NEWPORT, R.I – Ceramics has always been more than a passion for Rhode Island artist Jay Lacouture, a 30-year professor in Salve Regina University’s art department. Ceramics, he explains, is a way of life.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Jingdezhen, China, the “Porcelain City,” where Lacouture recently participated in the West Virginia University-Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute International Ceramics Program. In this “small” city of about 1.5 million people, about 800,000 are ceramics workers. Once the seat of the Ming Dynasty, the people of Jingdezhen have been making royal porcelain for 2,500 years.
“It’s kind of beyond our ability to comprehend,” says Lacouture, a Carolina resident well known for his work. “I’m a ceramics scholar … and they’re crazy about their ceramics!”
His five-week visit to Jingdezhen last fall was made possible through a program started 16 years ago by his mentor at WVU, where Lacouture earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1980. During his time in Jingdezhen, Lacouture gave presentations, including one as part of a Chinese TV series on ceramics, but he spent the bulk of his time working with clay.
“I was the first one in, and the last one out,” he says. “You walk around with dirty pants and shoes with porcelain on them and it’s like the red badge of courage. They’re like, ‘oh I get it, he’s one of us … the crazy foreigner is one of us.’”
The Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, located in China’s Jiangxi province, has about 13,000 students, of which about 10,000 are studying ceramics.
“They say it takes 72 people to make one object,” Lacouture says. “It’s part of their psychology, the way they think. They’re always trying to make something for the greater culture and not the ego.” Lacouture listed in his journal all the different jobs involved in the creation of a single piece. Off the top of his head he came up with nearly 30.
“You’ve got the clay digger, the clay mixer, the pugger who presses the air out of the clay, the deliverer, the wedger who prepares the clay for the thrower, the trimmer who has an assistant who sharpens tools all day, the kill loader, the kill firer, the decorator who does the painting. One guy, all he does is go around scraping the bottoms of pots. Then there’s the guy who makes the boxes for the shipping, then there’s the wrapper …”
It all illustrates how ceramics, by its very nature, is unique among the arts. ““It’s a community-building effort,” Lacouture says. “First of all, it’s about eating, drinking, sharing – which is an intimate experience. And it comes from the earth. A painter and photographer can go and work all day and not see anyone. They can do the whole process internally. That doesn’t work in ceramics.”
At his home studio in Carolina, Lacouture has a dual-chambered wood-fired kiln that needs to be stoked a full 40 hours before it can be used. “You can’t do that by yourself, never mind load up 400 or 500 pieces in it. It becomes a community event, and during this community event we have potluck dinners together.”
Several years ago, one of Lacouture’s former students at Salve Regina, Andrew Maglathlin, took on a shift at his studio as a freshman and ended up staying for three days. Maglathlin is now an adjunct faculty member in the university’s art department, “so, I guess he’s never really left,” Lacouture says.
“That’s the value of the arts, and really, the value of ceramics – it’s a complete liberal arts experience because there’s history, there’s geology, there’s chemistry, there’s critique and analysis, there’s creative problem solving. It’s everything we stand for at Salve Regina. It happens in all the studio classes – where the applied part of the discipline becomes the catalyst for making people smarter, letting people express themselves.”
While working in China, Lacouture experienced some hands-on learning of his own. Early on, he opted to work with kaolin, a coveted Chinese porcelain of high purity – so pure, in fact, that the clay lacks plasticity, making it extremely challenging to work with.
“It behaves totally different,” Lacouture says. “The first series of work that I made, I think one piece survived. I wasn’t discouraged, and I wasn’t embarrassed in front of all these students. They were going through the same thing. I had some success ultimately, but it was ok. It wasn’t so much about what I made there, it was all about what I took home. It’s the experience, that’s what I took back.”
The hands-on experience reminds Lacouture about how he, as a youngster, first became engaged in learning, and it underscores Salve Regina’s approach to education.
“Because of what I learned to do with my hands, I became a student,” Lacouture says. “I learned everything I could about the history of ceramics, learned about the culture – and it’s because my hands taught my head. The way we learn in this department is by doing.”