Lecture on Thai Folk Pottery

by Louis Katz

My introduction to potmaking came in the early seventies, a time when the counter culture of the sixties and some of its values were beginning to be distilled, examined, and assimilated by mainstream society. Potmaking, as local production for local needs, was seen as a way to reject and replace media controlled materialistic values. Bumper stickers exhorting the public to "Support Your Local Potter" were really please to support local production and local taste over that of the multinational corporation.

In Gerry William's foreword to The Potter's Alternative by Harry Davis, he describes the book as "a breathtaking look into the mechanics of the creative act, in which the forming process becomes an ethical statement of social philosophy." This philosophy is one of self reliance, or local production for local needs, including the use and development of local materials. These ideals, supported by books such as Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumaker, played heavily in my motivation to become a ceramist. Still feeling strongly about such ideals, I find it hard to come to grips with my current nonfunctional work composed of arranged pots and wonder when, or if, I will return to functional potmaking.

I first heard of Dankwean while a graduate student. Poonarat Pichayapaiboon, a Thai friend, showed me a sheet of slides of that small potmaking village in Northeast Thailand. Among the slides of pots, kilns, and tools, I most clearly remember a picture of a ceramic owl made of dark clay fired till the surface became shiny from wood ash. It was this surface and unpretentious spirit with which the work was made that caught my interest.

The memory of those slides stayed with me. I didn't, however, start planning to go to Dankwean until after a chance meeting during my residency at the Archie Bray Foundation with a Dankwean mural maker and pottery owner, Suwanee Natewong. Her slides gave me a reasonably accurate impression of the available technology in Dankwean and the kinds of pots being made, but left me with the mistaken picture of a desolate, remote place with muddy roads, hard to get to in wet weather.

At the time Suwanee and I met, my work had already had a more than casual resemblance to Dankwean pottery. I was trying to reproduce the lack of pretentiousness so well embodied by strictly utilitarian wares of some traditional potteries. I knew that everything involved in the pottery making would have to play a role: the clay, the surface, and the firing were only part of the equation. When throwing, I tried to think of myself as a workman rather than an artist. I learned to produce forms quickly. I had read of an English workman who could make one thousand flowerpots a day. I learned to make two three inch relish bowls in a minute on a single speed electric wheel and made them by the thousands. In order to eliminate the time necessary to develop the skill to throw bottles with a similar competence and speed, I started to extrude them (like old ceramic wine bottles, an extruded cylinder is chucked on a wheel, a bottom is attached and the cylinder's top portion is thrown, becoming the mouth of the bottle). I tried my best to see quantity as a component of the quality of functional ware. The more you can make, the less expensive they are and after all, how functional is a teapot if you can't afford to buy it? Many of the pots that resulted from these gymnastics had that well-made, non-analytical, right side of the brain look. Many others, however, were quite ugly. I began to realize that what I really needed to do was to visit traditional potteries, sort out my ideas, and develop in my pots a balance between speed of production, utility, and appearance.

I saw my meeting Suwanee as quite fortuitous and started to look into application procedures for Fulbright Grants. During my initial phone call to the Center for the International Exchange of Scholars in Washington, I was told that I should not even bother to apply for a Fulbright Grant. I was told that with only a few small publications, no affiliation with a university, and no doctorate, I didn't stand much chance of success. I applied anyway, and in October 1988 I received a research grant and left my residency at the Archie Bray Foundation to spend 10 months documenting Thai folk pottery.

We arrived in Dankwean about five years after electricity came to the village. Power was available, but without the "umph" necessary to run equipment other than lights or televisions. Most families of any substance in the village owned televisions if they had electricity, and a few had VCRs, but there were no private phones as telephone service had not yet reached the village. The one telephone in town was located in the village office in downtown Dankwean. Potters living in grass huts frequently received letters asking for full color catalogs and FAX numbers. We found that intersection of cultures very funny and thought, "FAX numbers--what a joke--in ten years, maybe." When we left ten months later, the main road had been widened to four lanes with paved parking and street lights. The electric service had been upgraded, and surveying for a new folk pottery museum had been started. One pottery owner in town had tired of doing business hampered by the wait for the village phone and bought a cellular phone. Changes come quickly in the third world. When FAX originating in Dankwean began to arrive in Arizona just prior to this year's conference, it finally became clear to me that the time had come to cease seeing Dankwean as a village pottery and begin to see it was a unique global ceramics market.

Some parallels between the modern development of Dankwean and that of functional pottery making in the US can be drawn. Suwanee Natewong, who was a visiting artist at Arizona State this year and had a one-woman show on campus during the conference, came to Dankwean to get away from city life. She frequently talks nostalgically about her early days in Dankwean before electricity. The daughter of a famous judge, who expected her to go into law, she moved to the country instead and started to decorate the pots made by the local craftsmen to sell to passers-by on the highway. Similarly, other artists, some with a little training in design at community colleges, moved to Dankwean and set up small workshops. Many make beads, listen to rock music, and participate in other activities that make comparisons to Western hippie artists of the late sixties inevitable.

We rented a house owned by Suwanee's mother, part of the family compound in a part of town known as Din Phao, or "fired earth." The historic village was two kilometers away. Din Phao straddled a two lane highway. Pottery, tiles, sculpture and other types of ceramics were displayed in front of and under countless grass huts. There were a few noodle stands where lunch could be had, a few places to buy ice cream and Cokes, and the Dankwean Garden, a restaurant that also served beer. Dankwean Din Phao was a dusty, slow moving tourist attraction.

Early in my stay I labored over decisions; should I publicize the pottery of Dankwean and speed its conversion into a craft tourist mecca? Would the introduction of glaze only hasten the demise of the wood fired surfaces I loved? With or without me, these changes would take place, and with the wood shortage and the massive drive of the Thai government to boost tourism, any small step I might take to slow the rate of change would have no effective impact. My lack of control was quickly illustrated when the Thai government announced, just after floods in the south attributed to deforestation, that all wood cutting within the borders of Thailand was to be stopped.

Soon after the government ban made the TV news, a pair of local pottery owners were asking me about alternative fuels for use in the village's several dozen anagama-like kilns. They said the replacement had to be found quickly. The alternative fuels I considered were propane, rice hulls, and waste oil. Propane, the most convenient fuel, is also the most expensive, and with the subterranean fireboxes of the Dankwean kilns and what seemed to be a generally lax attitude about safety, it seemed an unsafe choice as well. The other problem with gas is that its use would completely alter the surface of the wares. Rice hulls, the second alternative, I intended to blow into the kiln just as Lowell Baker and others had done with sawdust.

I erroneously believed that the rice hulls would melt into a perhaps gorgeous glaze. Fortunately, the expense of a variable speed motor and the numerous moving parts necessary for the rice hull burner made this alternative impractical as a quick short term solution. A few weeks later it came to my attention that rice hulls burn to almost pure silica, a useful glaze ingredient, but too pure to melt on its own. Had I proceeded with this plan, I probably would have ended up with surfaces resembling dirty kiln wash.

At length I settled on waste oil as the best fuel to try as a replacement for wood. Smelly and messy as it may be, waste oil is cheap and plentiful, and it leaves a surface most similar to the traditional wood fired surface. Louvered oil burners require no moving parts except the valve on the oil line, and their operation is simple. If it proved too smoky or difficult to use, the same burners could be used with diesel fuel. As to the environmental impact, it would be a step up from the increasingly frequent use of old auto tires. I had to hurry to build an oil burner-- I had a meeting to attend in Bangkok days after the proclamation banning wood firing hit Dankwean like a bombshell. With the help of a friend who is a free-lance welder, I made the burner. On my return to Dankwean, I found to my surprise that everyone had resumed firing with wood. I never found out if the decree had been rescinded or if local law officials had been persuaded to be elastic in their enforcement. My louvered oil burners waited several months to be used for a firing, and they were only used twice.

Eight months after the wood firing ban, as we were getting ready to leave Dankwean, it no longer mattered what fuel would be used to fire the wares. Dankwean Antique Finish had attained pre- eminence as the most popular surface treatment in town. Pots painted with red barn paint and then coated with a secret concoction of latex paint and cement were sanded, leaving the cement in the cracks. An advantage of this technique is that cracks can be invisibly mended with pigmented cement. Most of the pots being made at this time were coated with this surprisingly attractive cold finish and required firing only to bisque temperatures. With no need for the high fire surface, wood kilns have become almost obsolete even without the ban on firewood.

As with traditional American forms like the jug, large storage jar, and butter churn, none of the old Dankwean forms (with the exception of ceramic mortars) are still made for any but decorative purposes. Water jar forms are occasionally made but are usually decorated and almost never used for storing water. Rainwater for drinking, collected from roofs during the monsoon season, is now stored in large cement cisterns, and it won't be long before everyone has access to a pump for wash water. If the old water jars, embellished only by a few stripes made with hand carved roulette wheels, were still made, they would sit unsold for lack of demand.

The ceramic business in Dankwean is growing. New workshops are being built, tourism is on the rise, and telephones will certainly increase the amount of exports. People who moved to Dankwean for a relaxed life are again involved in the hustle and bustle. Workshops seem to be specializing more and more. Suwanee's Umdang Ceramics deals more and more in tiles and murals, others make pots, and others beads. Designs once copied from workshop to workshop are becoming specialized, and the designs of individual artists are becoming more important than the traditional designs of the collective unconscious.

Soon, except in the few workshops of romantic potters, woodfiring will end in Dankwean (now the home of, of all things, a subdivision). The Tourist Authority of Thailand will succeed in bringing more tourists to touch the untouched Northeast, and skilled labor shortages will bring about more mechanized potmaking. It is sad to see the more decorative wares, some of which are wonderful despite being designed for the mass market, come at the expense of the functional pots. Sadder, of course, would be to see Dankwean, a vibrant and creative village, begin to make only copies of the great pots of the past, a move in the direction of no market at all.

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