Samui Wining & Dining
Que Sera, Cera

14Going potty at Samui’s top ceramics studio. 

Gray goo is where it all starts – clay. Sludge-coloured, not very nice to look at, not at all artistic. But under an expert’s guiding hands it takes on a life of its own.

And one such expert is Khun Khanchai Wirattanakul who has two ceramics studios/shops on Samui, both named Cera. One being on the main ring-road just 200 metres on the left after you go round the sharp left-hand bend as you’re leaving Maenam heading towards Nathon. And a second smaller one is located in the south of Chaweng, near First Residence hotel.

Watching master potter Khun Khanchai at work is a mesmerizing experience and that begins as he picks up a large cylindrical block of clay and throws it down on his potter’s wheel. Now he bends over it and squashes it with his hands. This centres the mass and, using his fingers, he moves it until it’s exactly in the middle of the wheel. Now the wheel accelerates and the mass begins to spin. There’s no such thing as beginner’s luck with ceramics. According to Khun Khanchai, getting the mass to be symmetrical is the hardest part of the process. A lot of practice is required.

Next he begins charming the clay in front of him. Firstly, he adds a little water and the whole thing comes to life. As the wheel spins faster, it seems to move and writhe of its own accord, becoming ever more pliant until it’s on the rise – Khun Khanchai’s fingers actually tease it up into a spire. Within minutes it resembles a pot or vase, and soon after that it’s ready to dry and be fired.

Sounds simple, right? If you’ve spent years in training, as Khun Khanchai has done, and it’s an easy design, then forming the basic shape may take no more than a few minutes. Anything extra and the process becomes a bit more complicated. And real artworks can be very time-consuming, according to Khun Khanchai, taking hours and sometimes days. But the results are usually worth waiting for.

Khun Khanchai hails from Songkla, a city in the south of Thailand. He trained as an apprentice and was one of those lucky people who find their vocation early on in life. You get the firm feeling with him that if nobody actually paid him to be a potter, he’d still be doing it as a hobby.

Samui has many ceramic shops but there are few potters who actually make their own products. At the back of his store, Khun Khanchai has a large, vibrant workshop, dominated by three kilns. They look a little like industrial ovens and squat high above all the finished products that have come out of them.

Unlike any normal oven you can’t just bake a single item inside. Khun Khanchai says, “The whole kiln needs to be filled; that’s how they work. So you need to plan out what you're going to put inside. If you have a proper production running, then everything works well, but without good organization everything can easily become messy – or should we say, goes to pot!”

Indeed. The process needs to be thought out rather carefully and this results in the workshop being geared up to produce many artifacts, all of which can be found in their various stages. But before anything can happen, the clay has to be perfect for the job. It may look flawless but inside there are many bubbles, which, if they are left, can damage the results. To get rid of the bubbles, the clay is put inside a special mill. This device looks much like an over-bloated mincemeat grinder. A large auger pushes everything through into waiting containers. The process has to be repeated four times. Now you're ready to begin.

If you want to give the clay a distinctive feature, such as a banana leaf pattern, this can simply be done by pressing a design onto the mass. You can use actual designs from nature, such as leaves or shells, or you can make your own. Either way, the results are distinctive. Anything circular in shape can be made on a wheel. If it’s a cube-shaped vase you're after, it’s impossible to spin: you'll first need a mould.

Once the basic shape is ready, it needs to dry. Not just for a couple of hours. But for an entire week. Afterwards, the products all go in the kiln. “It’s now that what we call the first firing takes place,” says Khun Khanchai. “The clay is heated to a temperature of 800° C. After this, it’s taken out and cooled for a day and then cleaned, dipped in glaze and sent a week later for its second firing, this time at 1,250° C. The entire process, from start to finish, from clay to ceramic artifact, takes three to four weeks.”

Khun Khanchai produces all manner of ceramics that he sells in his studio/shops to the general public but also works with resorts, spas and other businesses in Thailand. “Hotels give me the designs they require, or just a general idea,” he says. “I need to know what function the artifacts will have and perhaps the colour scheme of the rooms in which they will be used.”

This dynamic master potter also has his own range of more artistic products, created by constantly experimenting and coming up with fresh, creative designs. “I love to push myself,” he says, “and see just what can be created and how I can get my imagination to come up with something new. I don’t wait too long; I don’t over-think my ideas. I get on with them. Pottery is ideal for working in this way. You can see results quickly and, if something works, it’s clear straightaway.” He gives a shrug. “And of course the opposite is true: some ideas just don’t work out in practice, or something goes wrong, or the process needs to be changed. That’s just the way it is – no great loss. You can just start again, with fresh clay. All you’ve lost is a bit of time.”

Making pottery is a great alternative if you’re tired of trying to write a novel and it’s taking years. Try clay. You'll find it very satisfying. Perhaps it’s because it’s literally down to earth. You’re working with your hands and shapes emerge from them – it feels like magic.

Khun Khanchai is so passionate about his art that he teaches it – for free. “All I ask of people is that they finish the lessons,” he says. It’s difficult to see why anyone would want to give up. Once you sit down at the potter’s wheel and you feel the clay under your hands spinning and forming different shapes, it’s utterly hypnotizing. So what if you make a mistake and suddenly your whole pot goes wonky? You just start again on this very old, primordial process of making artifacts that improve life. And, who knows, the pot you make today may become the centerpiece of an archeological museum in a millennium or two. After all, ceramics have always been the hallmark of any civilization.

 


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