In an east Beijing suburb, a modest bungalow houses a thriving pottery workshop owned by Dou Jinjun. For the last 20 years, the 42-year-old artist has channeled his passion for sculpture with a wide range of materials. Dou's designs embody a rural style with yet a touch of sophistication, a combination rarely found in today's pottery market.
Dou Jinjun has been playing with various materials: wire, tree roots, sand; but mostly with clay, for more than 20 years. He's a qualified ceramic artist, a sculptor of clay, a potter whose works are more decorative than utilitarian.
His slovenly appearance doesn't do justice to the delicate and sophisticated skills Dou commands when crafting his clay figurines. The muddy but dexterous hands give birth to many lifelike pottery figures imbued with rustic aesthetics.
Dou's free and bold approach is evident in his choice of subjects.
His subjects span a kaleidoscope of fields: historical figures, Peking Opera characters; countryside youngsters and even matchmakers. Each of the clay figures is heavily charged with his love for pottery and an undeniable urge to create.
Ceramic Artist Dou Jinjun said, "Once I read a book on Peking Opera. I thought that I could start with making the characters. Zhu Geliang was my first figure. The creation went smoothly. I devoted myself to the work, feeling very excited."
British painter Joshua Reynolds once said that a mere copier of nature can never produce anything great. This view is echoed in the making of Dou's pottery figures.
While drawing much of his inspiration from Peking Opera, a welcome respite enjoyed by Dou, his clay figures differ from their originals in many ways. And an exact grasp of his subjects' nature makes his clay figures speaking portraits of their originals.
A fine example is the pottery figure of General Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms period. While Guan Yu suggests bravery and good fortune for Chinese people, the General is always on the move in Peking Opera. But Dou deified the general and made him a sedentary figure. The finished work is quite a chunk, contrasting sharply to the two shrunken soldiers nestled beside his knees: Guan Ping and Zhou Cang. His eyes were also made following the dramatic stage effect of Guan Yu in Peking Opera.
Ceramic Artist Dou Jinjun said, "The inspiration drew on a couple of aspects. From painting I learnt to get a grasp of a subject's essential features. And I borrowed from Peking Opera the character's costume, makeup and paraphernalia."
Dou's free country upbringing in east China's Shandong province is echoed in the bucolic beauty of his works. The rough and shaggy surface of the clay figures correspond to the unaffected and rugged character of their creator. Most of his works are barely glazed, due to his penchant for unadorned beauty.
None of Dou's figures are made following a set path. His free and casual approach to ceramics sets each apart from the other, making each individual figure a unique creation of its own.
Ceramic Artist Dou Jinjun said, "I don't feel easy and happy when I create. But I know that, when I create, something inside me is being released and realized."
Sticking to a mantra of Less is More, the single-minded artist never dashes off a work in a hurry. Each piece is sketched well before it appears in clay. And a work as large as Guan Yu usually takes months of tinkering. Many of his figures could fetch a staggering eight to 10-thousand yuan or around US$ 1,200 in galleries. But for him, the mass market is never an option.
Dou once received an order to make 500 identical clay figurines, but he turned it down. The enterprising artist fears that too much repetition will get in the way of his creation.
Ceramic Artist Dou Jinjun said, "The emphasis is now on creation rather than making money. Why? Because I feel that I am at an age to create. Making money is not my business."
Despite all the passion Dou pours into his clay figures, he would actually prefer to be called a sculptor rather than a potter. For every work records each step in his chain of thought.
And clay is among a variety of media Dou uses to put his ideas into practice. The single-minded artist is satisfied with sculpting, despite the limitations of the medium.
Ceramic Artist Dou Jinjun said, "Clay is only a temporary medium for me to sculpt. I also work on other materials like wire, and glass-fibre reinforced plastic. I will consider making a copper or even stone sculpture in the future. I am sculpting on all possible medium."
In a room replete with his own creations, Dou finds no better enjoyment than to sit and ponder over his next work.
(CCTV August 3, 2005)