Jean Girel, the Taoist inner smile

Some time ago, while out walking behind the house, the child spotted a small bulge in the rock, halfway up the cliff. With all the excitement of a 10 year old, he immediately sensed it was the ideal hidey hole. Sitting there, he looked down far into the distance over the Isère Valley, which stretched out like a green sea to the Belledonne Mountains. Everything was open here, he felt welcomed and protected. Here, he could dream in peace of living things. When the sun went down, the landscape was ablaze and his heart was filled with a jubilation he couldn't begin to describe.
Jean Girel's story started on this small platform where, for hours on end, nature taught him to commune with it. He contemplated it while, unbeknown to him, nature was sealing his destiny. It was decided: Jean would join the tribe of the enthralled.

Half a century later, Jean Girel is still just as enthralled. You can see it in his sparkling eyes and in that imperceptible smile which hovers around his mouth when he speaks. His enthralment remains, with just one notable difference: it endures, knowing what the child did not know; it endures in spite of sober reflection.

Jean Girel is not in vogue and never will be. He is not interested by his own personal story, but by the earth that he works. His pieces have nothing to say about the world's latest ups and downs. Not that he's uninterested in them, it's just that this is not what he's here to do. He's never felt the need to express himself and that's why, in 1975, when he was almost 30, he abandoned his career as a promising painter without a moment's hesitation to concentrate fully on his initial vocation of potter. Deep down, the only thing he wants to share is the beauty he sees in real life. So what better discipline could there be to discover real life than ceramics, which involves working directly with the elements?

Nature is perpetual alchemy. In the giant kiln of reality it assembles, mixes, matures and transforms, across all timescales, from mineral to man. Sometimes it decides on a whim to create a snakeskin vase in high-speed mode: to do this, it uses some zealous inventor completely devoted to its cause – in this case, Girel.

Jean Girel moves forward, his hands and spirit free. Unlike Picasso, he does not find: he searches. If you want to move forward, there is nothing quite like returning to the sources. When only 12/13 years old, in their primary school pottery workshop, Jean and his brother Alain took advantage of the teacher's absence to try and raise the temperature of the kiln higher and higher, risking disaster. They felt that the temperature 'would improve the quality'. In their parents' garage, which was quickly converted into a workshop using materials salvaged from a potter in Pontcharra, they tested their enthusiasm on earthenware, but it was stoneware, flame effects, enamel work and the materials that fascinated the young Jean. So it was logical that he should find himself, many years later, irresistibly drawn to the pinnacle of Chinese ceramics – that of the Song era. So much so that he has become the renowned expert on it we know today, and has a book about it in the pipeline (La céramique Song ou l’art des cinq éléments, synthèse de trente ans de recherches et d’expériences sur le sujet / Song ceramics or the art of the five elements, a summary of 30 years of research and experience on the subject).

Song ceramics, like Decoeur's pieces, have this 'sheen', with a sensuality that draws the eye and the hand to them. Neither gloss (too cold), nor mat (too harsh), generate such a strong urge to touch them. With his characteristic determined enthusiasm, Jean Girel is in search of that 'interior light' which he wants to see shine on his own pieces. Not like a skin added on top but in the surface itself, revealing the water, earth and sky all together in an alliance which melts the eye and invites the hand to touch it. The smoothness of antique jade, the round, damp mist, which captures in its filter so many dreamy images – he will certainly obtain it, even if he has to open the door of his kiln mid-firing to blow water into it. In 2003 Taiwan's Ministry of Culture invited him to participate in a film presenting the extraordinary ceramics collections of the National Palace Museum in Taipei. At the end of his residency, the 11 enamelled porcelain bowls with celadon glazes ranging from bronze to jade that he presented there were intended as a 'homage to the art of China and to the four elements that make up the universe'. The museum in turn paid its own homage to him by acquiring all of the pieces – the only contemporary ceramics permanently on display in its galleries today.

Jean Girel became even more tenacious in his quest to discover the delicate mysteries of Chinese ceramics. Nobody has been able to find out the secret of the hare's fur effect, lost since its manufacture was brutally stopped in the 13th century? What then? The recipe was in Girel himself: a base of curiosity, lots of observation, a reserve of patience, a supple mix of obstinacy and openness, a dash of impertinence and a heavy dose of endurance which allows him, like any scientist, to keep going and never give up. All gently heated on the fire of intuition which, one day, on the bank of a torrent in his native Savoy, would generate a great spark of understanding.

'A storm broke out, so I had to find shelter on the edge of a stream. I watched the water swell beneath the pounding rain when, after a while, I noticed that it was changing in nature: transparent and pure to begin with, it had become troubled, bringing with it lots of sand, earth and pebbles, ripped from the mountain by the storm.' Which made him think of the hare's fur glazes he had been working like mad to reproduce for some time – there was just one mental hurdle that he leapt over straight away… If the glazes remained infusible, it was probably because, just like the torrent, the porous shard was absorbing part of the enamel, which itself, when poured, had to bring with it part of the shard, and this exchange distorted the final analyses. So all you had to do was take the components of the glaze and deduct 50% of the elements that made up the shard to find the properties of the original formula. And he was right! Unconsciously connecting the results of experiences you've had, establishing the links and relationships – that's intuition. So long as you walk the tightrope with your mind alert, with confidence, and with no fear of falling.

Like a true Taoist, Jean Girel stays close to reality, and constantly questions it: in his kiln, by incessantly experimenting 'for real', with life-sized pieces, even if it means crushing them afterwards – which often happens!; and outdoors, by surveying the forest behind his house in Burgundy, inspecting the garden before everything else each morning, 'to see what's happened during the night'; or by actually climbing volcanoes, as he did a great deal on Réunion, studying there, among other things, the influence of water on the fusion of the lava. And then there are books, which he scours in depth. Not books about ceramics, which teach you so little, but books about physics, chemistry, mineralogy, geology, architecture, poetry and painting, not forgetting how-to cookbooks, so long as the mastery of mayonnaise or caramel has plenty of information to offer the apprentice sorcerer-ceramicist which can be applied in his workshop. 'I found the key to iridescence for my hare's fur bowls by consulting a book on butterflies: it's the decomposition of light effect on a certain arrangement of the substance that creates the colour of the butterfly's wing. To obtain it I had to smoke fire the iron, in an atmosphere of intense reduction, until it reached a particular state which had to be retained by fixing it immediately.' Having decided for sure to decrease the temperature of his kiln by 200 degrees in a matter of seconds, Jean Girel repurposed a vacuum cleaner so he could blow cold air into it. Not only was this the right thing to do, he also obtained a rainbow of colours on his bowls: black, grey, blue, purple and pink. All of them had the same glaze, with natural light revealing their nuances: only the speed of their cooling varied.

Between the innate and the acquired, carried by the flow of life, the earth, like us humans, forges its own unique path which leads it to behave in a unique way. So the initial elements are changed by their environment, to the extent that two feldspaths of similar composition, with different pasts, may give two completely opposite results. Most of the rocks in the world come from the same magma: only the history of their cooling will turn them into pink granite or black obsidian. This is where the recipes end and, for the ceramicist tempted by adventure, the exploration of rocks and their nature begins. In the Château workshop, the dozens of buckets filled with raw materials make up the ever more enriched palette from which Jean Girel creates his clay – usually porcelain – and his countless glazes. Apart from the constant presence of lime and dolomite, and regular use of silica from Vaucluse and kaolin from  the Allier, everything else changes from one work to the next. And is subjected to the stages necessary for the goal sought – sifting, grinding, settling, shaping, levigation – by means of the numerous, slightly enigmatic tools which occupy a workshop.

You could spend hours listening to Jean Girel, following him from the door of his 17th kiln to his garden pond, stopping off to visit his apple trees – 43 varieties no less! – or his library. He may well have flushed out hare's fur from its hiding place, traced the course of celadon to its blue source (which he changed to pink!), or disgorged the bloody red of copper in the footsteps of Chaplet and Dalpayrat, but it is not the molecular formulae he is pursuing: rather, it is the extravagant intelligence of the world. Girel honestly recognises the miracle of it: aren't the spirals in all shells built according to the golden ratio?

Strolling around the environs of the former tilery below his house he picks up a handful of clay from the ground, explaining that it goes into the clay he makes locally, before deftly catching a tiny yellow-bellied toad, a sign of the excellent biotope in this area. He recently came across a beautifully illustrated book containing photos of batrachians from all over the world. The garland of spotted frogs with the bright colours of precious stones, each more colourful than the one before, was bound to titillate his researcher's appetite. Therefore, having given free rein to his passion for the paintings of Flemish artist Joachim Patinir – which he has thrown indiscriminately into the clay of captivating landscapes – he went back to one of the main themes of his work, on the inventive whims of nature: namely, his bestiary.

How do you not imitate but suggest the callused roughness of elephant hide or the sinuous viscosity of a lizard on a ceramic box, bowl or dish? In other words, how do you translate into minerals what animals make organically? It is on this playing field that the ceramicist's approach blossoms in the most creative manner. Behind the phenomena he observes intensely, Jean Girel is seeking to discover the law that governs them, in order to attempt to translate them ‘ceramically'. What substance produces the appearance? Ultimately, his ambition is that modest: to learn to juggle with the alphabet of the universe.

'Let's see, let's see, Merlin would say while leaning over his magic cauldron, if the drop of water moves like a pearl without breaking on the lotus leaf it must be because the lotus leaf's hydrophobia prevents it from doing so. Therefore, if I find a glaze that behaves in the same way as the lotus leaf, and I place a very colloidal enamel over it, it follows that I will obtain a strong tension which will cause it to retract into beads – interesting! Yes, that's it exactly!' And if the kiln had been opened at a different time, what would have seemed like a lamentable error this time reveals itself to be the gateway to a wide range of surfaces dotted in relief. After mastering leopard-skin or giraffe skin, toad skin or tortoiseshell is next!

Sometimes the fortuitous discovery of a material effect sets Jean Girel on a new path. The beauty of ceramics is that you learn through 'mistakes'. From celadons to the flambés of the 1900s, its history is full of findings as pertinent as they were unintended. It's difficult to work in a laboratory without establishing some benchmarks: quickly written notes on tests, results, and the smallest details of the firings (Girel fires at between xxx and 1,300° in a kiln powered by a gas of his own composition, the hinged door of which can be opened at any time)… everything is carefully recorded in various notebooks. Some page numbers are then recorded in a central alphabetised handbook in which each theme (celadons, animals, etc) is constantly added to with the latest data.

Jean Girel's formal repertoire is based around the container and has never lost the memory of a function, whether practical or symbolic. His bowls, as he puts it so nicely in La Sagesse du potier (The Wisdom of the Potter)*, 'are the garden, the valley, the lake, on the table in your home'. A bowl, which brings both hands together spontaneously, evokes both communion and welcome. But it is the boxes that excite his imagination the most: in recent years, like his bowls, his boxes have gained in exuberance and freedom. When they are not soaring in height, they cover a broad base topped with a lid of the same size. In the sacred antrum of their feminine mould is the emptiness that contains everything.

The contents of the bestiary, thrown on a Japanese wheel – silent enough not to trouble Mozart's ear – are sometimes decorated with a miniature model of the animal evoked. Its presence, always discreet, underscores the subject while serving as something you can hold onto. Thus, in his latest creations, inspired by rain drums, the small dimensions of the frogs contribute to the monumentality of the ensemble, and their position in a circle on the lid evokes the idea of the wheel.

The advantage that the work of this ceramicist has is that every day it benefits from a 'strategy of experience' that has been developed continuously over 40 years. Jean Girel spends his time disregarding his immense body of knowledge. Each new sequence becomes an opportunity to deepen and link, but also to shake up the protocols he has acquired. For his exhibition on the theme of the Bestiary at the Pierre Marie Giraud Gallery he has piled on the risks and challenges, spent a nightmarish summer sorting out a host of technical problems, been through a thousand cold sweats, broken most of his work, but come out with some 30 impeccable pieces: in porcelain, some bowls in subtle alabaster or onyx shades (Egyptian stone toilet vessels have always inspired him); a huge bowl with blue-green peacocks with an iridescent black heart dotted with eyes; a few vases inspired by lapwings and pied woodpeckers; some majestic frog boxes and some alluring salamander boxes; and in black clay, an assemblage of small pieces decorated with insects – grasshoppers, but also cetoniae and other scintillating beetles.

Jean Girel's quest is, first and foremost, to find a way of envisaging the world. The next wood-burning kiln he is preparing to build will, for once and for all, do away with the misapprehension that kilns devour forests. It's a way of passing on to future generations the keys to tackling ceramics in a manner that is simple, not harmful and, above all, free. With Girel, his concern for ecology is not a pretension, but the obvious response to his awareness of belonging to a greater whole. Each parcel of his new house was worked out according to bioclimatic principles, and his blooming garden is the convincing result of biodynamics. 'To make something highly refined while being extremely economical with resources': this is what spurs him on in every sphere. This has led him recently to re-read a swathe of enlightened visionaries from the last century, whose voices have not been heard enough.

The pleasure that these works provide is not solely due to the extreme quality of their manufacture, the visual enchantment of their glaze, or the softness of the caresses they suggest. It is due to the exhilarating sound produced when spirit and material meet, when one awakens the other, and vice versa, in a loving dialogue which slowly turns lead into gold.
As Elisée Reclus so rightly said, 'Man is nature becoming conscious of itself'.
It's this consciousness that illuminates the flame in Girel's eyes. In the perpetual workshop of the world, each story will one day return to the earth. That's the fate that awaits us all, enthralled or not. But for Girel, with joy and shards as well.
Pascale Nobécourt

(La Sagesse du potier, essay, Ed. Œil neuf, 2006)