▲ Ceramicist Kim Young Soo working on a pot. Photo courtesy Jejuyo
Anyone who has ever visited Jeju is probably familiar with images of women carrying earthenware water pots, known as ongi, on their backs. Ongi are a well-known symbol of Jeju, which has a long history of using such vessels. A bowl excavated in Jeju and dated circa 10,000 B.C. is the oldest earthenware piece found in South Korea.
The traditional Jeju earthenware differs significantly from that of the mainland. Though both are made from soil, Jeju ceramics acquire their distinctive look from the fact that the island’s soil is rich with volcanic ash. Unlike other pottery, Jeju earthenware is sleek and glossy without being glazed. It may seem unsophisticated, yet it is very artistic. Before 2001, Jeju only produced earthenware because it was believed that the soil, known as trass, contained too much volcanic ash to produce stoneware. Jeju citizens assumed that scoria or solidified lava could not be used in ceramics, where stoneware is usually fired at higher temperatures. Stoneware is more durable and impervious to water, and is often fired once more after glazing, while earthenware absorbs water over time. When flicked, earthenware has a closed and dull sound, while the others have a clear sound, like a bell.
Ceramic artist Kim Young Soo invented Jeju indigenous stoneware, known as Jeju trass ceramics. He is an open-minded artist filled with passion. During his 20s, he visited Jeju and fell in love with the Jeju ongi. He has great affection for the island and considers it his “second hometown.” Later, he decided that “Jeju’s ceramics standards mimicked those of the mainland.” He moved to Jeju 12 years ago and dedicated eight of those years to creating trass ceramics. When he first decided to make stoneware out of trass and scoria, people called him insane and claimed that it was impossible. “The more people call me crazy,” Kim said, “the more I wanted to achieve.”
In contrast with other stoneware, Kim said, trass ceramics are made from scoria clay, which has a dark tone. To make black ceramics from white clay, a black glaze has to be added, making them often appear artificial. However, Kim’s ceramics come in various natural shades of black. “Ceramics are everywhere. We encounter ceramics every day, every moment,” Kim said. “Utilizing ceramics as a way to show the culture of Jeju can be more effective than any other methods.”
▲ His Jejuyo museum. Photo by Kim Yun Ae, below
“I want to put Jeju patterns into the black ceramics. I will probably have to start with everyday dishes, but I hope to develop Jeju ceramics into an art form, as with Joseon porcelain.”
As chairman of the Gwangjoo Ceramics Association in 1998, Kim hosted the Gwangjoo Royal Household Ceramics Festival, which debuted Gwangjoo as a ceramic city along with Icheon. With the experience he gained there, he hopes to introduce Jeju ceramics to the world market. He hopes that Jeju black ceramics, made from 100 percent trass, will become the fourth representative ceramics type of Korea, following Goryo celadon, Joseon white porcelain and grayish-blue powdered celadon.
As a member of the Korean Traditional Craft Skill Preservation Association, Kim often delivers lectures on the importance of and educational message of ceramics, including at Jeju Prison. With his lecture, he said, he wants to remind his audience of the philosophy that we are all born of the earth, eat food grown in soil from pottery made of clay and, when we die, we return to the earth. He believes that people enjoy listening to his story because they recognize these links instinctively.
Currently, Kim has 10 patents on clay mixing techniques, glazing and designs for his black trass ceramics. He emphasized that the patents were not acquired for business purposes and he is to share his techniques with other Jeju artists, whom he invited to join him. “I’ve found the fabric, the Jeju trass, but with only one tailor, no decent clothes can be made.”
▲ Examples of ongi water pots at Jejuyo. Photo by Yang Ho Geun
With his ceramics, Kim hopes to develop not only a trass ceramics culture, but also to promote other Jeju cultures. For instance, his dishes were highly acclaimed by the Pyochun family in Japan, which is one of that country’s celebrated tea families. With the use of his tea-pots, he also promotes Jeju Mount Halla green tea in Japan. Kim hopes that Jeju traditional food will be served on black trass dishes, so the result will be completely from Jeju. He hosted the “Jeju Ceramic Publicity Booth” at the World Ceramics Exposition 2001 Korea and advertised indigenous Jeju ceramics culture to the world.
His dedication is well represented in his studio and museum, the Jejuyo, in which he invested 8 billion won. The Jejuyo, lying on an area of more than 4,500 square meters, commands a view of the entire city of Jeju. The small muse-um beside Kim’s studio has a lot to offer, from the history of Jeju ceramics to tea ceremony classes. To show visitors the beauty of Jeju ongi, Kim has dedicated a small section of the museum to the pots. Outside the museum, next to two large traditional kilns, is a maetdol, a giant trass grinder or millstone that is more than 4 meters long. Here, you can see how pieces of scoria and basalt become clay. Kim and his two sons, who are also potters, plan to hold ceramic classes at Jejuyo in the near future. Visit www.jejuyo.com for more information.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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