Simple Beauty From Hands That Still Have Much to Learn

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Simple Beauty From Hands That Still Have Much to Learn

Ceramics have played an important part in the daily lives of Koreans for thousands of years. Traditional Korean pottery, though it may not be as decorative as chinaware from other countries, is quite simple and very beautiful. However plain they may be, the pieces are still considered art, but not an art for the elite. Korean pottery is often adorned with simple patterns meant to capture some sense of the life of common people.

Kim Jung-ok, 60, lives in Jinan, a village in North Kyongsang province, located along the skirts of Sobaek mountain. He has been a baekja (white porcelain) ceramist for more than 40 years. Mr. Kim is a seventh-generation descendant of Kim Chui-jeong, who began the family porcelain-making tradition about 200 years ago. Mr. Kim, like his antecedent, is a master of making porcelain and is called a sagijang. The Korean word sagi means porcelain and jang means craftsman.

Mr. Kim's magical hands are prolific, producing up to 100 pieces of porcelain a day, such as small bowls, teacups and large pots. With Mr. Kim at the wheel is his eldest son, Kyung-sik, who will inherit the family business from his father.

Asked how he would grade one of his own works, a tea bowl, Mr. Kim, the senior, answered, "It is hard to say since I still have a long way to go.

"I wonder whether I could even give 70 percent to all the work I have done so far," he said with a grin.

Despite his modest assessment of his own 40 years of work, Mr. Kim gave his son's work a 50-percent assessment - an excellent grade considering that Kyung-sik has been in the business only five years. If he has gone so far so quickly, it seems likely he will be making a perfect score soon. Mr. Kim gave that judgement some serious thought before responding. "Who knows? It may take another 10 years to get one more mark," he said.

Mr. Kim is a perfectionist when it comes to his craft, particularly when it comes to his kiln. He insists on using a mangsong-i kiln, the kind of kiln his ancestors used. The mangsong-i kiln, also sometimes called a mangdaeng-i, is made of earthen bricks that are placed to form a dome. A mangsong-i kiln can withstand heat exceeding 1,000 degrees Celsius, and it helps the fire maintain a steady flame.

Mr. Kim is also very particular about the fuel used in his kiln. He uses only pinewood since it brings the right color to his porcelain. Kilns fueled by gas, often used these days for mass-produced porcelain, do not get close to such a subtle, fine color, he said.

The ceramist lights his kiln once every two months. When he fires his works, he first puts them in at 800 degrees Celsius for 10 hours, then glazes them, and then fires them again, this time at 1,300 degrees Celsius for half a day. Only 5 percent of his pots survive - both the kiln and the potter take their toll. Mr. Kim will smash, without hesitation, any piece that he deems imperfect, pieces that look fine but feel unbalanced in his hands and others that have an unsatisfactory color.

Mr. Kim became known nationally when he won a special award at the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Art Exhibition in 1988. In 1996, he became the first sagijang recognized as an intangible cultural asset by the government. Every year since 1987 he has held an exhibition in Tokyo, Japan. A piece of his porcelain was given to the Dalai Lama as a gift.

And yet he said he is not satisfied and will continue spinning from earth and fire until he is dead.

Mr. Kim's work will be on exhibition at the Chosun Ilbo Gallery on Sejongro, Seoul, between April 24 and 29.

For more information, call 054-571-0907 (Korean service).

by Kim Jong-moon

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