Wayne Higby


SkyWell Falls, Miller Center for the Arts, Reading, PA, USA



United States, Pennsylvania, Miller Center
for the Arts in Reading I Architectural ceramic


How can the Chinese ceramic tile industry contribute to the creation of an artwork in the United States? What will be the added value? In 2006, the artist Wayne Higby proposed a site in the new Miller Center for the Arts in Reading, Pennsylvania. Soon, the idea of a waterfall at the scale of the landscape began to germinate. Why not doing it in partnership with the ceramic tile industry, in Foshan, China? The American maker demonstrates his experience, opening the question of creation and collective intelligence.

By mixing a poetic vision of nature and a high level of technical expertise of ceramics production, sourced in an ancestral knowledge and symbolic approach of the material, his creative process diminishes the differences. Approaches as contradictory as the industry and crafts find a common ground almost naturally. Bridging the gap between people whose culture is based on individuals, and others coming from a society that highlights the group: this is one more miracle, produced by architectural ceramics!



    Author: Wayne Higby

Foshan, the right place

In 2006 as I worked to complete of the first half of « EarthCloud », Marlin Miller asked me if I would be interested in a site at the new Miller Center for the Arts in Reading, Pennsylvania. I said yes.1 I then began thinking about making the piece in China. I was ready for a partnership with industry. I knew about the ceramic tile industry in Foshan, China. It naturally occurred to me that Foshan might be the right place to make something. I set out to find the right collaboration.      

Foshan is the ceramics capital of South China. It is the world’s largest contemporary industrial and architectural ceramic production site. During the Tang and Song dynasties (960-1279AD), as a result of its ceramic and handcraft industries, Foshan was one of the four most famous cities in China and one of the earliest to engage in foreign trade. It is part of China’s Pearl River Delta, which today lies at the center of China’s economic power. This region of China is one of the most densely populated areas on earth and includes the cities of Guangzhou, Macao, and Hong Kong.

My first trip to China took place in 1991 at the invitation of the United Nations Development Program in China, which helped to fund the first Chinese National Ceramic Art and Design Conference held at North China University of Technology, Beijing. This conference brought artists, designers, educators, technicians, and captains of industry together to discuss ceramic art in China. I was one of six individuals invited from the West to make presentations and consult. I immediately became fascinated with China.


#1 Wayne Higby- SkyWell Falls

Wayne Higby

My imagination began an uncharted adventure. I became immersed in the artistic and educational questions that were to serve as the subtext to the rise of a New China. From that point forward, I have returned every year to lecture, work with students, attend conferences, facilitate programs, meet new players, and continue to nurture the close friendships.2 However, during all this time I never made any artwork in China. That changed, January 1, 2008, when I met Ajian Chen in Foshan. Ajian was the owner of Foshan’s Individuality Art Ceramics factory. I had found the right collaboration and the right place. I knew I already had the right project. I set out to put all the other necessary parts of the puzzle together.


#2 Wayne Higby- Miller Center, Reading PA  copy

Miller Center


An architectural art work made in China

I didn’t speak Chinese, but I hadn’t worried much about it. From the beginning, there was always so much psychic communication on my part with artists I met in China that I never obsessed over the language problem. Of course, over the years I have always been accompanied by English speaking Chinese friends and as a result, no doubt, take the bridging of the language disconnect too much for granted.


Wayne HigbySkyWellFallsmodelnb

SkyWell Fall model

Clearly, however, if I was going to make a major work with a factory—with Chinese designers, glaze and firing experts, technical staff, craftsmen and women—I was going to have to learn a great deal of Chinese very quickly or find someone to help who spoke exceptional English and Chinese. One morning in early March 2008 the phone rang. It was Hongwei Li. He said in his impeccable English: “I have decided definitely to return to China, but I have no job there.

Do you have any ideas? Can I come talk to you?” Hongwei received his MFA degree in Ceramic Art from the School of Art and Design, Alfred University, spring 2007 and his BFA degree in 2005 from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing. In May, Hongwei moved to Foshan to begin his work for me at the factory. 

When projects the size of « SkyWell Falls » come your way, collaboration is most assuredly required on several levels. Once an artist working alone in my studio, I have become by necessity a project manager. This process began with my first commission, « « Intangible Notch », created in 1995 for Arrow International headquarters in Reading, Pennsylvania. My second large commission, « EarthCloud », required even greater collaboration, and eventually I had seven people working with me on that project, not to mention an entire construction crew at the time of installation. My career has shifted, so that today my business card might well read Artist-Designer-Maker-Project Manager-Professor- Curator-Museum Director.


The quality of the collaborations

The strength of my work depends on the quality of the collaborations and without question that quality depends on the individuals who have agreed to work with me. In part, that may be where the professor comes in. I have had the luxury of being able to conduct semester and yearlong interviews with the individual members of my team. I know that I am lucky. For « SkyWell Falls » Hongwei Li came on board and then another remarkable young man, Benjamin DeMott, agreed to take the risk. Ben graduated with his MFA in Ceramic Art from Alfred in May 2008. Don Kaake is another remarkable friend and collaborator. Together we have always invented the perfect solution to problems we didn’t know we needed to have.

By May 2007, I had begun to go to Reading more frequently as the Miller Center for the Arts neared completion. I had studied the space by then and had an idea. Since the end of March, I had gone on several waterfall reconnaissance missions.

I had begun to draw and photograph waterfalls. In particular, I was inspired by the 215-foot high Taughannock Falls near Ithaca, New York, which is not far from my home in Alfred.

Since the early years of my professional career, I have utilized landscape as a means to transport thoughts and feelings into the visual context. This, no doubt, stems from my early childhood experiences wandering in the vast spaces of my home in Colorado. The landscape of the Western United States embedded itself in my psyche. My most recent artist statement reads as follows: « Earth, sky, time, light, space: my work is a meditation on the relationship between mind and matter. It is not about landscape ». To those with a more literal mind in regard to reading artistic imagery the last sentence in this statement may seem odd. However, Eastern culture, or more specifically Chinese culture, has always recognized « a writing of ideas and feelings » through the use of landscape imagery: a mind-landscape which moves from form likeness to a spirit-resonance, to a condition called the idea state. In Chinese we might use the term « kong ling » meaning that which resides beyond the material fact.

ckWayne Higby-SkyWell Falls, Hongwei Li, Tom Schmidt, Wayne hIgby, Ben DeMOtt, Ajian Chen, factory-foshan, China

Hongwei Li, Tom Schmidt, Wayne hIgby, Ben DeMOtt, Ajian Chen, factory-foshan, China

Something about a waterfall

I had been thinking-imagining something about a waterfall for a long time. In terms of Buddhist iconography the waterfall serves as a device for a meditation on the nature of impermanence. Since the death of my wife Donna in 2004, the Buddhist teaching concerning impermanence had taken on great significance in my life. I now have a collection of 1930-40s photographs of waterfalls in my studio. Coincidentally, the architectural space I selected to address at the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading presented me with a wall space, which descended straight down 60 feet from a skylight. Perfect. Additionally, the architectural design from outside to inside moves the potential audience from high exterior walls of maroon brick through a series of interior turns reminiscent of a path in an ever narrowing walled landscape, eventually leading to an almost secret interior space beneath the skylight just outside the theater’s auditorium. There we stare up into the sky. I thought right there a waterfall gesture would embrace and reveal the entire experience of the architecture.


#7 Wayne Higby-SkyWell Falls, in production, China - copie

SkyWell Falls, in production, China


As a professor of art I am often confronted by the question: “What is the difference between art and design?” After all, I teach at the School of Art and Design at Alfred University. My answer to the question: “An artist invents the problem where, in fact, there is no problem and then proposes/achieves a solution. The designer accepts an already existing problem and proposes/achieves a solution.” Each requires a special gift. Each relies heavily on the other. I think of myself first and foremost as an artist, but in addressing the challenge of an architectural reality, I must rely on my intuition as a designer. The problem: address a given interior, vertical wall below a skylight in a compressed space arrived at through a series of architectural moves that hide and lead to the site. Solve this problem with attentiveness to all the subtle details of relationship and scale. Don’t just put a signature statement on the wall, create and augment a dynamic space. AND, whatever is proposed for the wall in question, it cannot weigh very much as the underlying structure is already supporting the massive elements, which contextualize the skylight. I turned to my artist side: waterfall with all its emotive meaning for me. Now there is a problem of pure artistic intention. Could it help solve the design problem? Yes. 

With luck, opportunity, timing, and intention unite. I was thinking about doing something with the idea of a waterfall. I wanted to create a work in China. I looked forward to a continuing collaboration with Marlin Miller and Michael McKinnell of Kallmann, McKinnell and Wood architects, Boston. A waterfall abstraction, mind-landscape could be achieved in the space at Miller Center, Reading; the weight issue could be solved by utilizing industrially made tile. As I began to imagine it, this type of tile might possibly be suspended and not physically attached to the wall, thereby reducing the weight as well as inducing the feeling of water falling over the wall. All the elements and conditions began to tell each other what was necessary, and out of the dynamics of this very specific situation « SkyWell Falls » began to emerge.


The glaze development process

It was a remarkable glaze development process and one that was typical of our cross-cultural, trans global engagement. I was very impressed and inspired by the glaze opportunities the factory offered. When I first stepped into the glaze sample room at the factory, I realized that it would take me an additional lifetime to arrive at even a fraction of the information presented there. I decided to just begin anywhere I pleased. I selected a high-fire stoneware bronze glaze and a series of low-fire under glazes and said: “Let’s try to put these together somehow.” I had decided by then to go for a highly polished glaze surface indicative of industrial process. I thought we could polish the bronze glaze down to reveal, in varying degrees, the under glaze, but stoneware and earthenware are not compatible because of their difference in firing temperature. My Chinese friends are fond of saying: “no problem,” again… « mei wen ti ». Testing ensued from June 2008 to January 2009. The tests were expressed to me in Alfred, New York. I would study them with my collaborative assistant Ben. We then would e-mail Hongwei, who was now living in Foshan and working at the factory, with our observations and suggestions. Four or five days later we would receive in Alfred a new set of tests. This was as fast or faster than I could have done the turn around in my own studio. Amazing.


whin porductionchina

SkyWell Falls, in production, China

In the meantime, we continued to develop the design, which went from my small hand-drawn schematics to the master computer drawings we eventually worked with. These drawings were finally e-mailed from Alfred to the factory in Foshan where they were turned into to the glaze screens, which were used to facilitate the glaze application.


SkyWell Falls, in production, China

The final ceramic aspect of the piece is comprised of 352 individual tiles measuring approximately 2’ h x 1’ w x ¼” d. It took five separate firings and approximately 1,000 screens to facilitate the glaze system. We began with a Foshan standard stoneware tile: cut them to design size, screened on the under glaze leaving openings for the pattern to follow—fired at earthenware temperature, then applied, temperature adjusted, bronze over glaze leaving openings for the pattern to follow—fired again at earthenware temperature, then screened a white textured glaze into the openings (previously unglazed portions of the tile)—fired again at a slightly lower temperature, mother of pearl luster was painted by hand over the white texture glaze— and the tiles were fired one last time at a much lower temperature. When finished all the tile were polished by machine with hand intervention to varying degrees of depth in order to create a painterly effect of light and density. The mother of pearl luster adds a brilliant, oscillating glimmer to the white areas in the design, and in so doing, gives an additional sense of movement to the lines and dots in the overall pattern.

The final production work in the factory

On May 20, 2009, my team and I began to do final production work in the factory. We worked in the factory for a month and a half with as many as 30 individuals immersed together in the oppressive summer heat of South China. Fans roaring, factory dust covering everything, we poured down giant bottles of water to combat stress and fatigue. We found ourselves confronting days of disappointment and anxious reevaluation as well as days of smooth sailing. We loved it. The factory was home. If I left the factory in the late afternoon with a problem to solve it would be worked on all night in an effort to have solutions the next day. From time to time factory production would be stopped in order to cool the kiln for a run of my tile. I brought a personal, eccentric studio sensibility to the industrial site, and together we produced a totally unique, technically hybrid work of art not achievable in any other way.

Each day Benjamin DeMott, Tom Schmidt, (Alfred MFA, 2010), and I were picked up at our hotel in Foshan by Hongwei Li and driven to the factory. Tom had joined the team at my invitation since I was sure I would need another compatriot and brilliant artist to troubleshoot the final production. The four of us adopted a musketeer’s motto: « all for one, one for all ». We embraced this seemingly unreal time suspended in a cloud of determination and wonder. It was a demanding time, requiring a spirit of tireless optimism. We all learned so much. We were taught by circumstance to expand our world of understanding. The embrace of human kindness and mutual support given to us by our Chinese colleagues profoundly moved us. Their genuine commitment to our necessary interactions confirmed in us a deep belief in the possibility of friendship beyond words across seemingly impossible boundaries.



Factory, Foshan, China

Giving a title

The tiles arrived in Reading at the beginning of August. During their five-week journey from Foshan they had gone through the Panama Canal to New York City and then trucked to Reading. Although everyday I worried about the shipment and potential breakage, it came through in fine shape. We had made several copies of the more complex tiles and two complete sets of the entire piece as a fall back against breakage during shipment or installation. We began the elaborate and anxiety-filled process of installation. Don Kaake had previously guided the placement of the steel beam hidden now at the top of the wall just beneath the skylight. It was ready for the attachment of the cables.

After accomplishing that task, we slowly, step-by-careful-step, put each tile in its designated spot and tightened the brackets against them and the cable to hold everything in precisely measured place.


 We worked for a month from the bottom up until the piece hung from the skylight suspended in space, three inches from the wall on steel cables, down across an expanse of 60 feet.

I had been searching for a title for the sculpture for many months, to no avail. With so much going on during its production my mind was on other things. I just assumed that when the time was right I would think of something. During our work at the factory we frequently visited the statue of Kuan-Yin on Xiqiao Mountain not far from Foshan. In the Buddhist canon Kuan-Yin is the female version of Avalokitesvara one of the eight great bodhisattvas, and the one whose activities especially involve compassion. The Kuan-Yin statue near Foshan is made from hammered copper and is large enough for one to walk inside. She is magnificent in the sunlight and seems to float, hovering just above the surface of her mountaintop. On a clear day we could see her in the distance as we drove to work. Ben had placed a drawing in gold ink of Kuan-Yin into one of the shipping crates to instill good karma. She had become our patron guide and we frequently burned incense at her shrine in the hope of receiving her blessings. Ben had been reading a book about her during our work at the factory and one day he pointed to a passage in that book that described an area just outside the main entrance to her temple as a sky well.



Installed on the site

One day as our installation drew to a close; I stared up through the scaffolding at the light streaming through the skylight above. I caught a glimpse of Ben’s drawing of Kuan-Yin now hanging on the wall next to our tool bench. I said to myself “SkyWell Falls” and thanked Kuan-Yin for all her help watching over us and finally inspiring the title of the piece she had helped guide into place.

I woke up at 4:00AM in my hotel room the morning after we had completed our installation with a horrifying feeling. The piece was covered with a cardboard and bubble wrap protection and in my sleep deprived imagination all I could see was an enormous hulking mass hanging from the wall in the Miller Center. I was all wrong. Why had I not done something else? Something simpler, certainly something that wasn’t red. How could I ever have thought something that big and red was a good idea? If someone had said that I would someday make a huge red sculpture I would have said, “No Way.” My guts turned over. Doubt loomed large.

It would take months for me to digest what I had done. I kept ruminating over all my decisions. Yes, red was a great idea. Wasn’t it? It carried the interior themes forward and moved the image toward an unknowable, unfathomable, unexpected dimension.

 Yes, its scale/proportion was right. Its large size challenged the architecture. It was born from the architectural language and confirmed the structure then destroyed it as it engendered a mythical sense of place. Its highly reflective surface opened the space of its surroundings and facilitated its illusionary, intangible presence. All good. Lighting would be critical. I had no corresponding image. We had to wait to light the piece, but I had great respect for my lighting designer Suzan Tillotson. Perhaps she could rescue me. She did just that about a month later. We took off the protection and worked for approximately eight hours lighting the piece. It came to life in full glory. I felt a little better.




On December 4, 2010, « SkyWell Falls » was dedicated.

> Postscript : « Journal entry, Foshan, January 9, 2010.   Last evening Ajian arranged a banquet for me and the members of the factory team that helped produce the tiles for SkyWell Falls. It was so good to see every one. It was like a family reunion. This morning I enjoyed sitting in the factory showroom at the ceramic product mall looking into my computer at all the SkyWell pictures. Amazing! I never expected to have this particular moment of satisfaction. Here, back in Foshan, a sense of accomplishment invaded my thoughts: a calm, deep breathing look into the past, into the memories…. a solitary moment of rewarding distance. I made peace with the work, accepting it, embracing it, cocooning the doubt. I think it is good. Perhaps, one of the best of my career. »

(1) EarthCloud is a porcelain tile installation commissioned by Marlin Miller for the Miller Performing Arts Complex at Alfred University, Alfred, New York, USA. EarthCloud is comprised of 12,000 hand cut porcelain tile and covers a space of 6,500 square feet. Completion and installation of the first have occurred in 2006 and the second half in 2012.


(2) In 2006, the Ceramic Art Division at Alfred University established and collaborative program with the Central Academy of Fine Arts under W. Higby’s direction. This educational initiative called the ALFRED-



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