Thai Folk Pottery

copyright 1991 Louis Katz

All Rights Reserved worldwide

Thailand is better known for its Siamese cats (and twins) than for its folk pottery. So far, the diverse ceramic traditions of the "Land of Smiles" have evaded the attention of Western ceramic enthusiasts. There, bonfired earthenware potteries are as prevalent as modern ceramic factories, and between the two exists a spectrum of style and technique. Most Thais have not traveled much within their country, so each pottery village's style and technique have remained distinct.

My interest in Thai pottery began before I even knew its origin. I like to cook, and often scour ethnic groceries for exotic ingredients. In Oriental food stores, much of the pottery packaging I admired happened to be Thai. The antithesis of the Cheez Whiz wares of modern food preparation, most Thai pots have the character of good, coarse-grained, homemade bread.

My own work has been much inspired by preindustrial functional wares, which are rather rough around the edges. The pots I like best have a definite need for felt added to their bottoms when placed in the modern kitchen. In my own work, I often determine firing temperature by waiting for signs of slumping. I enjoy the incinerated surface and bloating.

Within Thailand, unlike the West, the appreciation of the coarse folk wares is a grass-roots phenomenon. People from all walks of life enjoy the appearance of unrefined clays and wood- fired ware. Plastic, metal and cement may be more practical, but in a country where decoration and tradition are as important as functionality, the ceramic vessel retains an important role. Thailand's favorite folk pottery is from the village of Dankwean, located in Korat province.

I first became aware of this pottery in 1983 when Poonarat Pichayapaiboon, a fellow graduate student, showed me a sheet of slides from Dankwean. I remembered the village name, the appearance of the fired surface and a little about the forms. Several years later, during a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation (Helena, Montana), I met a Thai potter named Suwanee Natewong. She was surprised by my questions about Dankwean. It turned out that she owned a pottery in that village.

The following summer Suwanee was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to work at the Bray for six months, and she stayed with my wife (potter Gail Busch) and me. During that time Suwanee made an 8x12 foot mural on the subject of life at the Bray. The murals she had made in the past were always done on commission, including a mural made for the mountaintop summer palace of the Queen of Thailand. She found exciting the freedom of working without customer input or expectations. The completed mural depicts busy potters (most with more than one head), stray dogs, full ware boards and the Bray's beehive kilns. Although made of local Montana brick clay, the fired surface of the mural looks astonishingly similar to the surface of Dankwean clay.

I have always been interested in folk potteries and, in talking to Suwanee, I became convinced that a visit to Thailand would allow me to see traditional potters working much in the same way as had their ancestors. A friend suggested that I apply for a Fulbright grant. Not being affiliated with a university at that time, I was told over the phone not to waste my time. I applied anyway, received a Fulbright Research Grant, and spent nine months in Thailand, documenting Thai folk pottery. Gail and I studied Thai language with a taped course designed for Foreign Service employees. Once in Thailand, we asked everyone we met, from taxi drivers to art professors, about Thai folk pottery, and traveled wherever we heard pots were being made. These trips were frequent but short. We rented a small house (with what we called "flow through mosquitoes") on Suwannee's property in Dankwean for our home base.

Local tradition has it that pots have been made in Dankwean for over 250 years. The village was a convenient stopping place on the ancient trade road to Kampuchea, and may have served as some sort of customs station. The name Dankwean, in fact, means stopping place or station for oxcarts. It is an active, vital place, where red-mouthed, betel nut-chewing potters work in grass huts to produce a variety of decorative and functional items. Traditionally, Dankwean was known for water jars, mortars, storage vessels and basins. With the exception of the still popular mortars, however, these wares have been replaced by carved decorative pots, garden lamps, figurative sculpture, wall tile, large-scale murals and ceramic jewelry.

The new wares are sold at roadside stands in Dankwean and in stores throughout Thailand. They also are exported to Europe, North America, Australia and the Middle East. The increase in export trade makes for some interesting collisions of cultures. Foreign buyers write letters asking for full-color catalogs and fax numbers, but there is just one telephone in the village.

Soon after our arrival in Thailand, the first annual Dankwean Festival took place. It was then that I truly began to appreciate the skill of these village potters. Pots are made by two-person teams: The helper rolls short coils, about the size and shape of cucumbers, for the potter. Turning the wheel with his heel or the toes of one bare foot, the potter holds the coil in one hand and squeezes it against his other hand with a twisting action to form a growing cylinder. In a very short time, he has made an 18-inch tall pot with thin, even walls. The helper then spins the wheel, while the potter works to smooth and refine the form. In a contest to throw the biggest water jar, old men with less than an hour's working time (broken into three 20-minute segments with hour-long intervals for drying the sections) threw beautiful pots large enough for me to have hidden inside. These contest pots were the largest that had ever been made in Dankwean-too large to fit throughout the firemouths of local kilns. All Dankwean kilns use the firemouth as the door. The newer style kilns. built from unfired local clay blocks, are like small anagamas. These are called scorpion kilns because the chimney at the back is like the raised tail of an attacking scorpion. The older style kiln, dug out of a bank of clay, is an artificial cave with nothing more than a hole in the ceiling at the rear to serve as a chimney. Because they use more wood than their above-ground counterparts, only a few of these beautiful dugout kilns are still in use.

When I arrived in Dankwean, most of the wares were fired in the traditional manner - until the wood ash or the pots began to melt, whichever came first. This firing style is called pao dam, or burnt black. Its finish is dark brown, a little metallic, the way brick clays look when fired till they slump. Ten months later, right before I left, what has become known as the Dankwean antique finish had replaced pao dam on most of the wares being sold. This finish is applied to bisque-fired pots in several steps: First, the bisque is brushed wit barn-red paint; then it is coated with a secret concoction of latex paint and cement. When dry, it is sanded, leaving the cement/latex mixture in any carved areas, and revealing the darker, painted and bisqued surfaces. Even I, a fired-finish chauvinist, must admit that the Dankwean antique finish is good looking. It sells well, and if it means much, I've seen Dankwean wares in Phoenix Home and Garden Magazine, as well as trendy shops on Madison Avenue and elegant department stores in Tokyo.

Dankwean jewelry is the perfect ceramic export item: it is small, inexpensive (20¢ for a strand), and can be made during lulls at the market or at night in front of the TV. Walking around the village, you are likely to find the postman making beads between customers, and see baskets of bead strands, minus only clasps, sitting behind the counter at the corner restaurant. Although there is also a market for natural terra-cotta or smoked black jewelry, most is finished by coloring the bisque with commercial dye and spraying strung necklaces with clear acrylic. This gives dyed clay the appearance of attractive handmade plastic. Perhaps because the time invested for each necklace is short and the market competition fierce, designs/techniques improve weekly.

Four hours northeast of Dankwean, near the city of Mahasarakham, the potters of Baan Maaw, or Pot Village, make 2 gallon, porous, water-cooling jars. In this village, pot making traditionally was done by women, but now the market is such that men also are potters. The body of the pots is coiled and paddled, but the rim and lid are thrown - not by rotating the clay, but by walking backward around the wheel (a stump). The only tool used in the throwing is a wet piece of corrugated cardboard employed in much the way one would use a damp sponge. The process has a dancelike quality more related to glassblowing than throwing, and must be seen to be believed.

Grog is made locally in Baan Maaw. Wet clay is mixed with a much larger proportion of rice hulls, and shaped into cantaloupe- sized balls. When dry, these are stacked like cannonballs and set on fire. Because of the large quantity of rice hulls, the balls require only a small amount of wood and a thin covering of rice straw to fire. When cool, they are crushed more easily than old softbrick. The key is the rice hulls. Not only are they the right shape and texture and essentially free (as by-product of farming, the second industry in the village), they also leave an ash that is almost pure silica, without soluble salts that would deflocculate the clay.

Adding grog to the body is important to avoid thermal shock during rapid firing. Pots are stacked in two layers on a carefully prepared bed of sticks and small twigs. The bed is raised a few inches from the ground by fired clay supports. Handfuls of rice straw are pushed under the bed and ignited, quickly engulfing the ware in flames. Potters tend the fire for two hours, keeping the pots covered with layers of rice straw for insulation and as added fuel. An hour after the fire has burned itself out, the fired pots are unstacked. Resulting 2-gallon jars are flashed red, gold and black from the smoky fire, and surprisingly few pots are cracked or shattered. With a lid, one would sell for about 80¢.

At Ban Koh Noi, near the ancient capital of Sukhothai, a joint Thai/Australian archaeological project has uncovered 11 layers of kilns, each new one built on top of the ruins of the last. The kilns span about 400 years; production at this site began sometime around A.D. 900, and probably continued (in other kilns nearby) until the late 17th century. Gradual improvements in style, technique and materials revealed by the now-roofed-over digs do much to dispel the notion that Thai celadon wares were developed through imported Chinese technology. Such importation brings rapid, not gradual, change. The digs themselves are as spectacular as the shards found there. According to Don Hein, the Australian archaeologist who supervised the project, excavations at this site turned up more manmade objects than earth.

A hot, humid country with little plumbing requires water containers for daily use and long-term storage. Thailand, according to my best guess, has 25 million large, stoneware, water storage jars currently in use. Trucks carrying upwards of 100 of these vessels can be seen daily, delivering to every corner of the country. Most water jars are made in Ratchaburi, a town as well known for pots in Thailand as Detroit is for cars in the U. S.

Formerly, all of these jars were made by coiling, paddling and throwing (walking backward around the pot), using ribs to finish the form and to throw the rim. Only recently have Ratchaburi potters started to throw their pots on wheels. The change, according to the factory owner we talked with, was due to a shortage of workers with the necessary skills.

Usually they are decorated with white slip reminiscent of very skillful finger painting. Except for pots destined for Japanese mingei markets, they are raw-glazed inside and out, usually with an amber glaze. These pots are often seen in America in import stores and Oriental groceries.

In years past, functional jars of this size were made in several different locations in Thailand, but today Ratchaburi is the only town still manufacturing significant numbers. There, we saw more than 20 climbing tube kilns of gigantic proportions. One estimate put the total number at 50. For the most part, the kilns are fired with scrap wood from local industry (although a few factories are using fossil fuels for more expensive wares). We were told that it takes $140 worth of wood to fire one of these.

Located outside of the northern city of Chiengmai is Muang Koong - literally translated as Shrimp City. It is known for ornate, porous, drinking water bottles surfaced with red or black terra sigillata. The pots are built from coils on a small whirler or banding wheel, consisting of a 5-inch wooden wheel head mounted on an open bottomed tube. The tube is placed over a shaft that has been hammered into the ground. The potter sits on a low bench in front of a garden of about 20 of these wheels. After each pot is coiled/thrown, both pot and wheel head are removed from the shaft in front of the potter and replaced by another wheel head for the potter to work on. The finished pots are coated with a terra sigillata (made from finely ground red earth and diesel oil), then burnished with a quartz pebble.

When dry, the pots are stacked on top of one another in simple, updraft kilns. The pots on top are covered with shards from previous firings. When the current firing is complete, some of the pots are removed still hot from the kiln and stacked in column on the ground. A cylindrical bottomless basket, which has been soaked in water, is placed over the column of hot pots, and the space around the pots filled with damp sawdust for post-firing reduction similar to American raku; the result in carbon-rich, black surfaces. Pots allowed to cool slowly in the kiln retain their red color.

When I wrote my Fulbright proposal, I emphasized the fact that things are changing very rapidly in Thailand. One day I hope to go back to these villages, but I don't expect things to be the same as then. Certainly a few potteries will survive only as places for tourists to buy soft drinks and knick-knacks. The more remote villages may continue production for a few more decades. It seems, though, that Baan Maaw potters are thriving, with a healthy market for the pots they've always made, to be used in the way they've always been used. And villages such as Ratchaburi and Dankwean have already established markets in the developed world. The road to Dankwean has been widened and parking has been provided to promote tourism. Perhaps some to the other village potteries will see development as an opportunity to open markets for new kinds of wares, rather than an end to the making of their old ones.

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copyright 1997 Louis Katz