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Ceramic artist molds a rustic lifestyle

Updated: Jul 19, 2022 China Daily Print
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She poses with her work at her studio.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Liang Wanying's life revolves around ceramics, her two children and farming.

Her reserved personality and disinclination toward social engagement have made her predisposed to rural life and allowed her to fully concentrate on art creations true to her inner world.

The artist, from Northwest China's Shaanxi province, has stunned her audiences with a series of surreal ceramic works that have been on display at major museums in China, the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years.

She has been sharing her ceramic works via major online platforms, such as Xiaohongshu and Bilibili, and has attracted hundreds of thousands of views.

Many of her works contain elements inspired by architecture and plants and are supported by a structure resembling the legs of a horse.

"I want to show the human desire of freedom in growth through the use of plants and horse legs, and the necessity of adapting to social rules via the architectural confinement," Liang explains.

She ensures that the ultimate presentation of her works conveys a final state of balance.

"Most of them were a result of my emotions and perspectives toward the world," Liang says, adding that her Chinese roots have cast a big influence on the process.

Her recent works about personal identity at the Shanghai Pearl Art Museum shed light on her interactions between Chinese and Western culture.

Her work, Transplant, at first appears to present plants growing in a foreign environment, but it is actually about human migration and the feeling of entering an unfamiliar culture, she says.

Liang's work highlights a combination of architecture and plants.[Photo provided to China Daily]

As a Chinese person living in a sparsely populated rural part of the US, Liang has transformed her personal experience into creative inspiration.

At a very young age, Liang was exposed to traditional Chinese folk culture, the grandeur of ancient architecture and the charm of ceramics in the provincial capital of Xi'an in Shaanxi.

"When I was at home, I observed my family preparing the rituals to celebrate Chinese traditional festivals, and followed the Confucian routine in socializing with our relatives," she says.

The city's ancient buildings, like the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, have also been etched into her memory.

"They were always there when I went shopping with my friends or took a walk with my mother after dinner," Liang says.

"They have greatly influenced my understanding of aesthetic standards and become something I have wanted to pursue in my works, which is a sense of weight, a greatness of time, yet with the qualities of peace and harmony," she adds.

Those elements have expressed themselves in the form of half-open spaces and pagodas in Liang's works.

Frequent visits to the city's Shaanxi History Museum allowed Liang to get a good measure of the beauty of ceramics.

"It felt magic to me how a ceramic item can retain its features after thousands of years," she says.

"I couldn't help but wonder who made them, and under what circumstances."

A framed piece depicts traditional vases[Photo provided to China Daily]

The idea of her own ceramic works possibly being appreciated in the distant future had her opt for ceramic art in 2008, her second year at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

"It was an informed choice after spending the first year taking in general art."

The experience opened her eyes to the world of ceramics, especially modern pottery, and enabled her to pick up art skills and mature her understanding of the medium.

After graduation in 2011, Liang continued her artistic pursuit at Jingdezhen, a world-famous ceramic capital in East China's Jiangxi province.

"I wanted to make further inroads into art, so I went there to get more training and inspiration," she says.

There, she interacted with artists from different parts of the world, while soaking up the presence of traditional ceramic art.

"I realized how traditional art is closely related to life," she says.

"It's pretty impressive to see how artisans push a handcart of molded pottery and sculptures past you and how pottery is sent to the kiln."

Moreover, the distinctive natural surroundings and southern food, quite different from her northern hometown, have also stimulated her passion for nature.

"All of it has hammered home to me that my works should be based on life and people," she says.

After five years working and living at Jingdezhen, Liang got an offer and a scholarship from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.

That was when Liang experienced the differences between the Oriental and Western interpretations of ceramic art.

"In China, ceramic is tightly connected with culture and history, and we have a sense of awe toward ceramic art and pay more attention to inheritance," she says.

But in the US, focus has been given to breaking away from the past, she explains.

In 2018, during her study at Alfred University, she tapped into her sense of confusion and created the work, I Do Not Know I Am a Guest When I Dream.

"The professor asked us to choose a word to describe ourselves, and I went for 'foreigner'," she recalls.

Then, she was further inspired by her American classmate, who told her all of them were foreigners in some way.

"It was then that I realized it's not just on the physical level, but a spiritual one as well," she says.

"This uncertainty of living in a foreign environment is uncomfortable, but it also contains possibilities that we can't imagine."

The 2018 series features human beings, animals, plants and vessels, which Liang says represented her dissociation from herself, which is a common psychological defense mechanism against pressure in the real world.

"I put my anxiety, fear, and facts that I cannot accept right away into these 'containers', and they support the heaviness of my emotions and try their best to stand on the floor," she says.

Liang's graduation presentation, I Do Not Know I Am a Guest When I Dream, made in 2018.[Photo provided to China Daily]

She hung soft sculptures made from white paper from the ceiling, surrounding the white standing ceramic sculptures.

When people went into this space, most of them associated it with marriage because the wedding ceremony is traditionally white in the West.

"However, some of my Asian friends connected it with funerals."

People will comprehend artwork based on their own background. So, there will be different understandings of the art pieces floating in the space simultaneously.

"When people from different backgrounds get interested in these white standing sculptures in a shared space, a kind of communication will start fermenting," she says.

Robbie Heidinger, a US clay artist, considers Liang's work to be "super amazing".

"I love the dreamy feeling and the mix of techniques," Heidinger says.

"Surreal for sure."

Liang's professor, Matt Kelleher, says he saw a different view of power in her works.

Ceramic artist Liang Wanying molds the clay at her studio.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Liang is content with her reclusive life at the moment.

"I wake to birds chirping, especially dulcet in the morning," she says, adding that it reminds her of her childhood in China's countryside.

Her return to a rural setting with her husband has led her to acquire various living skills, such as how to plant vegetables and raise chickens.

"It grants me satisfaction to see the chickens seeking out and feeding on worms," Liang says.

The couple use leftovers from the kitchen to feed their farm animals, which give them eggs. They use the droppings as fertilizer for vegetables.

"The cycle gives me a sense of balance and contentment," Liang says.

The biggest regret for Liang now is the separation from her family over the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They have relied on online video chats.

"My mother has been a bit worried that I don't have a full-time job," Liang says.

"But I can sense that she understands me and is relieved that I'm enjoying my life right now."

To date, Liang has shared videos of her ceramic creations online, which have garnered more than 700,000 views.

Liang says she feels rewarded and inspired by the feedback of her followers.

"I was full of admiration when a 76-year-old follower started to learn ceramic art after watching my videos," she says.

"I hope I will be like him, and still have the courage to start something in my senior years."

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