Triathlon training generally involves six days of exercise—two days a week for each sport. Over several months, even with the variation, the routine can become a bore. This particular day was a cycling day, and it would turn out to be one of the most memorable of any, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the actual ride.
The purpose of the ride was speed, so there weren’t to be any tough climbs in the scenic mountains; only a dull flat out burn through small towns and rice fields. The sun was baking. For an hour or so, my partner and I sped along until at last I heard the words I was itching to hear. “Let’s take a break.”
We were in Nantou County—central Taiwan. It’s a fairly mountainous county, tea farms abound. An offshoot of that industry, Pottery, is also popular in the area.
My partner said, “Let’s take a good long one. I know a guy here you ought to meet.”
I agreed, and we rode a short distance of the main rode to a large house with a terracotta roof. A small workshop was off to the side. My partner shouted out a greeting, and soon after a thin Taiwanese man with long curly hair popped his head out of the shop. Right off, he looked like an artist.
“This is Liao Hsi-Li. He is quite popular here in Taiwan.”
Hsi-Li spoke some English, but most of the conversation was translated. We sat there, Hsi-Li smoked cigarettes, we drank tea and listened to him describe his craft.
For most of his adult life he’d made his living making and selling pottery. He had gone to school for it, and established a reputation for his skill. For a long time he worked his craft in the traditional Taiwanese style. But seven or eight years ago he got bored.
“Traditionally, Pottery was a craft with practical purposes. Here in Taiwan there were craftsmen doing the work, but it wasn’t art” he said.
He, and some others, began to experiment; mixing traditional methods with his own influences from life and modern art. He started making art that you could use—“Practical art.” The traditionalist thought he was wasting his time.
At first they belittled the effort, but over time they realized that Hsi-Li was not only skillful, but innovative too. A “New Modern Pottery Art” trend began to spread.
His particular style involves using the old style keen and pure raw materials. His most famous works are made from a mixture that he invented—he calls it “Paper Clay.” And I am telling straight, from the look of it, you would think it was paper that had been crumbled up until it was cloth like, but to the touch it was as hard and sturdy as any I’ve come across.
“They thought this was a silly idea too,” he said, grinning as he pointed to his 2010 Taiwan Craft Competition award. He came in first with his new style. Some of his work is even on permanent display at the New Taipei City Ceramics Museum.
“Those same people are now teaching this technique in the art schools here,” he said.
Two hours later, as the impromptu studio tour was coming to an end, Hsi-Li handed me a small clay pot. It was dark and round. The top handle was made from a bit of tree limp. The sides of the pot had irregular indentions on either side.
“This is for you. It’s made out of clay from Sun Moon Lake.”
And then he said something that has served as food –for-thought ever since.
He said,” You see these indentions. Some people might see them as mistakes or flaws, but I put them there on purpose. And you see this top. It’s made from wood far up in the mountains. It is the only one in the world with this shape. Machines and factories can put out millions of perfect tea cups, but this piece is like us, you see, it’s unique. It’s imperfect…but beautiful.”
Yeah, I like that.
We readied for the ride back, said thank you and goodbye, and Hsi-Li welcomed us to come back anytime. His words and gift made for a quick and easy ride back and still serves as a reminder of the unexpected joys that lay and wait for you when you deviate from the set routine every now and again.