Teaching Ceramics in the World's Top Pottery Country

Thursday, March 5 2009

March 5, 2009

Written by Amy Huddleston

MOSCOW, Idaho – China’s roots in the ceramic arts are strong and deep. For thousands of years, Chinese artisans have developed and mastered techniques and artistry that has set the standard of excellence in ceramics throughout the world. To teach ceramics in this country, one must truly be a master of the art form.

Ceramics have been Joe Zeller's passion for more than 40 years. This fall, the University of Idaho professor of art and design will teach his craft to students in the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute/West Virginia University joint program in China. The 12-week program, established by Professor Bob Anderson of WVU, brings students from all over the U.S. and universities in China.

“This is my fifth trip to China and my third time teaching there,” Zeller said. “Every time I go, I learn something new. The country changes so quickly, it’s like a Charles Dickens novel with a ceramic theme.”

Zeller describes the program as way for Chinese students to get a western experience in China and for American students to experience the best of China’s art. “Students are taught by contemporary ceramic Chinese artists. These rare artists have stepped away from traditional art forms,” he said. “China, in the past has restricted creative and personal artistic freedoms that America routinely offers, but there is a revolutionary movement for freedom of expression among Chinese artists.”

During the program, students will visit the Shanghai Museum. Zeller said the museum displays China’s best work in bronze, jade, textiles, furniture, porcelain, and exact replications of the Song and Ming dynasty.

“When I went in for the first time, I had to sit down; it was so emotionally overwhelming, “ Zeller said. “If you are a baseball fan, you got to Cooperstown. If you are a tennis fan, then you want to lay out your sleeping bag on the courts of Wimbledon. This museum is my Wimbledon.”

The group arrives in Shanghai and takes an overnight train to the ceramics institute. Although it is only 180 miles, it takes 22 hours. The students sleep on “hard sleepers” and start to see what Zeller calls the “real China.”

“Shanghai is on the cutting edge, somewhere beyond 2010,” Zeller said. “But arriving in Jingdezhen is like taking a step back in time.”

Throughout the course, Zeller stays in the western experts’ dormitory and students stay in smaller rooms with one other roommate. The Chinese students attending the institute usually have up to eight students in one room.

During the 12 weeks, students receive six credits and experience everything from language studies to ceramic art history and pottery. Short and long day trips and excursions take place all around the East side of China. Visiting artists and instructors teach with a western style and Chinese experts teach both contemporary and traditional Chinese art, such as how to make the blue and white porcelain and ornate, colorful pottery pieces associated with Chinese culture.

Zeller said the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute is set in a locale where pottery is as old as time. Lining the roadsides and riverbeds, broken pieces of ceramics can be found just about everywhere. Hills of pottery pieces surround the city and every year at least one student comes back with a treasured 800 year old jar or porcelain bowl.

Each student who ventures to China comes back to the U.S. with more than just the six credits accumulated in the classroom. The experience is emotionally overwhelming and life changing. Students see 10 families all living in a room the size of a coffee shop. They experience small villages where technology is akin to what America had 200 years ago and they learn to find their threshold for tolerance for a life without the conveniences to which they are accustomed.

When Zeller and a group of students visited a village on his last trip, they encountered a man who had just discovered how to divert a rivulet by using broken pieces of pottery to make running water in his house. Zeller said the experience of seeing rudimentary technology really changed students’ perspectives on their own lives.

“The first time I saw these things and the ceramics there, I couldn’t comprehend it at all. I was chastened, not humbled, but chastened,” Zeller said. “China empowers those who visit and humbles them at the same time. We get so caught up in the stuff we do, but in China it is all exposed.”

Zeller has taught ceramics at the University of Idaho for the past year. Before teaching, he served as the dean of the College of Art and Architecture in 2002 and as the dean of the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences after the two colleges consolidated in 2003. He is a graduate of Alfred University in New York has taught at top ceramic programs including the Cleveland Institute of Art, West Virginia University, Kansas University and Ohio University.

He will retire from the University of Idaho in May and would like to go back to China for an extended period of time in a few years and teach, work and travel. “China changes a person. It changes the way you see the world where you came from, it changes the way you think,” he said. “The socio-cultural ballet of China keeps bringing me back.”

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About the University of Idaho

Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu

Media Contact: Joni Kirk, University Communications, (208) 885-7725, joni@uidaho.edu

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About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.