From Dirt to Masterpiece,
Ceramics that Tell Stories.
Jirawong Wongtrangan is an artisan potter who started to sell his ceramic art pieces after graduating from university.
He transformed his house in Chiang Mai into In Clay Studio, the perfect shady green space in which to continue his passion
and 12 subsequent years of craftwork.
The Secret of Clay
“Each clay is unique, so I design each piece using different mixing techniques and clays that produce different colors, combining them into a pattern to make one piece.”
Jirawong said the name of In Clay came from the Thai words “nai”, meaning inside, and “din”, meaning soil or clay.
Its meaning can be interpreted as “something hidden in the clay,” he said.
Each local clay is different, whether in its color, feel or properties like heat resistance and reaction to ceramic coatings. Each clay brings different results.
Jirawong mainly uses clays he mixes himself from Chiang Mai and Lampang, and glazes he produces himself using his own processes developed through experimentation, innovation and experience. Some clays are special, he says, but they may not be heat-tolerant, or sometimes clay from a particular source runs out and he must turn to other sources. At one time, this type of ceramic ware was not so popular. “I slowly experimented with clay mixes, finding out what kind of clays were compatible and whether they would mix and harmonize or burn and crack.” In the end he developed two types of jigsaw ceramic sheets. One has a pattern mixed with colored pigments, while the other leaves clays in separate layers, using their natural colors. “It is such a fun challenge when all I can see is dull and earthy clay with undefined and uncontrollable patterns. Only when I open the kiln after firing will I know the result.”
The Art of Creation
Once the clay has been prepared in the mill, it will be kneaded together and then shaped, whether by hand, on a potter’s wheel or by intrusion into a mold. It depends on design and aptitude. Once the shape of the ceramic piece has been created,
it can be further customized by adjusting the base, by stenciling or adding more textures. Then, pieces are left to dry in the shade for 2–3 days to avoid letting the clay dry too quickly. High temperatures can cause clays to shrink too quickly and break easily.
In Clay Studio has both wood and gas kilns. Ceramic work must be fired twice. Firstly at 800 degrees Celsius for 6–8 hours.
The fired piece known as a biscuit will retain its shape, its bright orange porous texture absorbing water easily. The biscuit is
then coated with glaze either by dipping into the glaze, pouring the glaze over the piece or applying it with a brush.
The ceramic glaze basically contains silica, which looks like finely ground glass powder mixed with water. When the biscuit
is fired at 1,260 degrees Celsius for 10–12 hours in the second firing, the glaze should coat uniformly and have a shiny texture unless the glaze mixture has been changed to make the work either shinier or semi-matte. “The glazes I mix undergo a variety of refinements. What creates the colors are the clay’s pigments, natural substances such as ‘ash’ that turns to Celadon-green or a mixture of synthetic colors. Sometimes experimentation can render a color that is unusual,” he said. The ceramic artifact will be ready after the second firing.
In Clay’s products are either made for the studio or made-to-order. After he became better known to Thais and foreigners
who go to the walking street fairs in Chiang Mai, Jirawong decided to open his studio to those interested in making pottery.
“We get most of our clients through word of mouth. Over 70 percent of the people who visit here are foreigners. As most of our products are table wares, much of our work appears in restaurants that want to stand out. This is because our products are uniquely different in mood and tone.”
The ceramics wares are simple, contemporary and embody Lanna culture through either the materials used, such as clay from the north, or the inherited knowledge of ceramic making using shapes inspired by nature.
“I made a set of wares for a Thai restaurant emphasizing Thainess, making them look like lotus leaves lacquered and coated with Celadon-green glaze and giving them a sandy-style texture.”
Jirawong plans to release a new collection at least once a year. But finding inspiration from different materials, colors and textures requires lots of thought and time, he said, adding that he spends quite a lot of time producing ceramics for customers while also exhorting his team to make sure that every piece meets his standard.
When the COVID-19 pandemic brought workshop activities to a halt, he turned to online channels such as, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to draw in new customers from among local people and university students living in Chiang Mai. “With the recovery of travel, we are seeing that most of our visitors are people who want to do more than just visit attractions. Crafting
is one of the activities they look for.”
Molding it Together
Jirawong sees his craft as a heritage of knowledge that must be passed on to future generations and to those who are
interested, just as he himself was once taught how to make ceramics.
“Crafting has become mainstream. As a craftsman, I must not only create artworks but should also match them to both my customers’ lifestyle and my culture.”
“Studying at university gave me perspective and a conceptual framework, but I continued to learn on my own through books and the internet. I believe that what will make us unique depends on the efforts each one of us makes.”
“Spending time in workshop activities has created a community of craftsmen who did not knew each other before. Now they get along well, together turning clods of clay into ceramic works of art.”