Porcelain portraits
Jinah China breaks the traditional ceramic mold

by Kinsee Morlan

The craftsmanship of a piece by Jinah China is nearly flawless, but the characters that cover the porcelain vases, cups and other functional works are quite the opposite. Flabby, contorted and downright weird caricatures of the human form twist and turn within their ceramic canvas. Most of the characters seem happy to be there – dreaming inside the comfort of a warm bathtub or proudly propped-up to flaunt their rather imperfect body parts.

The alias, “Jinah China,” is a blend of the first names of the two 24-year-olds behind it, Micah Bell and Jonah Skurky-Thomas, but the phonetic closeness of “Jinah” to the word “vagina” is no innocent mistake. The name is an introduction; a tongue-in-cheek handshake that greets newcomers with the sort of humor they’ll eventually see in the duo’s body of work.

“It’s appropriate to our work if you’ve seen our work,” explains Skurky-Thomas. “We like to play with the human form – bodies and sort of the human animal – and it opens up a playful market to us, too, because people go into our work expecting something maybe more humorous than if we were just us.”

“Just us” is a pair of pretty remarkable, fresh-faced young artists who look as happy and excited to be covered in porcelain powder in their modest self-built studio as most kids their age look when out on the town on a Friday night. They love explaining their work, talking about their somewhat painstaking process and watching people’s faces as they discover the quirky surprises hidden within the carved lines of the images.

And when the two talk about how their artwork truly is a collaborative effort, it’s impossible not to believe them. Take, for example, their habit of helping each other finish a thought:

“I’d say our work is sort of a melding of contemporary porcelain design and. . .” Skurky-Thomas pauses for a moment so Bell can fill in. “Traditional form – functional, utilitarian forms. . .” It’s then Bell’s turn to pause so that Skurky-Thomas can complete the sentence. “And then we just slap a little bit of humor on the outside,” he finishes with a bit of a giggle.

Skurky-Thomas is a hyperactive, live-in-the-moment type of guy while Bell is more organized and able to step back and look at the bigger picture. On an operational level, it works out well, because when Skurky-Thomas gets lost in a drawing and forgets about the kiln, Bell steps in and makes sure they stay on track. On the creative side of things, Skurky-Thomas is the guy who does the drawing, but Bell is always right by his side.

“It’s both of us, all the way through,” says Skurky-Thomas. “I’m the only one putting my hand down on the paper for the imagery, but we work it out and talk while we’re doing the work. So, she’ll be like, ‘Oh, make his hands bigger,’ or ‘Oh, you know, it’d be funny if you gave her one saggy boob.’”

Funny-looking saggy boobs do saturate Jinah China’s portfolio, but the seriousness of their work comes into play during the crafting of a piece. The technique they use is called slipcasting, and after making multiple molds of one piece for layering purposes, they use a needle to carve out the designs.

“We’ll get a positive, like a mason jar,” explains Bell, “and we’ll make a plaster mold of the mason jar. The plaster is super absorbent so it sucks out the water so we use a liquid clay that’s 25 percent water. And you pour the liquid clay into the mold, and then the plaster absorbs the water and leaves the clay like a ceramic shell. Then you just have an exact replica of whatever you cast. So what we do is take layers of dyed porcelain and we’ll pour in different layers so the exterior will be white and the interior will be black or blue, and then we carve through the exterior color to get to the under-layer and create an image.”

“It starts out with just a form,” adds Skurky-Thomas, taking out a tiny needle, “and we use just a needle and carve like that.” So it’s just painstaking time and we’ve had a lot of artists tell us better ways to do this, but I guess we like to torture ourselves. But we really like the fact that, at the end of our process, a lot of our pieces don’t have a glaze on them and they’re just the raw porcelain. We hand sand them until they’re buffed and shiny and that’s not something a lot of artists do. It’s a technique we really like and it’s funny; it’s mostly because we both hate glaze.”

Glaze, as the pair explains it, is risky. Skurky-Thomas retrieved the first piece the couple ever made together. It was cracked into pieces due to a mishap during the glazing process. The two say they hate getting a piece just the way they envision, then covering it in a glaze that can crack, bubble and completely ruin what was once a perfect piece. They do want to eventually master the art of glazing, but, for now, they like what their avoidance of glaze has done.

“Trying to avoid glaze has brought us to our own process,” says Skurky-Thomas. “We discovered a lot of intricate parts of the process that a lot of artists don’t think about.”

Bell and Skurky-Thomas met in 2007, during their senior year at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Bell was studying photography and Skurky-Thomas was studying film. Both really enjoyed ceramics, though, and due to what Skurky-Thomas called an overabundance of ego in the film world and the tendency of “mud people to be very chill,” he made the switch and has yet to look back. Bell liked the collaborative nature of ceramics, so she, too, got hooked.

The images worked their way into the ceramic early on, and both artists stand behind what they see as honest and humorous portrayals of humanity.

“I think you just get sick in this society of just seeing every interpretation of the human body being completely plastic and weird,” says Skurky-Thomas. “When I started doing my work imagery-wise up in Chicago, most of my people were just people. I have love handles and such, so I just like to incorporate all of the forms that make us people.”

“It evokes more of a response, don’t you think?” asks Bell. “More realism affects people more. A lot of people came in during last year’s studio walk and were like, ‘There’s me!’ Old ladies saw themselves and were really into it. It was cool.”

The couple plans on heading back to grad school as soon as they can, so for the next few months they’ll be working on bigger bodies of work and submitting pieces to juried shows around the world. They’ll also be making smaller, more affordable works to show and sell during this year’s Durango Open Studios, scheduled for Sept. 18 and 19. In the meantime, they say the easiest way to see their work is to drop by their studio.

“People can always stop by,” says Bell. “We love people to stop in and see our work.”

Jinah China can be found at 9th Avenue and Fifth Street in Durango, or online at www.jinahchina.com.