Restoring Chinese History
By Richard DuPertuis
Story and photos by Richard Dupertuis
More than 2,200 years ago, Chinese potters honored their country’s first emperor by building him a mausoleum and filling it with thousands of terra cotta clay soldiers to protect him in the afterlife. A couple of millennia later, a vacationing Redding dentist purchased a life-sized replica of one of these ancient warriors, which stood watch over his backyard until it eventually weathered down into need of repair.
To deal with cracks that threatened to collapse the terra cotta statue, Dr. Gregory Yim called on Shasta County’s go-to clay expert Palul, the artistic name for Paul Rideout. Redding’s master potter is known for his 26 years of ceramics classes for Shasta College, his fired clay exhibits in local galleries and for his toothy, tiled pyramids in Turtle Bay Exploration Park.
Palul eagerly welcomed “the General” to his home studio. “As soon as I heard of the terra cotta warriors I said, ‘Cool,’” he recalls. “I like Chinese history and philosophy.” Yim gave him the piece, and when he’s finished restoring it, he plans to donate it for public display in a place like Turtle Bay, Peter Chu’s Skyroom at the Redding airport or the Joss House in Weaverville.
The General arrived in four pieces: head, torso and base, with the feet broken off. Reassembled, the clay figure will stand about six feet tall and weigh approximately 450 pounds. As with the 2,000-year-old originals, time has stripped all brightly colored paint from this copy’s surfaces, rendering bare clay in shades of reds and grays.
Palul says the original terra cotta warriors were fired in caves. Potters found a hill made of out of clay. When they dug out the clay, they created a cave. They used a wood fire that turned the cave into a kiln, and as they fired the warriors, the walls of the cave became pottery, too.
Turning to the immediate task of the day, the master potter picks up a rasp and leans over the General. He uses the tool to flatten the bottom edges of the torso so it will sit cleanly on the base when the two pieces are joined. In addition to clay, his rasp levels a familiar white substance filling the torso.
“I didn’t expect for them to have styrofoam back then,” he jokes, as if he was working on one of the ancient originals. “We didn’t know how advanced they were.”
This dry sense of humor is only one facet of Rideout, a serious artist who grew up in the 1950s on the East Coast, then drifted westward.
“I traveled, I wrote, I painted,” he recalls. “The artist in me needed to get out. I showed up in Haight Ashbury when it was really happening.” In 1970, he moved up to Redding with his first wife to take a lab tech position.
Decades of working in a lab gave Rideout a firm foundation in science, for which he carried a passion equal to that of his art. “Too much science or too much art, you get unbalanced,” he says. “The balance calms me.” He added ceramics to his repertoire after meeting a potter who offered to show him the craft. “That was it,” he says.
As Palul, Rideout says, he combined his keen interests in geology, chemistry, history and physics, and modeled them into his pottery, which fills shelf after shelf lining the walls of his work areas. His current focus, interrupted by the arrival of the General, is what he calls the Hubble series, in which he combines hand etching and glaze to mimic the spectacular images sent back to earth by the giant space telescope.
“I’m in awe of being able to look at the complexity of the universe,” he says, “to see all the stars being born, exploding. I feel like when you die, it will be something like that.”
He quickly adds, "I'm 75 now. I'm very healthy."
Palul says that although Hubble series sits at the top of his to-do list, he expects he will gradually restore the General, with which he feels a certain kinship. “My heart is in it. Having it in my studio makes me feel good,” he muses. “It’s part of clay history, maybe part of my history too, as in a past life or something.”