The area in front of the Jeju Onggi Museum is like the ruins of a zoo’s polar bear enclosure: poured cement forms a basin and snakes around a steep bend that gives the illusion of expanse. Jeju basalt spikes out from the concrete, which makes the habitat more real. Vegetation has flanked the stone and taken over. Inside the basin, standing water’s turned to algae. On the other side of the path, stone walls hug round upturned pots the same way they hug Jeju burial mounds. Smashed onggi in the algae make it a graveyard.
Onggi is traditional Korean pottery, and Jeju onggi is a distinct breed, with seemingly small differences throughout its creation, the biggest among them being that Jeju onggi does not use glaze. Because of the porousness of the clay, Jeju citizens proudly call it a “breathing pot.” Huh Eun Suk, director of the Jeju Onggi Museum, adds that because of the clay’s porous nature, carbon from the wood burnt in the kiln leaches out of the clay and into whatever’s contained inside; this supposedly keeps the food fresher longer.
Back in the early 1960s, Daejeon, Seogwipo City, was the thriving center of the Jeju onggi market. Demand for the pots far outstripped supply and the craftsmen struggled to keep up. But only a decade later, the whole business was dead and gone.
Jeju onggi had fallen victim to a boom in factory-style manufacturing on the mainland. Suddenly, mainland businesses could design, manufacture and ship thousands of times the number of plates and containers, at a fraction of the price.
The story isn’t particularly unfamiliar: it’s Ikea versus the local carpenter; Amazon and Barnes & Noble versus Mom ’n Pop bookstore. The difference is, local carpenters can still eke out a living in the specialty market. Both Mom and Pop are still around if you look hard enough; but by the mid 1970s, no one was making onggi in the traditional Jeju style.
The reason the practice vanished so completely, instead of merely being crammed into a niche is simple: specialization. Jeju onggi is made in a very elaborate process requiring no fewer than nine discreet specialists in order to make each and every pot. From kiln maintenance to fire construction to clay selection, pot design and creation, actually firing the product: each process required a different person with a separate skillset. This made for a very fragile production line. As soon as one specialist got starved out of business, all of them did.
▲ The Jeju Onggi Museum’s mandate is to preserve and promote Jeju’s unique earthenware. Photos by Angela Kim
In the late 1990s, with first generation craftsmen aging and dying (most are over 80 years old at this time), a preservation movement began, from a new generation of Daejeonites and, in 2000, first generation onggi craftsmen began donating pots to the preservation movement. Huh recounts, “The first generation potters demanded: ‘we can’t preserve the [onggi traditions] without a place to do it.’”
The museum itself is a renovated elementary school, finally reclaimed from the overgrowth in 2009. It is not big. The museum consists of two rooms, lined with Jeju onggi and informational posters. A third room (the old cafeteria) still has low tables and benches, and serves as a claycraft classroom. According to Huh, typically children attend the one-day classes (and make wobbly pinch-pots to inhabit the cafeteria), though it’s open to adults. Huh also helps coordinate a six month intensive course to be actually trained by mostly first-gen craftsmen (this course uses authentic Jeju tools and techniques and takes place off the premises). This, surer than the three rooms of converted schoolhouse, is a way to preserve the tradition.
This isn’t preservation in the sense that endangered animals are preserved. The goal is not to carve an artisanal niche for the Jeju onggi and release it back into the wild market — Huh acknowledges that factory made alternatives still elbow that dream to the sidelines. Rather, the preservation movement is content to be relegated to history.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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