Shiyuan Xu

Sculptor with deep appreciation of micro world


Photos: Peter Ronan/ Guy Nicol

What is your family like?

My family lives in Hangzhou, China, and my parents are both middle school teachers. I was born in the age of the only-child policy, so I often wished I could have had siblings to play with during my childhood. My parents are hardworking people; my dad is a mathematics teacher, and my mom is a history teacher. A childhood memory of mine is that of dad solving math problems and mom preparing lesson plans at home.

Many Asian parents believe that education can lead to a bright future, especially both of my parents, because they worked in education. They were pretty strict with me and often debated what is best for my education.

I vividly remembered my schedule as extremely full. Besides my regular lessons, my extracurricular activities included Chinese Literature, Oral English, Chemistry, Physics, and various art classes. I also and learned how to play the Ruan, a traditional Chinese string instrument. Their ambition was for me to go to a good college, have a respectful job, and make good money.

My dad is a reserved person, but despite his demeanor, he is where I get the majority of my artistic genes. His calligraphy is beautiful and he is good at sketching. I remember when I was little, he would doodle animals on paper and show me his creations. I started to copy his “perfect” drawings, and art has been a key aspect of my life for as long as I can remember.

It isn’t fun to grow up with teachers as parents. It was especially hard because I went to the middle school where my dad teaches. He valued grades more than anything else and was often upset when I didn’t meet his standards. Luckily, my family is like a bad cop, good cop situation. My mom gives me more freedom, encouragement, and supports me to explore the world. She would take me to my cousin’s house in the suburbs of Hangzhou in the summer. Different from my upbringing in the city, my cousin had ample space and grew tea plants. We often walked through the bamboo forest, hiked up small hills, and crossed shallow streams.

What has been the art culture that you are trying to bring overseas?

The very first studio visit and critique I had in grad school were with a visiting artist who is active in the contemporary art world and renowned for her large-scale installations. She commented that I was too respectful with the material. This comment was very unexpected because my art training in China was very technical and material-based. I was taught to make things as ‘perfect’ as I possibly could and respect the medium.

My grad school practice pushed me to be more experimental and spontaneous with ceramics materials, explore other media, and consider new ideas and concepts. Craftsmanship has always been an integral part of my artistic practice, which is a different perspective than some of the art I’ve experienced here in the United States. I cherish the labor and time I spend on each piece.

Porcelain has a long and complex history in China. Chinese porcelain pieces were as precious as gold when it arrived in Europe in the 16th Century. This rich history of porcelain is part of my identity. This is one reason why I insist on using porcelain to create my work and choose a blue and white palette - based on the classic Chinese Qinghua patterns well known in the West - to finish my pieces. I interpret my culture with a contemporary approach to porcelain, honoring my Chinese heritage while providing a fresh perspective internationally.

Can you walk us through the process of your work?

I love porcelain! I am infatuated with its pure whiteness and glassy/translucence quality, but there is a love/hate relationship when it comes to making my sculptures. My work is very complicated, often with hundreds of joints. Porcelain is notorious for its lack of physical strength and structure and tends to crack. During a workshop with artist Rebecca Hutchinson, I learned how to work with paper clay. When paper fiber is added to clay, it increases the clay body’s workability and improves the aforementioned cracking issues. So, my first step is to mix and prepare paper clay.

I mainly use flat strips of clay known as “slabs” to construct my sculpture. I roll out a big slab and then cut it down into smaller size pieces with a pair of scissors. I then connect and attach the slabs to create an organic form. The structure grows naturally during my making process. It’s like figuring out a mind-boggling 3D puzzle. It requires the utmost patience when working with clay, and timing is critical. Clay doesn’t like to be pushed or forced. If you stress out the clay, it will come back to bite you later on. After a piece is built, it takes quite a while to let it dry before it’s ready for the first firing. Then I will go through a long process to glaze the body of work. Sometimes, one-piece can be fired up to ten times.

I use a textured glaze for the surface to get a very organic look. I spray one layer of the glaze on the piece and then use a knife to scratch the edge off, revealing the middle’s raw clay line. The textured glaze surface accumulates after each firing, and I start the process over and over again until I feel the sculpture is finished. People usually don’t know how time-consuming my process is. Now, I can tell you that it takes a couple of weeks to make one piece from beginning to end. When I think of an organism - it is slow to grow in size and form – that is why my work will take time and energy to make.

Where do you draw your inspiration from? What are you trying to pass down as an artist?

Nature has always been my primary inspiration. I am curious about the world that surrounds us and want to understand it better. Growing up in Hangzhou, my life was surrounded by the famous West Lake. The joyful memory of exploring fields near my auntie’s house made me have a deep connection to the natural world. Before I moved to the States, I visited many landscapes in China. During my grad school in Arizona, I explored the amazing landscapes in the American Southwest. When I take a break from the studio, National Parks are my favorite places to go to. These monumental parks make me realize how tiny human beings actually are.

As far as the inspiration for my work, I look into the microscopic world. The book ‘Seeds: Time Capsules of Life’ by professor Rob Kessler and Wolfgang Stuppy caught my attention in my early art career. It is a publication about scanning electron images of various seeds from the Seed Bank at The Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, UK. I was truly amazed by the beauty and sophistication of such tiny organisms. This alternative perspective of the natural world has fascinated me. You can recognize the similar patterns, structures, textures in both the Micro and the Marco perspectives.

Eventually, I started my own research related to the microscopic, collecting magnified images of organisms ranging from seeds, single-celled organisms in the ocean, and cells - the building blocks of all life forms. I am particularly curious about their structures and how they grow and respond to internal and external forces. It is the movement, time, and space that determines the way they form. They react to the surrounding environment by altering, evolving, and adapting to generate infinite new structures.

As an artist, I reflect on my understanding of how I sense the world through my sculptures. I want to create timeless artwork to activate people’s curiosity and to lighten their hearts. Beauty is the entry point of my work, and I hope to pass down an awareness of the intricacy and fragility of the hidden world. Those micro life forms are fragile yet strong, simple yet complex. The power of the micro-world is particularly evident in the current COVID-19 pandemic. One microscopic virus has completely altered the way we will live for the foreseeable future.

What led you to become an artist?

When I was a kid, I never thought I would become an artist. Long story short - I became an artist somewhat by accident. I wanted to study architecture or design for my undergraduate but ended up in the Ceramics Department. In the school’s catalog, Ceramics Department was named ‘Ceramic Design,’ which made me assume the courses were more related to design than ceramics. The first year at China Academy of Art was foundational, and I learned basic art and design principles. I finally found out it was a fine art course until I started my sophomore year in the Ceramics Department.

During my undergraduate, I gradually understood that clay is an earthy, flexible, and permanent material, and I can create anything out of it. I enjoyed my long studio hours working with clay and wanted to explore more, so I decided to go to Grad school in the US, where my peers focused on developing their own methodology of practice, experiments, and concepts and try to complete new bodies of work. That hardworking energy carried on after I graduated. I was determined to keep my studio practice and to continue developing my work. My professors in grad school, Susan Beiner, Kurt Weiser, and Sam Chung, are major role models in my life. They are also active professional artists and educators. I gradually became a professional artist without fully knowing it.

It is a challenge to be a professional artist, especially coming from a totally different cultural background. My parents know little about the art world. When I made my mind to go to art school, it made my parents nervous. When I chose to move to the US for my further study, it almost gave them a heart attack. What they have envisioned for my life totally changed in a new direction when I started my career as a professional artist. My parents reckoned that being an artist was an unstable and poor profession - which turned out to be more real than I wanted to believe when I first started my art career.

However, I am so lucky as I have made lots of friends while participating in various artist residency programs across the country. I have received tremendous encouragement and help from the people I met along the way. I guess, in my own way, I want to prove to my parents and friends that I am doing alright. My daily routine is as simple as going to the studio and to work on my pieces. I am still madly in love with clay since I first worked with this material ten years ago.