Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pottery Kilns and Master Hand Chang-rang Lim

On a Royal Asiatic Society tour a large number of us visited various time-honored kiln sites in the Icheon area, an area noted for fine porcelain because it has two of the most vital resources for making the porcelain -- kaolin (white clay) and plenty of easily accessible firewood. Kaolin was only found in some areas of the country, and the best kaolin close to the capitol was found around Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province. With the heavily wooded areas nearby as well as the Han River for providing a transportation route for moving the raw materials to the kilns and the finished products to the capitol and beyond, Icheon was ideally situated and became the production center for much of Korea's most famous porcelain.

The first stop made was at the kiln of Ji Soo-ku, operator of a rare traditional wood-fired kiln and which is considered to be in the best condition of all the wood-fired kilns still in operation. He took over the kiln when his famous father, Ji Sun-taik, passed away about 12 years ago. Porcelain made by Ji Sun-taik is still being pulled from storage and sold. In his lifetime his pieces were highly valued  and similarly highly priced, and now in his death, the prices have increased commensurably.  To give an idea, one piece of porcelain could equate to the price of an apartment. Ji Sun-taik painted with a unique smokey-colored white, which is not a trait of any other potter.

Working the kiln takes a lot of experience and watchful eyes during the three-day firing process. The most common way for heating the kiln is to initially use pine wood, which has pitch and therefore heats quickly but unfortunately burns quickly too. Once the kiln reaches a temp of 900F, then oak is used as it burns with an intense more easily regulated temperature. Wood that has aged and dried for five years is the preferred woods for firing the kilns and achieving the best results. After the porcelain is fired, it is allowed to cool for a week before breaking the sealed multiple doors of the kiln open. The porcelain is then carefully removed and glazed. Once again the porcelain is put in the kiln, which is duly sealed and this time the temperature is raised to at least 1300F (temp known by the color of the flame). Once again the porcelain is allowed to cool for a week inside the kiln before removal. In the second firing, the porcelain piece amazingly shrinks by up to 20% from its original size.

best condition of a Korean traditional kiln

The store with a few select porcelain of Ji Sun-taik's
Not many potters have a museum attached to their kiln, but due to the fame of Ji Sun-taik, and in posthumous honor of him, his collection of porcelains and other related items can be viewed in his personal collection museum. Of particular note was his very rare collection of yong, or grave goods.

Yong (grave goods)

Mr. Ji Sun-taik's collection of wooden yong, exhibited at Doam-dang, is quite rare and unique since they are all found in Korea and dressed in Korean dresses. Yong is a kind of burial accessory made of wood, earth, ceramic, jade and straw. Yong represent various forms: man, animal, furniture, and utensils, and they are buried with the dead man with the belief that they serve the man after and beyond this life. Yong is the product of the ancient Chinese faith, which explains why it has been found or excavated in various parts of China in large quantities. However, it is quite rare to find yong in the Korean peninsula. For this reason, Ji Sun-taik's collection which is intact and in almost perfect form is of great value and interest.

Various kinds of yong, all of which were found on the Korean peninsula - rare
Kim Jong-mok's workshop and climbing kiln

Kim Jong-mok unfortunately for us doesn't always work on the weekend, but we still got to see his workspace -- just a simple electric wheel for throwing and turning pottery and a large space with loads of shelving to store the clay forms until enough is gathered for firing the kiln. Though the workspace was simple, his creations aren't. He incredibly creates works of art that are so uniform and graceful. A picture below shows the work of art before the first firing.

An example (right to left) of three pieces of porcelain (1) before the first firing, (2) after the first firing and with the top half glazed, and finally (3) after the second firing when the colors are fully sealed under a traditional glaze. Notice that after the second firing there was a very sizable reduction in size. These porcelains were all originally of the same size!
One woman was working in the workshop. She was a design-carver after the a layer of slip was applied. She worked with quick, deft strokes as she carved designs in the slip on the cup. She was racing time as the slip dries quickly.

Kim Jong-mok's climbing kiln

Exquisite and varied porcelains for sale in Kim Jong-mok's adjacent shop

The step-by-step process of making porcelain. Right to left, after the clay is shaped. (1) While the clay is still moist and malleable, designs are etched into the surface. It is allowed to dry and then (2) the clay is dipped in a slip that fills the etchings ... eventually the clay is fired, making it tougher and less delicate to distort from a balanced appearance. After painting select areas with colors containing metal like iron (for black) or copper (for red), the porcelain is fired again but at a hotter temperature than previous, resulting in a shrinkage of 20%. (8) The porcelain is complete. 

Other porcelain artists:

Lee Un-ku - has a kiln in a potter's village; is well-known for his brown Bunchong ware

Kim Se-ryong - has a studio in the same village; known for his blue porcelains and unique carving and cutting techniques

Lim Chang-rang - has a private studio and his own climbing kiln. He is a very active ceramist and paints elaborately, quickly and with graceful freehand strokes. Days before our visit, he had opened his kiln and pulled many large and gracefully shaped pieces out, which were still sitting by the kiln, making a very picturesque worksite. Lim Chang-rang is famous for his white porcelain and use of red copper. The Korean government designated him Master Hand (명장) for his expert artistry.

I loved his studio. It was filled with artsy paraphernalia and some very exotic pieces of porcelain dishes besides his very large vases bearing his exquisitely simple designs.

Master Lim Chang-rang personally wrote a message and signed a book
for every individual who bought one of his pieces.
exquisite Chinese pictograph calligraphy!
For video demonstrations on Master Hand Lim Chang-rang, check out his vimeo page.

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