寶島, BaoDao, Treasure Island, is where I first met Evan Shaw, more than thirty years after he’d left the United States to study meditation in India. In 1974, one could still travel from Western Europe through Iran into the Middle East to the Far East without obstruction. Evan stayed in India for a little over a year before answering the call to go further east. His continued travels took him throughout Asia to Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and eventually, Taiwan, where he settled.
Like so many of us who come to Taiwan for a short vacation or for our work and to build a life, Evan told me he was charmed by this beautiful island’s subtleties, its majestic landscapes and dynamic culture. About the same time as he began putting down roots with his wife, Hsiao Chen, he discovered tea born of traditional farming methods — grown without pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. With tea culture becoming an increasingly important part of his daily life, Evan began studying traditional pottery technique with a Taiwanese potter in SanZi. As his skills developed — through continued practice, visits to other potters within Taiwan, and on trips to Japan and Korea — his craft grew into an art.
Aside from Evan’s skill in making Wabisabi-style vessels, his work is distinguished by the unrefined Miaoli clay that he uses. Its chunks of minerals give his pieces their signature character, as if a few grains of rice, a pearl, and various unpolished gem stones had unexpectedly made their way into the bisques. The natural beauty of the material is further heightened by the firing process. Evan explained that for decades now, he has used a wood-fired kiln, bringing his pottery into the world through a process similar to the process ‘Raku’ — Japanese for “enjoyment, happiness, or pleasure.”
There are two important distinctions to note here which Evan is quick to point out, firstly, even though his work is similar to the Raku process from Japan it is a term that should be reserved for work made by a potter from the Raku family dynasty. Secondly, his work should not be confused with a style of pottery in the West known as Raku which, “imitates the original Japanese technique but that involves glazing and relatively low temperature (not usually wood fired) firing.” But like the process from Japan, Evan often fires his pieces for as long as ten days at temperatures as high as 1250-1300 degrees centigrade. Heat from the flames acts as a sort of paint brush during the Raku firing process. Ash from the burning wood is heated to an extent that when it settles on the pottery it leaves lines illustrating the path the flames took. Depending on the temperature of the flames, the ash takes on different hues and forms a natural glaze, giving each piece a unique appearance. It is also important that only some of the ceramics that go into the flames make it out in one piece. Many pieces are destroyed by the firing process — perhaps we could say that aspects of this technique require one, ‘to invest in loss’.
Visiting with Evan in the pristine countryside of northern Taiwan, where he lives and works, it’s easy to see how his relationship with the surrounding mountains informs the fullness of his pottery. It brings to mind something he wrote in a piece to introduce us to his work entitled “Empty Pots.” In the introduction, he says:
Ultimately, ‘empty’ means empty of self, empty of any permanent identity. A potter turns mud into stone; strangely, fired clay is so strong, yet so fragile. If left alone, it should last indefinitely, but it beckons our touch, and the fact is, it might shatter at any moment: at any stage in its existence from mud to form to fire to our hands, it might be lost forever. When we find a pot is beautiful, and in our interaction with it, we are also being gently reminded to reflect on the true nature of beauty and the reality of impermanence of all things.