to see it. He is passionate about ceramics. He grew up with it and started working alongside with his father. He drinks tea several times per day from a tea cup and teapot he made at a ceramic table with chairs which he made with his father and always eats rice from a rice bowl that he made. So he clearly grew up and is living his life surrounded with art of ceramics. He has deep respect for it and is very strongly opinionated about pots. He will tell you what distinguishes a good one from a bad one; function comes first and then the beauty. I remember one night how we were sitting by that tea table and drinking tea from our cups. It is a rule in the ceramic center that everyone makes their own cup. And drinks from it, so there is no mix up. The same goes for friends who visit often. We were testing freshly fired teapot from his niece. She is 23, just finished Art University and is now currently working at the pottery. She is under his wings, a truly lucky girl. She made a very beautiful small teapot, one I can only hope to make as good as her. She was so happy we could try it for the evening tea. It was dripping, but just a little. So Mr. Lin started to talk about it. At first normally, but then slightly louder. It was in Chinese so I could not understand. But it was very clear to me he was commenting about the teapot’s functionality. He was getting louder and louder, passionate about a teapot as much as a potter can be. We were all quiet and listening, but his niece got little tears in her eyes. She also cares a lot about teapots. She was as passionate as him. It was sad to see her sad, but also beautiful to see a master and his apprentice, an uncle and his niece to be passionate about ceramics together. I told her later, she is very lucky to be under his guidance. One day she will be a great potter like him, one day she will break his record at 1600°C.
So Mr. Lin speaks Chinese, Taiwanese, a little Japanese but not English. We communicated very well anyway. Recently I came across Tony Robbins documentary I am not your guru on Netflix. He asks a question: Whose love did you crave for when you were a child? Your mothers or your fathers? I obviously craved for my fathers, since he never ever verbally expressed feeling towards people. So I learned to be more sensitive of his non-verbally signs and gestures. It took me plenty of years to learn and understand it. And I have to thank him for teaching me that, since this perception of people by looking and sensing their moves and behavior now comes handy to me. So if I really try, see and listen but the talking, I can approximately feel what is going on in people’s heads. But only when is absolutely necessary and is no other way. So I learned to communicate with Mr. Lin on another level. Mostly with nodding, hand gestures, face expressions and with smiles. He did the same, although he did speak a lot of Chinese to me anyway. For instance, when he said: ‘ ??)()&%$####%%#’ and pointing with his index finger up, I knew he told me to clear my drying clothes from lines, because it’s gonna rain latter.
I spent some time alone with him when we were going to the beach to collect drift wood for wood-firing. I had to be open to his way of communication so I could collect the right kind of wood. He tried very hard to tell me some things. Some I understood and some I did not. But it is the same with words people speak to each other in language common to both: some things are understood and some not. But I can clearly understand Mr. Lin, when he takes me to a hill above the beach and shows me the most beautiful view of their region. I understand him when he invites me for early morning tea, when we were the only 2 people up very early in the morning. I understand him when he brings me breakfast when I close my eyes at 6am, sitting in the grass in front of the kiln after being awake the whole night, firing. I understand him every time he shows me something to see. We share tea and wine together, beer and all weird Taiwanese food like we watched together TV and art in the galleries. Sometimes his wife came calling me, to see him do this or that. While I was looking at him making pots or preparing wood, she would often stay along and explained what he is doing or translating his comments.
He is a good man. He loves his wife and his family. He takes care of his father on a wheel chair. He likes Million his dog in his presence. He smiles at his 2 cats. When visitors come by, he takes time for them and explains. Less to the ones who look like rich and bored housewives, but more to ceramic lovers and artists. He has many many friends, which whom he drinks tea every time they stop by. They support him and regularly purchase his so expensive pots. His pots are amazingly expensive, but people in Taiwan buy them. He is teaching his niece to be a good potter and a strong woman wood-firer. He also taught his wife how to wood-fire. He is the one in family who is buying groceries and fresh food from early market every two days. He cooks. He goes to temple and prays. He lights incense sticks at his small altar in the house and offers food for blessing. He offers food and prayers in front of his kilns every time he fires. He goes high into the mountains with his friends and collects fossils. He sings at singing class and in his studio and practices thai-chi.
He is a good potter. He is well respected among others, though because of his radical thinking about wood-firing, many people, along with some ceramic artists do not understand or approve. He knows a lot from his potter father, but he also explores new ways. He knows traditional pottery but goes well beyond it with new designs. Function comes first and non of his teapots give drips and weak outpouring, they are easy to handle and stable to hold. Chawans he makes are big and thick, rough sometimes, but always nice to drink from. Now he mostly uses very rough primary clay, a kind of mixture of different kind of stones. He gets this clay from China in dry form. So he has to first break the big chunks and rocks with a hammer, sieve it and mix it with water. His niece usually does that now, like she assorts the wood and stacks it next to kilns and he collects it and cuts it with a saw. He builds with chunks of clay, not coils, or with pinching pots, for this clay is not possible to use by self on the wheel – it falls apart. But I have seen videos from his past work and he knows how to use the wheel very well. He doesn’t use glazes but he decorates pots with raw ash, pinching it into the raw clay body. I asked one time whether his fingers get damaged. “I am very hardened by my years of working”, his wife Sophia translated. And because temperatures go far above melting points of ashes, ash incised into clay becomes one and melts and he names it “Mother glaze”.
He is the best wood-firer in the world. Officially confirmed by Guinness World Records. His life’s work is about finding the right way to wood-fire. You can tell how passionate he is about it every time he tries to explain it to friends or guests. He puts his efforts in building the most efficient kiln, finding the right wood, firing with the least wood as possible in a way it does not hurt the environment and with all of that in mind reaching higher temperatures in shorter time then most firers. He is a pioneer in this field. And he taught me how to fire his way.
I call him Mr. Lin, when I should righteously address him as Master Lin.