Introducing Youyou Wang
8th December 2023, interview text by Yi Ting Lee; introductory text by Maud & Mabel team
Introducing: Youyou Wang
Youyou Wang is an emerging ceramic artist who graduated from Ceramic Design in Central Saint Martins (2022). Wang creates unique, handmade works with a signature blend of form and function. In her hands, these vessels transcend their utilitarian roots, becoming works of art to be savored and admired. Wang’s teapots, coated in soft whites, sandy browns and deep blacks, stand as eloquent examples of less being more.
Wang's teapots draws inspiration from the design and forms of small and rounded Zisha clay teapots from the Yixing region, which are highly regarded in China and form an essential part of its tea-drinking culture. One of the unique properties of the red Zisha clay specific from Yixing is that they become more glossy with repeated use as the tea infuses the material, capturing time and personal history. Similarly, Wang's teapots are made to encapsulate the everyday and the simple moments in utilitarian function.
With their understated elegance, each unique teapot of Wang’s features a harmonious merging of elements; wide and petite bodies, small and delicate spouts. The wide bodies of her teapots are gentle and soft, their elegant curves evoking a sense of tranquility. The small spouts, subtle and refined, provide a counterpoint to the generous bodies. This juxtaposition of wide and small dimensions imbues her work with a sense of balance and grace. The interplay of these contrasting forms is where Wang’s work shines, creating visual harmony that is at once soothing and engaging.
In Wang’s works, simplicity and serenity is the key to beauty, and her work exemplifies this philosophy, offering an impression of a world where art and functionality seamlessly intertwine. As an emerging artist, her exploration of form is an exciting journey, and it is clear that she has already established a unique and captivating aesthetic.
Q: What formal and conception elements are you interested in exploring through your work?
My main focus now is to make teapots, but I'm still in the beginning stages – this is important since I don't intent to incorporate overly conceptual elements into my work at this point. Right now, it's more about learning through the process of making. That being said, my personality is entrenched in this process of creation and is reflected through my work.
My goal is not to make something new; I want to start with the basics of creating objects of a good standard, and then refining it to make beautiful. Teapots are rather complicated forms. A handmade teapot consists of several parts: the body, lid, knob, handle and spout. A well-designed piece, in terms of functionality and ease of use, can be achieved through experience and experimentation, while its aesthetic beauty derives from its formal proportions.
There are two components to my understanding of beauty: balance and imbalance. What is considered aesthetically balanced is dependent on subjective judgement, while asymmetry and imbalance adds to the character and uniqueness of a piece. I hope to create works that contain a playful, endearing novelty. In this pursuit, I remain dedicated to finding the balance within imbalance – ultimately, balance is key to creating harmony.
Beyond this formal proportioning, I want to embed a whimsical quality in my work: each small teapot I make is unique and distinct. I assume the local market in the UK might not use the small teapots on a daily basis, so I wanted to my work to be enjoyable for its audience. Making quirky works adds joy to my production process.
My teapots mimic mundane objects from everyday life, such as produce, a long-standing exploration in my practice. Instead of following the form of an object, I am more interested in capturing one's specific memory of it. In my subconscious creation of forms, such as a pouting spout, I realised that I emulate existing shapes drawn from my personal memory and associations. This is also why descriptions of my works vary: someone described the swirls created by my fingers as ‘bandages’; a round flat teapot with a sinking lid was referred to as a 'doughnut' or 'dried persimmon' according to the viewer's cultural background. I really enjoy seeing the trigger of memories through my creation.
Q: Your work is really diverse, could you tell us about how you go about making a work? Do you conceive of the form and colour before you begin, perhaps with sketches?
I rarely sketch to conceptualize a piece; I let everything happen naturally and intuitively in the process of creation.
Although it has been six years since I started studying ceramics at Central Saint Martins, London, in 2018, I am still rather new to teapot-making. It wasn't until last November that I made my first teapot. Before then, I watched countless videos of teapot making and accumulated all that information. Now I simply want to transfer the knowledge and energy into actually making.
I love the instant response of clay to manipulation – even to the most subtle actions, and the ease to which this reaction can be erased. Subconscious and unintended actions often lead to surprising effects; I find it a pity to follow a rigid plan and lose the interaction between the clay and tool, and maker. The material always presents more possibilities than a design made from pure conception. In this way, designs seems to emerge in my hands before it does in my mind.
Q: Could you tell us a bit about your process of making a piece? Are there particular techniques you employ in your work?
In making teapots, I consider the body, lid, knob and handle as separate elements that find its match during the assembly process. I always work on multiple works simultaneously. During this process, I keep the work-in-progress components in a plastic box to prevent them from drying out and maintain a workable dryness.
Ceramic teapots by Youyou Wang. (Photograph Josephine Cottrell).
I start by throwing a batch of around ten pots and matching lids each time. While the body and lid are drying, I prepare multiple different handles and spouts. Instead of throwing, I hand build the spouts by pinching. After I have molded the clay into the desired shape, I hollow out the inside. By hand building, I have more flexibility and creative freedom in forming the shape of the spout.
Once the pots are leather hard, I trim them to achieve the right thickness to fit the lids and galleries, then finalize the knob on the lid (at times, I attach a knob retrospectively). When I assemble the teapot, I always attach the spout first and then the handle. Sometimes the pots may have to stay in the plastic box for over a month until I feel I have found the suitable matching components.
Q: How does your cultural background and training as a ceramicist inform your practice?
To start with, it influences my channels and sources of acquiring information. My native language is Chinese, which makes materials in Chinese easier for me to access. I think and digest in Chinese, and the same oriental sensibilities underlie the foundations of my aesthetic judgement and, consequently, my output. I do also appreciate the varied presentations of clay in diverse cultures: the interflow and integration of cultures throughout history make it hard to categorize ceramics across fixed boundaries. Nonetheless, there are notable differences in lifestyles as well as dietary habits between the East and West. In that respect, I would say my works lean towards an Eastern style.
The training I received informs individual elements of my process. My training in Central Saint Martins has provided me a with a solid understanding of the technicalities of health and safety issues in the industry. More fundamentally, my work experience in the Pottery Workshop Shanghai taught me to cherish clay. Once clay is fired, the process is nonreversible. While I was there, a former colleague and teacher for whom I am most grateful for, told me, 'a bit of clay is akin to a grain of rice'. I carry this appreciation for the value of clay with me.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from? Do you have ceramicists, artists or other cultural figures or influences you’re inspired by?
My primary source of reference or my library for teapot making are Yixing teapots (紫砂壶) and Chaozhou teapots (潮州手拉壶). In China, these two traditional factions of teapot making are well-respected but also very strict in terms of their apprenticeship and production process guided by rigorous criteria.
I have not been through that systematic training so I am not worried about falling into repetition. I am not part of the system: I don’t know about the specification of each step in the production process, nor stringent standards. Without a mentor, peers or industry constrains, I gather diverse and abundant information from varied sources. Using a multiplicity of information that I have gathered and absorbed, I piece together teapots following my own approach to make works that are uniquely mine.
Q: What do you find most challenging about your creative process?
There are endless things to learn about clay, in terms of both theoretical and historical knowledge, as well as practical skills. Information on areas like glaze chemistry and kiln firing remain as words and theories in books that I find hard to truly grasp without substantial hands-on practice. I rely the most on my experience in making, which is simultaneously what I feel I lack the most at the moment. Over the years, I have gradually built a relationship with clay, but I still feel unfamiliar with some of the raw materials and kilns that I have less exposure to. I see this as a kind of limiting factor to my creative possibilities.
Ceramic teapots by Youyou Wang. (Photograph Josephine Cottrell).
So far, making with clay has been more enjoyable to me than it is challenging. It's a double-edged sword, because this enjoyment has also become a way for me to escape from book-based learning. I am trying balance between making and studying, and want to invest more time on reading, research and reflection.
Q: Do you have new plans or directions you are happy to share with us?
Teapot making is a long journey that I may never stop, but I am also interested in exploring the creation of other everyday objects. Functional wares have always intrigued me, especially the forms of cups and bowls, which I find endlessly fascinating. After working on teapots for a while, I increasingly feel that the simpler the form, the more challenging it is to infuse with charm.