Feat of clayIcheon, Gyeonggi
Some say pottery begins as a thought, a mental image of the perfect shape.
The shape can be as simple as a rice bowl or a tea cup. Then it becomes a sensation as your two hands, dipped in gray water, shape a wet lump of clay. Somewhere along the way, that original thought shapes the touch, and the clay under your muddy hands takes on that perfect shape.
I’m sitting by a pottery wheel at Yewon Ceramic, a studio in Icheon, Gyeonggi province. Icheon is famous for its hot springs, rice and pottery.
Here, just an hour’s drive south of Seoul, is the heart of Korean ceramics, the pottery village of Doyechon. The village has the only ceramics high school in Korea, a ceramics museum and an annual ceramics exposition. The village lives and breathes ceramics.
With me are two young adults and a handful of children and their parents, all novices eager for a day of pottery lessons at one of the few remaining studios in Korea that still bakes ceramics in kilns. I don a red apron and wait my turn.
I finally sit at one of two wheels, and start pushing and pulling on a lump of clay, picturing that perfect vase. I’m convinced I’m doing a great job when the instructor, Park Ki-ho, breaks my reverie to ask, “Just what are you making?”
There goes my perfect shape.
At Doyechon, believed to be 500 years old, Goryeo celadons and Joseon white porcelain reached artistic heights. Here, artisans prepared clay with their feet and hands. They chopped wood for the kiln. They crafted their works, then baked them, sometimes for days. They glazed the clay, and baked them some more.
After all their labor, they were lucky if one-third of their creations emerged from the kiln intact. The masterpieces were given names. The longer the name, the more handiwork was involved.
Today, the village includes studios and ceramics factories. Cars and buses rumble along the main road that divides the village. The first thing I see is a sign, “Pottery Village”; the next is a row of roadside shops and gravel parking lots. Yewon is a distance from the main road, on a green, quiet street remarkable for its many totem poles. Totem poles mark each studio.
Mr. Park and several other instructors teach pottery classes twice daily at Yewon. Classes begin with a video about Korean pottery, a tour of the kiln and an introduction to the different types of ceramics. Students are invited to watch any artisans at work.
Afterward, Mr. Park gathers the students outside for a demonstration on the wheel. We sit on benches in a circle around two pottery wheels. Off to one side, stacks of pine wood are piled by the kiln. Dogs bark at the few passing cars. A nearby water mill spins slow circles. Dust and a gentle laziness pervade the atmosphere. With a little imagination, you can peer into the past.
All the while, Mr. Park lectures about ceramics. His sneakers and hands are stained with dried mud. The muscles on his arms are taut, and with a fluid motion, he turns the clay into a tea cup and a vase.
Oddly, a dust storm picks up, and he gathers the students for indoor classes. A few minutes later, it’s raining.
“There is nothing in the world like the touch of wet clay,” Mr. Park says. He encourages his students to play with the clay: “The first couple you make will crack in the kiln anyway.” The creation has to have the perfect thickness to survive the kiln.
Mr. Park began making pottery in high school. He calls himself a social butterfly and expects applause after every demonstration.
But when he really starts discussing pottery, it’s more like he’s relating his philosophy about life. “I used to feel so bad when everything I made cracked,” he says. “But after three years, I learned to let go of remorse and keep trying.”
He says that dirt has a memory. You can try to fix a mistake, but once the clay goes through the fire, the mistakes come out. “If in the beginning, it wasn’t what you wanted; as time goes by, it really isn’t what you wanted.” Out of the fire come only the best ceramics.
And for us beginners, he doesn’t bother saving the pieces made on the wheel. Instead, he takes us to a room lined with tables. Here he teaches us the coil and the pinch methods. The wheel is limited in that you can only create round shapes that are smaller than half your arm. The large black pots that store kimchi and sauces are made using the coil method. These pieces are often hardier.
I start making a vase, but it’s the most lopsided flower pot I’ve ever seen. Mr. Park walks by and says, “Ugly shapes have a special beauty.”
So I start smaller, like a leaf, just to get a feel for the clay. Then I pinch off tear drops to make a rose. And then I break the vase to make a cooking spoon holder. This time, I smooth each coil together, sometimes using a sponge. I take a stamp to print flowers on the outside.
Soon it’s time to go. That perfect shape has eluded me, but I’m still possessed by its image, imbedded in my mind.
Classes that won’t make your eyes glaze over
Haegang Pottery Museum
Haegang (031-634-2266) is one of the largest pottery museums in Korea. Its displays include ancient ceramics as well as masterpieces by Yu Geun-hyeong, who collected all the items in the museum. It’s a great place to learn about the history of Korean ceramic art ― as long as you bring along a friend who can read Korean.
Haegang also offers classes so that visitors can experience the ceramic-making process for themselves. Making a ceramic costs 10,000 won (about $8.30). If you want to include firing, the cost rises to 30,000 won to 50,000 won, depending on the size of the piece.
Admission costs 2,000 won for adults, 1,000 won for young people and 500 won for children. To get to the museum, take an express bus from the East Seoul Bus Terminal in Seoul to Icheon, Gyeonggi province. When you get on the bus, tell the bus driver to drop you at Sugwang-ri. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Mondays, lunar New Year’s day and Chuseok.
Yewondoyo (031-634-2114, www.yewonceramic.co.kr) is one of the biggest pottery studios in Icheon. It has separate drawing and shaping classes. The drawing program, recommended for young students, includes a video about the ceramic-making process, a visit to the studio and drawing or lettering on the ceramics. It costs 4,500 won to 6,500 won, depending on the item that is selected.
The shaping program includes visiting a traditional furnace, a demonstration of the spinning wheel, and shaping two to three ceramics by pinching, coiling and spinning on a wheel. It costs 15,000 won a person. Completed ceramics will be delivered in three to six weeks. To get to Yewondoyo, take a bus from Icheon Bus Terminal to Namjeongni. Making reservations two to three weeks ahead of time is recommended.
Another pottery studio in Icheon, Yeomyeongyo (031-633-2574, www.ichundojagi.com) offers a ceramic production class. The course starts with a short explanation about the history of pottery, the ceramic-making process and a general overview of ceramics. Participants are taught how to use a spinning wheel, and learn how to shape ceramics. Guests can also compare traditional and modern ceramics and visit a traditional kiln. There also is a question-and-answer session with ceramic artists. Take bus No. 14-1 from Icheon bus terminal to Hansol Apartments in Namjeong 1-ri. If there are more than 10 people in a group, Yeomyeongyo will arrange for transportation from the front of Dongwon University.
Transportation and Tours
By public transportation, take a bus to Icheon from either the Express Bus Terminal or East Seoul Bus Terminal. One-way tickets are 3,300 won ($2.70). From the Icheon Bus Terminal, take a bus or taxi to Doyechon.
By car, take the Yeongdong Highway to the Icheon Interchange, or else the Jungbu Highway to the Gongjiam Interchange. From either interchange, head toward Icheon.
Several tour groups in Seoul offer trips to the pottery village. English-language tour guides are available as long as trips are booked in advance.
Hodo Tour offers tours of the pottery village, the Haegang Museum and pottery classes. Tours must be booked in advance. Tours cost 75,000 won a person, and include transportation. Call (02) 753-8244 or check the Web site www.hodotour.com.
Grace Tour offers half-day and full-day pottery tours at 75,000 won and 120,000 won.
The half-day tour includes transportation to the village and pottery classes. The full-day tour includes transportation, a visit to the village, classes, lunch, a visit to Silleuk Temple and Moka, a Buddhist museum. Call (02) 332-8946 or go to www.triptokorea.com.
HanaTour offers a full-day trip to the village. The cost, 120,00 won, includes transportation, a trip to the village, pottery classes, a visit to Haegang Ceramic Museum, lunch, and then stops at Silleuk Temple and Moka. Check the Web site www.hanamex.com.
The United Services Organization offers frequent trips to the pottery village. For information, call (02) 795-3208.
TrekKorea often offers trips to the pottery village. No such trips are scheduled for June, but check its English language Web site for future tours. The site’s address is www.trekkorea.com.
The Royal Asiatic Society often offers trips to the pottery village. No such trips are scheduled for June, but check the society’s English language Web site for future trips. Call (02) 763-9683 or go to www.raskorea.org.
by Joe Yong-hee