The Mekong Delta's pottery pioneers

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A set of Dong Gia brand tableware produced by François Jarlov the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang

Before François Jarlov and his Vietnamese wife embarked on their ambitious journey, ceramics had never been a specialty of the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang.

Local people have always believed the province's alkaline soil made crafting ceramics inconvenient at best. Old-timers did not believe it when the 53-year-old announced his intentions to make pottery with the local soil several years ago.

Now Jarlov has been exporting large number of his Dong Gia (Eastern home) brand tea sets, plates, bowls and vases, since first exhibiting his handy work in 2010. He processes on the soil from his wife's hometown, using knowledge he learned when he worked in the southeastern region of France where he grew up, Tuoi Tre reported.

The artisan calls his success "miraculous."

Jarlov first visited Vietnam in 2000 via a program organized by L'Espace, a French culture and language center in Hanoi.

He was invited to give lectures at the Hanoi University of Fine Arts on the techniques used to make Raku ware, a type of traditional pottery used in Japanese tea ceremonies.

Little did he know that four years later he would be giving talks on his own fine art products at Ho Chi Minh City's Institute for Culture Exchange with France (IDECAF) and the city History Museum.

He published a book the same year about Vietnamese culture and history, as seen through the eyes of the young Vietnamese he observed on his travels through the country, which included Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City.

A collection of real stories accompanied by Jarlov's photos and paintings, "Duoi bong Rong xanh" "Sous le signe du Dragon Bleu" (Under the sign of the Blue Dragon) was published in both French and Vietnamese.

Jarlov told Tuoi Tre he was inspired by the folklore which says that the Vietnamese people were spawned by a dragon father and a fairy mother.

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Phan Thi Thuy Mai, who was working in the art business at the time, met Jarlov during an exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City. 

They became friends and began working together, taking trips across Vietnam and neighboring countries like Cambodia.

After the wedding, the couple moved to France, setting up a pottery barn and holding exhibitions and training courses in various cities in Europe and Asia.

But after a couple years, they wondered if they could develop a ceramics brand in Vietnam that could be promoted worldwide.

"He told me he wanted to tell the story of the Vietnamese people by making ceramics and displaying it in international settings and I agreed," Mai told Tuoi Tre.

The woman said that she knew nothing about pottery before meeting Jarlov, but that he has passed his passion on to her.

They visited pottery villages across the country selecting soil, enamel and building kilns for their products.

But the couple ran into trouble trying to use Vietnamese material for glaze, as the country's artisans learn their trade via family secrets passed down from generation to generation. There were no written records regarding the composition of ingredients.

It took them nearly two years to acquire the villagers' skills, during which time they also visited fine arts museums and ancient temples and pagodas to see and touch Vietnamese pottery made up to a thousand years ago.

Jarlov said the arduous process only increased his love for Vietnamese pottery and despite the fact that Tien Giang was a no man's land as far as pottery was concerned, he nonetheless chose his wife's hometown to begin their long-awaited project.

The pottery pioneers struggled at first. Most equipment had to be brought in from France and the Bat Trang pottery village in Hanoi. 

But the biggest difficulty was Tien Giang's soil, most of which is not conducive to producing pottery.

They had to try endless combinations of soil and Vietnamese and French enamels to find one which could sustain high temperature of 1,300 degrees Celsius.

Jarlov told Vietweek he only attempts to make the glaze like those of the past. Jarlov does not use nouveau chemicals. "We only mix stone, clay and oxide powder," he said.

 
The family of Francois Jarlov and Thuy Mai. Photo courtesy of Tan Duc/Tuoi Tre

As Jarlov explained, making pottery demands precision in every step of the process, and tremendous patience.

After a long period of trial and error, Jarlov was ready to mesh the knowledge he learned in his nearly 30 years of experience attending exhibitions and conferences in countries such as France, Italy, China, Japan and Thailand, where ceramics are highly popular.

The first products utilized Vietnamese shapes and colors with international twists added to make them more impressive and practical.

To design a teacup, for example, Jarlov said it took him five or seven attempts before he managed to give life to one.

"People's eyes are not supposed to just slip over it (the pottery) with just a glance. They should have to stop and associate it with something meaningful. That is the soul of the product."

Jarlov said many artisans and customers like his products, as they're interested in how his life's story is contained in his work.

"Objects can tell stories," he explained.

He said that kind of soul has to go with practicality.

"The clay body needs to be thick enough to contain boiling tea and not cause the person holding it to be scalded. The cup's height, the width of its body and mouth need to be proper so the water does not spill when the cup is lifted.

"And the colors need to suit market trends."

Jarlov said a beautiful piece of pottery is like a beautiful woman, who must possess beautiful form and skin.

"Form is shaped by the bone-dry process (when the clay is dried before being burned in the kiln), and skin is the color of the enamel."

The couple's house at 342B Thien Chi Street, Vinh Binh Town, Go Cong Tay District, has been designed to showcase Jarlov's pottery.

It also has a laboratory for Jarlov to experiment with different kinds of enamels, soil, a pottery wheel and a small kiln.

Jarlov and Mai are currently investing in machines and developing human resources to meet demand, which is only increasing as they have brought Dong Gia pottery to major exhibitions throughout southern Vietnam and France, to which Jarlov remains deeply connected.

"No one was ever seen doing pottery in this land, and no one has thought about it either," said Nguyen Van Dep, a district official in Tien Giang.

"So Jarlov's work means a lot."

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