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Trying to describe contemporary Thai ceramics as a homogeneous entity is impossible. With the rapid development of the last 50 years it is possible to see traditional potters firing with rice straw within sight of potteries producing copious amounts of high end porcelain. The scene in universities is no less diverse, with wares relating to traditional works sitting along side contemporary studio ceramics. More so than in some cultures there is no hard and fast line between industrial ceramics and fine art. Because of this, Thai pottery is hard to categorize.

Thai village potteries are impacted by the same pressures that indigenous potteries have felt world wide. Ceramic wares are displaced by plastics, metals, city water supplies and refrigerators. The need for every house to own many water storage jars is simply gone in Thailand. Few houses need any stoneware water jars, and those houses that do also have electric wells and other means of obtaining water. The potteries that made water jars now produce them almost entirely for decorative or nostalgic reasons. These reasons bring a new emphasis on design and finish.

The loss of the traditional functions of ceramics has come at the same time as the rise of the middle class in Thailand. The new middle class provides a market for wares to enrich the aesthetic lives of the purchaser and to fulfill a definite nostalgic void created by the almost violent rapid change from an agrarian rural-based society to an urban manufacturing-based society.

Dankwean Village was never a huge producer of water jars, and was only able to compete with the larger Ratchaburi Town potteries because of the cost of transportation. When modern transportation developed and use declined, Dankwean was left without a place to sell. Sales of undecorated Dankwean water jars disappeared slowly, before the nostalgia market firmly set in. This created a need to develop new products. Between 1975 and 1989 a great deal of design, product innovation and related market development took place. By 1989, although water jars and other ceramic ware meant for utilitarian purposes made up less than 10 percent of the market in Dankwean Village, the village was thriving and producing more fired ware than it ever had before.

During roughly the same time period, the market for stoneware mortars and earthenware flowerpots from Koh Kred and the mainland Kred potteries were being displaced by wares from the provinces made with cheaper labor on cheaper land. Potteries upcountry were under pressures from plastic and refrigerators. Kirimaat, and Sathing Maaw (near Songklaa) as well innumerable other villages were experiencing declines. Many potteries disappeared.

The loyal support of handwork and local products by his Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej the King of Thailand, and the Royal Family has popularized traditional wares, as well as more modern ceramics. The King's visit to Pakred and subsequent comments about Pakred Pottery had an important impact on its survival. The same is true in Kirimat. Prior to the royal visit both potteries villages were in trouble. Comments made by the King were taken to heart by the people of Thailand. Sales of pottery and sculpture from these villages quickly increased. Koh Kred has become a tourist destination bringing both Thai and foreign visitors.

Similar support can be seen in the inclusion of a hand painted plate by H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindom in the National Ceramics Exhibition at the Silpakorn University Art Gallery in 2002. Ceramics in Thailand has an importance to Thai people that is palpable. Mention of Dankwean Village, Chiang Mai, Sii Satchanalai or Ratchaburi all bring up images of clay for the average Thai. Thais recognize the significance of fired earth in their history and its importance in international trade.

In 1989, Ratchaburi was still producing huge numbers of dragon style water storage jars. By this time Dankwean had designers, university trained artists, young entrepreneurs, hippies, engineers, and international trade brokers living or frequently visiting the village and effecting the product design and manufacturing techniques. Ratchaburi has had similar input, but because of the more industrial, large scale size of the potteries, Ratchaburi's wares have maintained an industrial feel. Large scale factories are slower to change. Innovation often spreads from the top down. Dankwean was able to move to new wares more quickly.

High fire whiteware, or Thai Porcelain, proceeded earlier than stoneware into the export and tourist markets. In many ways, the export of Thai whiteware is part of long mostly unbroken tradition. The tableware was never produced in quantities meant for the masses in Thailand. But only recently has the production of whiteware from Thailand started to regain the stature it apparently had several hundred years ago.

By 1989, numerous Thais had studied studio art ceramics in schools throughout the world, speeding Thailand towards changes in attitudes about the nature of craft and ceramics. Similarly, increased tourism and trade brought knowledge of Thai ceramics to the world. Cultural and educational exchange programs with Japan, Australia, European countries, the United States and other countries have brought numerous Thai clayers abroad and similar numbers of foreign clayers to Thailand.

The Thai government, by organizing and helping to finance Thai participation in trade shows, brought people other than academics to other countries. These efforts helped to increase knowledge of potential export markets, and exposed ceramic business people to new ways of working and new types of products.

Looking at Thai studio ("fine art") ceramics with my American eyes, it is easy to be drawn to the similarities between Thai and United States ceramics. Certainly every genre of American ceramics has its counterparts in Thailand, but the important content of Thai ceramics lies in the differences, not the similarities. The ones most notable to me are: the firm connection in some wares to Thai history, the lyrical nature of much Thai figurative ware, and a more three dimensional conception of texture. There is also a homegrown version of the Zen (Ch├ín 禪/禅) aesthetic principle of transitory impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection known as wabi-sabi in Japanese 侘寂 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi). It is hard to get a handle on this as an outsider, but I see it reflected in rough hewn Thai ceramic mortars and water jars, and in the Thai public's appreciation for the wares of Dankwean Village, Ratchaburi, the earthenware villages, and other traditional wares, and the acceptance of unglazed surfaces in contemporary studio ceramics. This version of wabi-sabi in Thailand merges texture with form. Texture seems more frequently to not be something applied to the surface but is integral to the form and skin. In the works of Suebpong Powthai สืบพงศ์ เผ่าไทย you can see a continuum of surface merging into form, from works like DSC02327?.jpg whose form is textural through work like <ahref=http://ceramicart.multiply.com/photos/album/25/Suebpong_Powthai#5>Suebpong Powthai</a> which has a textural skin to work like DSC02651?.jpg (I call it the Jackfruit Teapotกาน้ำชาขนุน). The carved murals of Dankwean, which are low relief, relate to historic wood carving and the stone murals of Angkor Wat. The murals use strong texture to define form and space. In these carvings, even form becomes an element of texture, rather than the other way around.

Earth is everywhere in Thailand and Thai ceramics. Watching buyers of highly varied stoneware mortars in Dankwean, you can see buyers balancing the look of durability with beauty. These buyers might tell you that they are buying strictly for utility. After all, Dankwean mortars are the best for making som tum, green papaya salad. However, as inexpensive as these pots are, you can watch these village cooks looking for beauty at the same time. It is an earthy beauty they seem to look for. I think of this appreciation in Thai as รักดิน; a love of earth or clay.

His Majesty the King of Thailand has encouraged the Thai people to be self reliant and to be satisfied with a simple life. The encroachment of the city on the countryside, and rapid increase in the pace of life in Thailand continues to power a back-to-the-earth, "Small is Beautiful", kind of movement that meshes well with the King's challenge to the people. This movement has spawned a growing small-workshop utilitarian tableware trade, and a continuing movement of artists to the countryside to try to recapture some of the quality of Thai life before industrialization. I believe that The King's appreciation of Thai skills and aesthetics has been instrumental in the preservation of Thai heritage.

In contrast, industrialization has brought a growing middle class that is able to and wants to purchase higher priced artworks for their homes and businesses. As the number of people with walls and spaces to fill grows, the number of artists, and galleries, grows with it. This supports not only individual artists working alone but small workshops and handicraft factories. It is notable that Ratchaburi water jars, Dankwean ware, and Kirimaat sculpture are frequent home decorations and give a country feel to the residences. Studio ceramics and other more academic ware are often intermingled with these more nostalgic items.

Everywhere there is a blurring of the borders of nationality and a dulling of the distinctions of regionalism. Geographic factors are becoming less important than market, class distinctions, and than other divisions. Thai ceramics are increasingly influenced by the ceramics of other nations. Similarly, through publications, the web, and exhibitions like this, knowledge of Thai Ceramics is spreading worldwide.


Dankwean Village,in northeastern Thailand on the banks of the Mun (pronounced like Moon) River, has produced pottery for as long as our history remembers. "Dan" means village, or toll station, and a "kwean" is an ox cart. The village is located at a narrow part of the river and is a convenient crossing point. The banks of the river provide a fine dark stoneware clay that when fired to a high temperature produce a non porous stoneware suitable for storing water throughout the long dry season. The pots were traded with the oxcart drivers for other goods.

Dankwean in more modern times has profited from its location on the Korat Choke-Chai road. It must be passed to travel east to Ubon Ratchathani. Starting in the mid 1970's the surfaces of the pots began to be carved and other decorative ceramic items were made. As sales became more obvious numerous people moved to Dankwean including art professors, professors of ceramics, back to earth counterculture types, and former art students. Dankwean became a design and innovation powerhouse. In 1989 a labor shortage in Dankwean was created by demand for small export items and by 1998 Danwkean counted its production in shipping containers per week.

Mass marketing has had a positive impact on creativity in Dankwean. Dankwean today produces a wider variety of ware than ever before and some of its potters are even more skilled than in the past. The ceramists of Dankwean now produce carved murals, hand pressed decorative wall tile, jewelry and all sorts of pottery. The people of Danwkean have leveraged their skills even further by expanding into large sandstone murals and other crafts. Dankwean is a fascinating place to visit, to see the potters working in both traditional and modern styles.

Images:

	Phiphat Chit-Arirak

http://ceramicart.multiply.com/photos/album/12/Phiphat_Chit-Arirak#4 --- Somthavin Urasyanadana

http://ceramicart.multiply.com/photos/album/14/Somthavin_Urasyanadana#2

Udon Jirasaka http://ceramicart.multiply.com/photos/album/22/Udon_Jiraksa#4

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