Maggie Connolly Wood fire Ceramics Caoyu Studio

My Story - Part 1 1985-2010

Oi, where to begin?

My origin story begins when I was around 10. That was the first time I tried the pottery wheel, it was a kick wheel and my leg barely reached. It was a one week summer school course. We were allowed to take two classes and since my mom was a math teacher, she made me take a math class. For whatever reason I can't remember, the other class I choose was pottery.

My first thrown piece

Fast forward to college and ceramics was my favorite class, although I was only able to take 2 semesters. When I graduated, I received a B.S in Studio Art and a fellowship to teach English in China. From 2007-2008 I taught English at Nanjing University attached Middle and High School. It was ok, not my passion, but it allowed me to have experiences I wouldn't have otherwise. I decided to stay in Nanjing for another year, this time teaching English at Nanjing Normal University.

This second year, I wanted to have more activities that resembled my normal life and I found the ceramics studio at Nanjing Normal. I went in one day and in broken Chinese explained my desire to use the studio. Only the studio tech was there, a soft spoken boy named Liu Xing. We negotiated prices and times and over the next year I would go in once to twice a week and make with Liu Xing. There wasn't a wheel in the studio and I was perplexed by the wooden tables that looked more like benches. Nanjing is in Jiangsu Province, about 2 hours from Shanghai by bullet train. Liu Xing explained to me that there is a traditional ceramics town in between Nanjing and Shanghai, named Yixing, where he had trained in the traditional ceramic style - zishahu, Purple Sand Teapots, that are only hand built. I had never seen clay the spectacular colors he showed me and let me use. I watched him make teapots and tried myself, but not really. Liu Xing was from Southern China, meaning he spoke Cantonese and had an accent in Mandarin, which was difficult for me to understand. He told me what to look for on evaluating the quality of the tea pot. He was fond of showing me the perfect fit of the lid on a yellow teapot he had me, it was his favorite.

Yixing Zisha Purple Clay Bowl By the end of the year, I had a few small pieces. But I really wanted to get out of teaching English, I didn't see any enjoyable future for me there. I wanted to move to the big city - this is an aside to point out that Nanjing was a second tier city with a population of 7 million back in 2008 - when I told Liu Xing I was planning on moving to Beijing at the end of the school year, he gave me the phone number of a professor he knew that worked at a university there. On our last meeting, we went out to eat and he gave me his prized yellow teapot, which is still the most prized piece in my ceramic collection today. 
Liu Xing Zishahu

I arrived in Beijing in August of 2009, without a place to live and no lead on a job other than a semester long unpaid internship at a gallery in the 798 Gallery District that I found on Craigslist. But I had a phone number and when I eventually got settled - I found a room to rent one metro stop away from the Birds Nest and Water Cube that hosted the Olympics one year prior, I called Professor Wang Hui at Tsinghua University. He was confused at my broken Chinese and why I was there, but understood that I wanted to audit his class zishahu class at Tsinghua. 

The class met twice a week at 9 am for about 6 weeks. It was a third year undergrad class and although I had grown used to the stares and novelty in public, it was intimidating to be such a close-up novel example of foreignness in such an intimate setting. I rarely talked, unused to the group dynamic of the third years who were so tight together.

One morning, I had arrived early and was working on a small teapot, when an older man, walking out of the department secretary's office, looked at me and walked right up to me. He was Li ZhengAn, another professor in the department. He looked at the teapot I was working on and said it was really quite good, and that if I was interested, the department had a graduate program that foreigners could apply to and if I was interested, I should apply. It took me about a week to decide that, hell, why not apply? I was concerned that I didn't have a B.F.A, but the gallery job wasn't interesting to me either, after all I was just sitting in front of the computer, and it was 2009, the recession was still going strong in America and I had friends back home with science degrees that couldn't find jobs. Me, with a B.S in studio art surely wasn't going to find any sort of reliable job if I moved back now. In China, the recession was just news. To this day, this is a major milestone of my generation that I have no connection to and can feel how I have been shaped differently because of it. The first loosening of a connection to the only world I had known at that point.

I applied. And because of the course I audited, I received a reference letter from the department secretary. I had to find 10 images of my pottery with which to apply, and I ended up using the work I made in Nanjing with Liu Xing and Beijing, because I had no record of my work from college. In retrospect, I shouldn't have been as nervous as I was - a recommendation letter from the department secretary is a very good thing to have in your corner, but I had imposter syndrome and I felt that my work wasn't as good as the other students.

But in the Spring of 2010, I matriculated into the MFA Program of Ceramic Design at Tsinghua University. 

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