NEW YORK - Steeped in centuries of tradition and history, porcelain is one of China’s most revered art forms. That it is still among its most dynamic is thanks to artists like Caroline Cheng. She has brought an extraordinary freshness and surprising lushness to the material in her art. A vital force in China’s artistic community, Cheng is the director of the Pottery Workshop, a studio and exhibition space in Jingdezhen (the historic centre of porcelain making), with residency programmes in nearby Shanghai and Hong Kong. Cheng’s primary motif is the butterfly, which for her represents China itself. Her works comprise tiny handmade porcelain butterflies – often thousands of them – that are hand-sewn onto black burlap panels to form Chinese characters. A special selling exhibition at Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery in New york presents two new series, consisting of sixteen panels in vibrant colours that depict different Chinese characters: Hidden Virtues (Honest, Sincere, Loyal, Righteous) and Frame of Mind (Love, Fucking Cool, Joyous). In a related piece, butterflies cover a traditional Chinese robe.

Caroline Cheng in the Pottery Workshop Studio, Shanghai.

When and how did you start working with ceramics?

After I finished my Masters in Fine Art in 1989, I took a ceramics class just for the heck of it. I had been working in wood and had made conceptual art and digital art. I loved going back to a craft. This medium is more in tune with nature.

Can you tell me about the mission of the Pottery Workshop?

The mission of the Pottery Workshop is to promote the art of handmade ceramics. We sell, teach, make our own work and do a lot of charitable work. Right now I am helping local potters in Dali, Yunnan to make more contemporary work for the market. In Jingdezhen we are working with local craftsmen and students, encouraging them to step out of traditional modes and make more interesting work. We also encourage artists from all over the world to come and explore this 1,000-year-old ceramic production town.  

How did you come to use the butterfly as a motif?

In 1998, when I first visited Jingdezhen, there were a few families making hand-pinched flowers, butterflies and bees and setting them on plates. Although the work was intricate, the final piece was truly ugly and rococo-esque. They sold for very little and no one wanted them. So I asked one family to make just the butterflies. I sewed 8,000 of them onto a wearable fabric and participated in a ceramic fashion show. At the time artists in China were using a lot of Cultural Revolution motifs in their work, and I wanted to stay away from that. 

Caroline Cheng, Frame of Mind- Genuine, porcelain butterflies on canvas.
Caroline Cheng, The Hidden Virtues- Courteous, porcelain butterflies on canvas.
Caroline Cheng, The Hidden Virtues-Virtuous, porcelain butterflies on canvas.

What does the butterfly signify?

I read somewhere that in the 1930s a group of writers in China rebelled against the style of political satire by writing silly romance stories. They called themselves the Mandarin Butterfly Movement. I liked that idea. Traditional Chinese art is not about in-your-face political statements; the butterflies are more subtle and clever. 

What is the meaning of the series titles Hidden Virtues and Frame of Mind?

The large panels are virtues required of us politically (to be loyal, trustworthy, etc.) and the smaller panels have Chinese characters that refer to what younger people are thinking (cool, happy and so on). The virtues are the ones I believe in. And it seems to be the fashion nowadays to like them as well. My work is always an interpretation of how I see China, and being virtuous is the talk of the town right now in Chinaow should we interpret these new works?

I want the viewer to stand in front of the piece, with over 20,000 butterflies, and stare for a long time. Some characters are easily recognisable while others are more subtle. Since the butterflies are all handmade of nine parts, each butterfly is different. This infinite difference is how I see China. I can never finish exploring this vast country in my lifetime. There are so many possibilities, so many cultural differences in each part of China. 

Meredith Mendelsohn writes about art and design for Architectural Digest and The Wall Street Journal among other publications.