Janet DeBoos – hand-designed in Australia, factory-crafted in China

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In Australia, ceramics is under siege. Since the boom of the 1970s, the number of courses available have rapidly declined. For today’s iphone generation, the dedication required by clay-making poses a significant lifestyle challenge – it threatens to disconnect you from the ‘clouds’ of text and image that give meaning to the day. Of course, as craft advocates we perceive the danger that this will lead to a closed system, where our cultural ecology loses the language of the material world outside. In ceramics, we have a particularly primordial understanding of the ground on which we stand. Without this ‘earth’, we risk a cultural short-circuit.

Thankfully, Janet DeBoos has been successful in adapting ceramics education to this new generation through her model of the ‘distributed studio’. Sustaining this is a new audience that she has discovered which is deeply appreciative of Australian ceramics. But it’s not the white knight of the American collector, willing to pay thousands for a unique work. Rather, it is the Chinese factory owner who can see in the Australian ‘hands-on’ ceramic style something of great value to his growing middle class market.

Janet seemed destined to work in China. She first encountered Chinese ceramicists in the mid-seventies, when a delegation came to East Sydney Tech. In 1996, she received an invitation to be part of the First Western Yixing Teapot Symposium, where she was introduced to Zisha-ware. This was followed in 2001 with an invitation from The Chinese Ceramic Industry to attend and speak at the International Forum on the Development of Ceramic Art in Zibo, Shandong province.

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On the strength of her presentation, DeBoos was invited to return and make work with the factory. She has subsequently made work in collaboration with Prof. Zhang Shouzhi in which she produced the form and he provided the decoration. Shouzhi’s design is based on a traditional Ding-ware, though it is applied with a decal rather than traditional hand-carving. The company produce only for internal market as they prefer to make work of high standards rather than cut costs as would be demanded for export. 250 sets were made and subsequently all were sold at the Zibo ceramic Industry conference and expo at the end of 2007. They sold for twice the price they would attract in Australia.

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Janet’s experience reminds us how important it is to be open in dealings with businesses in China. While Australian craft has traditionally looked north (to the ‘developed’ countries in Europe, Japan and North America) to gauge its progress, the horizon needs to be broadened to engage with the emerging economies. In the case of China, the depth of appreciation for ceramics is something that a country like Australia could do well to import.

You can find an article by Janet about her China experience in the After the Missionaries issue of Artlink. The presentation set will be on display in the World of Small Things. Janet is current head of the ceramics department at the ANU School of Art, Canberra.

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