[ZOOM KOREA] Potter incorporates book recommendations into her art
Chaekgado, or still-life paintings of bookshelves, depicted men’s personal space in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Featuring arrangements of books and brushes on bookshelves, pencil cases, flowerpots, incense burners and handicrafts, chaekgado became a key theme in folk painting, after gaining popularity among the royal court and upper class, and then commoners. Korean potter Lee Ji Sook was inspired to create a 21st century version of chaekgado by combining pottery and painting.
Lee is the only artist in Korea to create chaekgado using clay. She sculpts terracotta into a desired shape and then paints it with acrylic. Her work has a feminine overtone, featuring items such as cosmetics, coffee cups, and mother-of-pearl boxes. She also adds her own personal book recommendations to the shelves. While original chaekgado from the late Joseon era were flat paintings, Lee’s pieces stand out in this 3-D form.
The artist was inspired to create her own chaekgado after joining a book club with 11 other craftspeople back in 1999. The club had strict rules — if a member did not finish a book or missed a meeting, a fine was imposed. Members read a diverse range of topics based on recommendations from each other.
Ten years after first joining the club, Lee found inspiration in Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel.” Like pieces of a puzzle starting to fit together into one complete picture, Lee realized how the book’s message was very much in line with how she perceived life. Afterward, Lee was able to find inspiration in any book she read.
The artist wanted to share the knowledge she acquired from reading with as many people as possible, which is how her idea for creating chaekgado came about. She began recommending books to people by illustrating them in her works. She buckled down to create her own version of chaekgado in 2010. Lee’s works and aim later earned her pieces the nickname “Chaekgwonyudo,” meaning, “a picture that recommends books.”
Creating chaekgado requires perseverance, due to the fact that it takes about a month to finish just one piece. The ceramic artist must be precise and detail-oriented during the sculpting process. Celadon clay is used for its high viscosity and contraction, and the artist shapes it into the desired object before baking it at 1,000 degrees Celsius. These individually-baked objects are finally combined into one whole picture.
Problems arise when the potter is unable to make a sizable art piece because the kiln they are using is too small. However, Lee discovered a new method to overcome this obstacle by thinking outside the box. She was able to expand the overall size of the artworks by using an adhesive to link all the individual terracotta pieces together. She then fills in the gaps with clay. The last step requires painting the pieced-together terracotta pieces.
When Lee was dissatisfied with how the colors turned out, she simply scraped the paint away with sandpaper and started over, repeating the process until she was satisfied. It is uncommon that a potter is skilled in both sculpting and painting, making Lee's works even more special.
Lee describes herself as an “office worker-like artist.” Every day she works on her art pieces between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Because Lee typically works on a fixed schedule, she tries to incorporate her everyday thoughts and feelings into her work. She tends to stick to this schedule after finding it was the best way to diversify her artwork with different messages.
Not all these messages come from positive times as Lee is no stranger to misfortune. She was diagnosed with cancer and had to have part of her stomach surgically removed. She also underwent surgery to remove her gallbladder. Her only daughter almost lost her eyesight. What Lee learned from all these painful experiences was to keep calm and carry on with a balanced state of mind.
The artist has a simple dream: To continue making art about everyday life. She wishes to share her work and communicate with her audience. Lee says that she feels a sense of satisfaction when her audience comments on her work with sentiments such as “I’ve tried that tea before,” or “I’ve been wanting to read that book.” It is her purpose to empathize with people and appreciate the everyday life of art.
This year marks the 22nd year of her reading club. For 10 years Lee has focused only on her chaekgado and says that although she's still unsure about what her next pieces will be, they'll continue to center around chaekgado. Lee explains that reading has made her thoughts stronger and deeper. This is the fundamental reason why she continues to recommend books by creating her own chaekgado.
BY PARK SANG-MOON [email@example.com]