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Feb. 28, 2013 Volume 34, No. 21

Professor’s passion for Asian pottery informs his counseling instruction

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ASIA AND POTTERY Puncky Heppner recently returned from Taiwan, where he escorted a group of Mizzou counseling psychology students and spoke to Taiwanese students about his research in cross-cultural understanding. Photo by Rachel Coward.


Curators Professor helped establish a student exchange program

Puncky Heppner’s MU office is a calm space. A designated tea station hugs a corner showcasing mugs of different colors and shapes. Scenic photos of Rocky Mountain National Park hang on the wall. Asian-inspired art pieces are strategically placed. 

Most interesting is the Asian-style wood-fired pottery resting on a bookshelf. 

Heppner, Curators Professor in Education, School and Counseling Psychology, has been making pottery for more than 20 years. “Throwing” pottery is a passion for him. 

To some degree, Heppner’s love of Asian pottery helped lead him to a deeper understanding of human psychology. In 2005, he created an MU exchange program for counseling psychology students. As recently as January, Heppner and students visited a Taiwan university as part of the exchange program, and Heppner gave lectures on cross-cultural understanding.  

To develop the exchange program, Heppner first had to let go of some preconceived notions, he said, much like how he relinquishes control when creating Asian pottery.

Creating pottery

Heppner started making pottery in the early 1990s. Soon he was experimenting with various pottery types, and wood-fired pottery’s organic appearance especially intrigued him. 

Bede Clarke, an MU professor of art, taught Heppner the intricacies of wood-fired pottery. One day he said to Heppner, “Let’s build a kiln.” Heppner had never even fired one before.

Over a few months, the two men and some friends built a catenary arch wood-burning kiln in Heppner’s country back yard. When it’s fired up, flames and black smoke spew above the 30-foot chimney. As a courtesy, he warns his neighbors beforehand.

Eventually, the ash that rushed across the kiln and stuck like a birthmark to each vessel began to look artistic. And each pot looked unique, even when fired in the same kiln at the same time. 

As Heppner’s pottery skills developed over the years, his interest in the psychology of Asian culture grew.

Asian psychology

As early as 1989, Heppner’s work in counseling psychology was drawing interest in Asia. That year, Hsinti Lin, a professor at Chung Hua University in Taiwan, was reading up on Heppner’s research, especially his studies on how people cope with stress. 

Lin invited Heppner to a two-week conference. He wanted Heppner to visit Taiwan and present his counseling psychology research. While there, the MU professor discovered that what he believed were truths about counseling were not applicable in Taiwan. For example, in the United States, when two people argue, they will likely confront each other in a moment of passion. But this isn’t necessarily the case in Taiwan, Heppner said. 

Emotional control is important in Taiwanese culture. If people act on their emotions and confront someone, it is considered a weakness. 

Also, interaction between counselors and Taiwanese patients are different. In Taiwan, people want direct solutions from their counselors, Heppner said. In America, counselors serve more as listeners.

Essentially, counseling isn’t a one-approach-fits-all field, Heppner learned. A Taiwanese counselor must be aware of the culture’s values and expectations. “I was overgeneralizing in psychology,” Heppner said. “After being there, I could see there are different societal values.”

Based on these experiences, Heppner helped create eight years ago an exchange program between MU and the National Taiwan Normal University for counseling psychology students. 

Mizzou students travel to Taiwan for two weeks to attend lectures, socialize with Taiwanese students and faculty, and explore a new culture. Heppner gives lectures on these trips and meets with students about their experiences.

Over the years, Heppner became more aware of the connection between creating wood-fired pottery and visiting Asian cultures.

“In wood-fired pottery you give up a lot of control,” Heppner said. “You can’t control where the ash falls, and a lot of very beautiful things happen.”

Likewise, “when you cross a cultural border you sometimes have to let go of control because you’re an outsider,” Heppner said. “Very beautiful things happen when you do that.”

— Ashley Carman