Trial by Fire

A talented middle-aged artisan, once failed businessman, tries his hand at a new medium of art and forges his spirit into impossible works of beauty.

After mastering the craft of wood-fired pottery, Tian spent another year learning from a master how to create his own kiln. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)
After mastering the craft of wood-fired pottery, Tian spent another year learning from a master how to create his own kiln. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)

In the midnight hours, high in the mountains of Miaoli County in western Taiwan, a master artisan moulds his passion and creativity into clay. Sweat pours down his brow, his clothes soaked from proximity to the burning kiln he loads with wood. The master craftsman is Tian Chengtai, a humble Taiwanese setting a new standard in wood-fired pottery.

Tian’s journey to becoming one of the world’s preeminent potters could be called an act of fate — and misfortune — as much as unrelenting passion and hard work. In his 40s, Tian was well-known for his wood and stone carving in Taiwan, yet he couldn’t make the economics of his art work, leaving him broke. But his artistic fire would never blow out, and he asked his wife about trying a new, inexpensive, medium — pottery.

(Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)
(Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)

“It only costs a few hundred NT dollars for a package of clay, but the pottery made from it indeed can be worth 3,000, 30,000, or even 300,000 NT dollars,” he says. His wife, Chen Yuelian, asked, “But, can you make it?”

Tian carefully thought it over, then with a mixture of artistic bravery and belief in himself, he said, “Yes, I can.”

A fire inside

Tian’s friends and colleagues tried to dissuade the 40-year-old from “playing with pottery,” as they called it, especially since wood-fired pottery was an unknown craft in Taiwan at the time. Although Tian started with an electric kiln, he soon starting using a wood-fired kiln for a different aesthetic.

In wood-fired kilns, the pottery, ash, and fire are in the kiln at the same time. The soot and charcoal act like a layer of makeup foundation for the pottery, penetrating into its fine pores, preparing it for the next step. Finally, the ash melts under the extreme heat, and an outer layer of makeup remains — an ash glaze coating the pottery, birthing its beautiful yet simple, rustic look.

(Photo by Ady Zhuang)
(Photo by Ady Zhuang)
(Photos courtesy of Tian Chengtai)
(Left and center: Photos by Ady Zhuang. Right: Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)

By contrast, when kilning porcelain, one avoids ash falling onto the porcelain to prevent leaving defects on its bright and clean surface. In the history of Chinese ceramics, people have preferred the shining, exquisite porcelain surface over the rustic wood-fired pottery, which was never respected as high-end craftsmanship.

But Tian wasn’t following history, he was forging it. He believed the thickness, simplicity, and ancient feel of wood-fired pottery would be beloved by those who love nature and who desire a balanced, simple life.

Tian’s friends still slighted him, saying, “Making pottery is worse than opening a beef noodle restaurant.” Their doubt only seemed to fuel Tian.

Tian Chengtai (Photo by Ady Zhuang)

“Give me six years — I can make it in six years,” Tian told his wife. Believing in her husband, she gave him 20,000 NT dollars to start. But his wife’s support didn’t stop there — she opened a handmade clothing boutique in Taipei, where they lived, which would be the sole source of income until Tian had cultivated his skill and was ready to sell. She took care of their children as well, and even sold pottery to better understand the market.

“He does not understand how to do business,” Chen says with a smile, hinting that she, however, does. “I told him that he had to repay me many times over the 20,000 dollar investment.”

Tian’s inborn artistic spirit, with his unnaturally high standard of quality, made his vision and strategy clear.

“I want to make things for a small group instead of producing products from factories,” he says.

Tian Chengtai, with the help of his wife Yuelian Chen, creates the world’s most sought-after wood-fired pottery. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)
Tian Chengtai, with the help of his wife Yuelian Chen, creates the world’s most sought-after wood-fired pottery. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)

Tian then jumped in with both feet. His first challenge was to master the complex process of crafting a pleasing ash glaze.

“A ton of wood can be burned into six or seven catties (3.6 to 4.2kg) of ash. It takes three days but can only be applied on three big tea cans,” he says. Thinking about the hardship of his art, a smile crosses Tian’s face, born of a sense of joy from fortitude.

Different types of wood leave their own unique set of colourings.

To add to the complexity, different types of wood leave their own unique set of colourings. Understanding this, Tian goes out of his way to collect exotic woods that produce the richest aesthetic, often picking up driftwood by the sea or experimenting with Vietnam’s juniper lumber, longan, acacia and teak. Always on fire to improve his craft, Tian mixes rare genera together, forging beauty only his hands can deliver.

(Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)
(Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)

Six hard-fought years later, Tian was satisfied with his work, and went into town with two bowls. He walked into a shop, and the owner’s eyes lit up.

“Do you have other works like these?” asked the shopkeeper. Tian eagerly replied, “Yes, I still have some in my car.” “Do you have more at home?” prodded the owner. “I want them all — I’ll go with you to get them.”

Six hard-fought years later, Tian was satisfied with his work, and went into town with two bowls.

Tian sold his first collection for 400,000 NT dollars, and he could finally tell his wife what he had long awaited saying: “You can close your shop — I can support us by making pottery.”

A dozen years later, they still remember the unforgettable feeling of triumph over adversity they felt that day.

Built for two

After finding a market for his works, Tian wanted to fulfill the dream of every potter — owning his own kiln, an impractical endeavor with Taipei’s expensive land. But Tian’s uncanny intuition was calling him to take this next major step in his career.

Tian and his wife decided to sell their home and return to his hometown, in Nanzhuang, Miaoli County, Taiwan, where he was greeted with a gift from the gods. Unbeknownst to Tian, the green mountain soil high in the hills near his birthplace was the perfect clay for pottery, an affirmation that he was heading in the right direction.

Tian Chengtai's home. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)
Tian Chengtai’s home. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)
Tian Chengtai's kiln. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)
Tian Chengtai’s kiln. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)

Building a kiln is no easy task, so Tian and his wife sought a teacher, Mingzhao Jian, who had learned wood-fired pottery in Japan. Jian bestowed on them knowledge of kiln-making and techniques for making wood-fired pottery. A year later, Tian and his wife returned to the mountains of Nanzhuang, hopeful to take the next needed leap of faith.

“When we were learning to build the kiln, the teacher asked us how many people would make the pottery together. Different numbers of people need different methods,” Tian says. “We worried that it wouldn’t be suitable to work with others, so we told him that we had two people. So, from the beginning, it’s a ‘couple’s kiln.’”

Chen vividly remembers the kiln-building lessons she had with her husband, and they would later learn that their casual decision to only make pottery together was somewhat miraculous.

“Other people normally hire a dozen workers to work for their kilns, but we do everything with just two people.” -Chengtai Tian

“Other people normally hire a dozen workers to work for their kilns, but we do everything with just two people,” Tian says. “The works are completely made by us — from beginning to end, they only go through our hands.”

After one month, the husband and wife duo finished their kiln, though it would later collapse twice while making pottery. With slight improvements each time, they rebuilt it, becoming true masters of every aspect of the craft.

Tian Chengtai with his kiln. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)
Tian Chengtai with his kiln. (Photo by Ady Zhuang)

One of the greatest tests, counterintuitively, for wood-fired pottery is before the fire is even lit. The arrangement of clay in the kiln is rooted in the potter’s patience as much as his experience.

“Arranging the clay is the most difficult,” says Tian. “You have to design the route of the fire so it will leave the desired marks on the pottery. What’s more serious, if you don’t arrange it well, when you throw wood inside, you might destroy something and make it collapse.” It takes Tian several days to meticulously arrange 300 pieces of clay in a cramped space of only two to three cubic metres.

Once the fire is lit, however, the difficulty shifts from tests of patience to extremely arduous physical tests — a fight between craftsman and flame, man and nature. Before Tian seals the kiln, the temperature inside must be maintained between 1,250 and 1,280 degrees Celsius — any slight error can ruin the entire collection of works nestled inside.

“Sometimes when the [barometric] pressure is low, you can’t raise the temperature no matter how you put the wood inside, and if you don’t continue to put in wood, the temperature will drop,” Tian says with a sigh, thinking of the stress this causes. During such a crisis, his wife consoles him, encouraging him to trust the process and keep adding wood. With their positive attitude and teamwork, working as one, the temperature often begins to rise.

Once the temperature hits the target, Tian seals the kiln with bricks and mud, then immediately opens the hatch on top and adds a precise amount of charcoal over the next 20 minutes, a technique that gives the pottery a special colouring.

“It is really very dangerous, very dangerous,” Chen says. “If there is wind, the fire might come up and burn you. But, if you don’t do it, the works will not be as wonderful, so we persist.”

(Photo by Ady Huang)
(Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)

The fate of Tian’s pottery is then cradled by his and his wife’s consistency in fueling the fire, as they must maintain vigilance over the kiln for an entire week. Burning through 5,000kg of wood for every batch of pottery, Tian and his wife take turns loading five to ten pieces of wood every two to three minutes, steadily maintaining the temperature inside at 1,000 degrees Celsius. The extreme heat radiating from the kiln is so overpowering, they must drink Pu’er tea to reduce their body temperature.

During the vital last 24 hours, they maintain the kiln’s temperature at 1,000 to 1,200 degrees Celsius to completely melt the ash accumulated on the pottery, leaving the dark clay with Tian’s signature rich colours and textures. Meanwhile, the kiln emits a nearly transparent red light, looking like flowing lava. When the red fire turns white, the heat emanates several metres away from the kiln, and Tian must wear asbestos gloves to protect himself from burning.

The process takes every last breath of energy and effort, with Tian near collapse at the end. Dehydrated, he quickly drinks herb soup to replenish himself, and to begin the next trying stage — waiting.

Nature’s kiss

In many people’s eyes, the most charming part of wood-fired pottery is the ever-changing accidental colouring, a process influenced by a number of factors — the quality of clay, the composition of the ash glaze, the weather outside while it burns inside the kiln, and the size and humidity of the wood. Even a gust of wind can conjure a flame that will leave its lasting touch on the pottery.

“The colours I like are completely natural — the colours you see in nature,” Tian says. “I seldom add other pigments — the colours of wood-fired pottery are rich enough.”

The varying textures of the craft are equally rich and surprising when Tian opens the kiln — sometimes they’re like moss, other times weblike or scattered with tiny holes. In whatever form nature decides, the simplicity, vitality, and its ancient tone resonate deep within those who yearn for forgotten times.

Here, Tian breaks from the practice of his fellow potters, who typically only fire the works once. For Tian and his tireless pursuit of captivating beauty, the usual method isn’t enough.

(Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)
(Photo courtesy of Tian Chengtai)

“You have to use it — don’t just display it. Then you can see it constantly changing and really understand it.” -Tian Chengtai

“It’s not quite possible that you can make a work with good ash glaze, beautiful colours, and the marks of fire by just burning it in the kiln once,” he says.

But with wood-fired pottery’s wild, unpredictable nature, even burning them again and again won’t guarantee the aesthetic Tian demands. Oftentimes, the works simply crack when heated again, his hard work for naught.

“Opening the kiln is like running a lottery — both are unknown,” Tian says. “You should wait until the temperature drops under 100 degrees. I once rushed inside and grabbed one piece out when the temperature was still over 200 degrees, and the work suddenly cracked in half.”

To avoid a similar fate, and to avoid torturing himself with anticipation, Tian, his wife and children leave for a few days as the pottery cools down.

“He is impatient. I’m afraid that he’ll be anxious to open the kiln early, so we simply stay out,” says Chen.

The family sightsees outdoors, and Tian happily indulges in his other artistic hobby — photography — as the beautiful scenery often inspires his clay creations.

When the temperature has dropped to 50–60 degrees, it’s time to open the kiln, and peer inside to see what treasures man and nature have forged together.

In his wife’s eyes, Tian then turns into a “killer,” who smashes all the unworthy pieces of pottery. As the mountainside fills with the sound of cracking clay, Chen jokingly admits she’s torn between gratitude for her husband’s artistic integrity, and remorse for all the aching effort poured into the pottery that didn’t make the cut.

“There are 300 pieces in one kiln,” Tian says. “I can fire them five times and only 30 pieces are left. What I want are these 30 pieces.”

“There are 300 pieces in one kiln. I can fire them five times and only 30 pieces are left. What I want are these 30 pieces.” -Tian Chengtai

He says he’s willing to fire his pieces repeatedly, even at the risk of losing most of them, because of what he has heard from people who own his pottery. “After a long day at work, they are back home and they use my pottery to drink a cup of tea. They have told me that at that time, they can feel my hard work and persistence. It seems our spirits echo, bringing back to us the energy we put into our work.”

“When I hear this feedback, I am very touched,” he says. “I am willing to take the risk and do it for them.”

Most of Tian’s wood-fired works of art are tea sets, offering a sensory experience other mediums can’t deliver.

“Many pottery sets don’t match tea because the clay was not burned completely — so they have the smell of clay,” he says. “Wood-fired pottery’s density is higher than purple-sand clay pottery, and with its fine capillary pores, it can maintain the fragrance. It can breathe.”

(Photo by Ady Zhuang)
(Photo by Ady Zhuang)

Tian eagerly tells his patrons about these properties, making sure they know wood-fired pottery is not just beautiful but functional too.

“You have to use it — don’t just display it,” he says. “Then you can see it constantly changing and really understand it.”

We asked Tian, now a master of the art, whether he wants to train apprentices and pass on his technique.

“I’m not good at teaching people. I can only follow the course of nature. I don’t think making wood-fired pottery is a difficult task,” he says, though he has been training his son, who could be ready to make pottery on his own in several years. “As long as you have the heart, you can do it well. As long as you sacrifice more for it, it will give back to you.”

Master Tian Chengtai will create a special collection for a tea ceremony at the 2018 Luxury Home & Design Show, hosted by Magnifissance’s sister media, Taste of Life. Guests at the tea ceremony will take the potteryware home with them. The show will take place at BC Place in Vancouver June 21–24.