Unsatisfied by the quality of education available to me at the time, I began a long love affair with Korea in hopes of finding a more ancient way of learning, living, and thinking. While traveling in Asia I quickly became inspired by the austerity and timeless warmth of Korean art, and found a corner of the world where ceramic tradition dates back 5000+ years yet is still alive and well in terms of technique. Older members of society in Korea still remember a difficult youth of hard labor and simple joys. I had a peculiar desire to learn like they did, like the ancients before them, from master to apprentice, over long periods of time and with little direct teaching.
Craving discipline, technique, and a new life, I packed a single bag and moved to Korea in 2015 with the goal of finding an apprenticeship. My focus was to learn Onggi, Korea's large jars used for food storage and fermentation. Fate took me to the studio of famed master potter Lee Kang Hyo, whose work I admired most. We spent a day together drinking tea, mostly in silence, but he understood where my heart was. He eventually introduced me to his student and now acclaimed onggi master Kwak Kyungtae in Icheon, Gyeonggi Province. At this point I was living and studying the language in Seoul and would travel by bus to the countryside every weekend to begin studying clay. A few hours of English lessons for the children, then off to the wheel to practice.
The philosophy of teaching I found was exactly as I had imagined: observe, practice, repeat. Then there was a new language, culture, cuisine, and philosophy of living. I chose to become totally immersed, and although there were challenges in the beginning, after a few years it felt as though I truly belonged. As if I had been born there, with a different family and a different way of seeing the world.
After six months of language study I could communicate “well enough” and moved permanently to live and work with master Kwak Kyungtae in his (then) country studio. We made hundreds of pieces every day to fill a huge reduction gas kiln once or twice a week. We had a traditional wood fired climbing kiln overlooking fields of rice and ginseng. It was peaceful, and felt very ancient. I still remember the old ladies walking by gossiping about my mysterious origins, waving, all smiles, in their traditional clothes. They seemed surprised yet quietly happy to see a foreigner working in their village.
As my throwing technique improved over two years of practice, my master finally felt it was time to start teaching me the Onggi method. As a coiling/handbuilding/paddle method, it was a completely new way of thinking and working with clay. As a method of making large pots quickly, it remains to this day unparalleled in the world. Its difficulty is also unparalleled. According to tradition, it takes a minimum of three years of daily practice to become proficient to the older generations' standards.
I spent nearly four years working under the master’s mentorship with incredibly long days and little rest, juggling production for the studio with my own practice time. The relationships built with him and his family, the way they opened up their hearts to me, the way our lives became one. I came to realize that some relationships can be a form of art.
Constantly pushing the boundaries of my own limitations I became proficient at wheel thrown production, loading and firing kilns, building and firing traditional climbing wood kilns, mixing and applying glazes, quality control, packaging, etc. The list of jobs one must be proficient at to be a potter are endless.
As I naturally shifted focus to larger Onggi forms, my master and I had the privilege to work and live for a period in Jingdezhen, the ancient porcelain capital of China. We spent more than a month making large scale work for his exhibition. Without a pug mill, I think I hand wedged and stretched nearly 2 tons of clay into coils on that trip alone.
During these years of study I would often visit Japan, usually alone, getting lost in that beautiful countryside or visiting friends and galleries in Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Mashiko.
As my apprenticeship neared completion, I felt a desire to give others like me the opportunity to learn ceramics in Korea without having to dedicate years to learn the language.
In 2018 we created Ceramic Masterclass: workshops in Korea tailored to foreign artists and students of clay, condensing elements of a longer apprenticeship into one or two weeks. An immersive experience of art, food, and culture through the lens and in the studio of a Korean master potter. If you would like to learn more about our courses, details are at www.ceramicmasterclass.com
Early 2020 I left Korea and moved to California, where I am now building a studio, harvesting wild clay and using natural materials in my own evolving body of work. Influences include antique Chinese/Korean/Japanese works from the 14th Century - Present. The online shop will be updated regularly as I produce cycles of new work.
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