I first wrote and published this post in February 2010. It was posted on my teabowl blog where I simply try to make sense of and gain a better understanding of teabowls. I’m about to introduce a Korean teabowl artist and want you to have this background before I do so.
Some. perhaps all of you may have already read this post but It has been a while since I first posted it and I thought it was worth repeating.
There is some debate emerging today in Korean and Japan about the bowls that became so cherished in Japan as chawan. Historians have long suggested that these bowls were originally Korean rice bowls. Others are now suggesting that they were Korean chawan from the beginning. Some, particularly the Japanese, are suggesting that the bowls were designed in Japan as chawan and ordered to be made in Korea for export to Japan. It is a debate that is difficult to prove one way of the other. For this article I came down on the rice bowl side of this issue but in reality can see the point of each argument, although being Korean I prefer the first two theories. I may address these views on the teabowl site one day. But for now, I would simply like to introduce you to the Choson Dynasty Korean potter.
Choson: Potter, Studio and Kiln
To begin to understand what went into the creation of the Korean rice bowls, that became Japan’s most desired tea bowls we have to look at the potter and the conditions that helped to create them.
There are basically two conditions that influence the creation of any work of art: 1. the “inner” conditions including the skills, eye, hand and creative spirit and even life-style of the potter and 2. the “outer” conditions that lie beyond the potter. These include: not only the clay, wheel, tools, kiln and firing conditions but also the process of preparing the clay, the studio as well as the environment and atmosphere under which the potter works.
The potter brings to his work a working attitude. The old Korean potter had “han” a universal Korean spirit that I will leave to others to explain. He was most likely “jang-in” a master and/or he was “janggi” a free spirit. He just made the work. (In those days most likely the one forming the work was “he” a man ). He wasn’t encumbered by any attempt to be creative – just make the work -- as many of the same pieces as one can make in a morning.
Today there are Korean tea ware potters who can form on a wheel 400 tea bowls in the morning and trim them in the afternoon. So certainly a similar number was possible 600 years ago. But even if they only made 200 pieces, a lot of work was produced and not much time was spent on any of them.
Having worked with a very disciplined Japanese potter Inoue Manji, I have some sense of what is needed to produce a lot of the same pieces one after another in a short period of time. But I don’t think the Korean potter approached his work in the same manner as the Arita porcelain Intangible Treasure Inoue. The Korean potter was relaxed, unassuming and approached his work with little or no thought. Those of us who have ever been “production potters” know that when you get “into the grove” of production work, your mind empties and your "body knowledge" simply take over. If we don’t care if they are perfect matches to one another the work produced is relaxed and natural. This process sounds very easy – just do it – but the reality of it is much different. We contemporary potters or "ceramic artists" have so many things that influence us that it is difficult if not impossible to adopt a “no mind”, or in Korean a “mot shim” approach. Hamada once told us, “It is nearly impossible to create loose work in a tight society.” We in the West have that problem. Hamada said that Japan suffers from the same problem – potters in a tight society attempting to create loose work.
For the Korean Choson dynasty potter, making the “loose” bowl was natural, a result of the life and conditions under which he worked.
As in the studio above, the space for the studio might have been dug out of a hillside. This provided additional insulation for the studio. The walls of the studio might have been made of stones and raw clay and it probably had a rice straw thatched roof.
The preparation of the clay was a lengthy process. Clay dug nearby was first dried completely then an elaborate lever system was used. Pushing down of the handle (A) raised the huge mallet (B). Releasing the handle, the mallet then smashed down on the dry clay below. Repeat many times until only small coarse pieces remained. Then the pulverized dry clay was placed into a water-filled shallow pit to be dissolved into s slurry. The slurry was ladled into a large deep cone shaped pit containing additional water. This allowed the stones to settle while the pure clay remained on the top.
From there the clay slip was ladled again onto a large flat drying area to allow the excess water to evaporate. (The above photo is from another studio.) Then the blocks of plastic clay were carried to the studio for foot kneading and spiral hand kneading before being placed on the wheel for forming from the mound. The Korean process for forming from a mound on the wheel is slightly different from the Japanese method. Having studied both methods with masters from Japan and in Korea I can simply say the Korean methods are are simpler and more direct but they are best shown rather than discussed. Sorry I can't explain the differences in a post. Between 5 and 8 kilograms would be centered from which 10-12 sabbal (bowls) would be formed, each with sufficiently large feet. Note: The large thick foot is important.
With no electricity available for lights, there was a window next to the wheel providing light during the forming process.
There are many clay bodies in Korea and each has its own personality. Some seem to have a mind of their own and stretch or move if the potter works too quickly. Others might have a lot of sand and/or fine mountain stone and must be formed very dry. Some clays even slump or twist slightly during the firing. Every clay has a great voice in the finished work.
The wheel was a simple kick wheel with very little "carry" or centrifugal force. It might wobble slightly, a condition the potter thought nothing of. Forming on such a wheel, even one that does not wobble, is a challenge for Western potters who are comfortable with their electric wheels. But it was easy for the Korean potter who knew nothing else. A wobbly pot stops wobbling when the wheel stops - so it doesn't matter.
Note: that some contemporary Korean teabowl potters choose to work with this type wheel today because of the special quality it gives to their work.
Behind the potter or nearby there was a raised ondol floor under which charcoal or wood was burned. This provided some heat to the studio but more importantly was where the freshly formed work was placed for quicker drying so that they could be trimmed in the afternoon, with a heat bent bamboo gub suay kal. The larger thick foot would remain leather hard for trimming even with the use of the ondol-heated floor while the body of the bowl became a little stiffer. The ondol floor photo above was taken after a recent refurbishing of the studio. You can see the same area before refurbishing in the prior two potos.
This old studio and its kiln could have been made at least 600 years ago and may be very similar to the studio used by the potter who made the Kizaemon Ido tea bowl.
This studio is the family studio of the Kim family and is one of the only historically preserved studios in Korea. The father, grandfather and earlier generations of the Kim family used this studio. Kim Jong Ok, Korea’s National Intangible Treasure in ceramics, his son Kim Kyeong Sik and his nephew the potter Kim Young Sik are members of that family. The studio and kiln are in the care of Kim Young Sik. Their studios are in Mungyeong, Korea's 1000 year old tea bowl village.
The chambered kiln, commonly used in many parts of Korea for this type of work is called an orum gama or mangdaengi gama "망댕이 가마" – the latter from the name of the hand formed raw clay columns or “bricks” used to form the dome of the kiln. This particular kiln is the oldest still functioning kiln remaining in Korea. As stated earlier, it is the old Kim Family kiln in Mungyeong and was built in 1843 during the reign of King Hyeonjong during the Choson Dynasty. It is kept repaired, as you can see below, and on occasion is fired. For a number of years I was the USA representative to this festival and return each year often with a tour group.
Many kilns like this one were covered with a structure that had a rice straw thatched roof. Occasionally these would burn only to be replaced. Rice straw was a stable building material for many generations. It was used as thatch, woven into blankets, braided into rope and even made into brooms to quickly add clay slurry to the cracking dome of the kiln during the firing to seal the cracks.
This kiln is quite large having six chambers and a large fire box. Many such kilns had just three chambers. Each chamber also had its own “fire box”. The kiln was/is fired beginning with the primary firebox and working up the hill to fire each of the chambers in turn. The interior is seen below.
Some potters bisque fired before glazing but many did not. In such cases it took several days of slowly heating the kiln until the ware was dry before carefully raising the temperature to melt the glaze. If fired too quickly some or all of the work would be ruined. No commercial cones were used but some potters created “cones” from small dried coils of the glaze pushed into wads of clay much like we might use a commercial cone today. Sometimes clay 'draw rings' dipped in glaze were also used. The ware was stacked directly on the floor or often on short ceramic stands as no shelves were available. In the case of bowls, small wads of clay, sometimes mixed with rice flour, were placed between the foot and the inside of the bowl. Usually 5 wads were used. These might be stacked five bowls high. In separating the bowls after the firing some of the bowls would be ruined. The glaze was very simple, often composed of a mixture of locally dug and pulverized feldspar and ash - nearly any combination would work. Occasionally a little clay was added to this mix. A number of great glazes can be composed of feldspar, ash [usually from wood, rice straw or rice husk or a combination] and sometimes clay.
If the clay body was too dark (as in the case of the Kizaemon) the bowl was dipped into a whitish slip composed of a porcelain type clay and feldspar or ash. If that didn’t adhere well or the clay absorbed too much water from the slip and collapsed, the slip was brushed on using a rough brush (wait for a future post on buncheong). Everything was very natural and direct. After all of this, it was not uncommon for the potter to lose 50% or more of the work produced. Many potters today keep even less than this percentage of their work for exhibit and sale.
To fully understand this Choson Dynasty Korean potter, we have to also identify with his life style. Such a description would take too long for this blog, but a quote from Hamada Shoji begins to explain it:
I think there are hardly any pots in the world through which a people’s life breathes more directly as Korean ones, especially Yi dynasty wares. Between pots and life, Japanese ones have “taste”, Toft wares have “enjoyment”, even the Sung pots have “beauty”, and so on. But the Yi dynasty pots have nothing in between; peoples’ lives are directly behind the pots. (From Hamada Potter by Bernard Leach, Kodansha International.)
The early Korean potter lived a life close to nature and his work reflected this natural connection.
Morning Crane Tea is part of our larger effort to promote Korean arts and culture. Our pottery Morning Earth has expanded to become Morning Earth Korea. We continue to organize both tea and ceramic tours to Korea. In addition after several years of work we are now able to offer new Korean experiences. These include 1. Individual or small group ceramic workshop experiences with significant Korean ceramic artists covering nearly any aspect of ceramics. 2. Individual or any sized group tour experiences around your arts or culture interest. Those who have already participated in these experiences have given them rave reviews. We have a Tea tour in May 2014 and a ceramics tour in August 2014. Contact us if you are interested.
 During the Chosun or Yi dynasty, women and children also worked in the pottery preparing clay and decorating. Today there are many well-established women ceramic artists in Korea and in modern Korea it was Ewah Woman’s University that first offered a class in ceramics.
 If the clay did not support such treatment, as trimming, the bottom would be beaten to compress it and if a foot were needed it would be wheel formed. This was a rare practice but potters adapted naturally to the type of clay they had. I may look at their tools in a later post.
 The term Yi dynasty was often used by the Japanese in reference to the Choson or Joseon Dynasty. The Yi family ruled Korea throughout the length of the dynasty. Yi is sometimes also Anglicized as Lee, Rhee or Ri. Hamada was not referring to the “greatness” of the work in this statement but to the connection between a people and their work. However, it is evident from his many comments about Korean ceramics that it was greatly admired. It is well known that Korean work influenced Hamada Shoji's work. In the first World Ceramic Exposition held in Icheon, South Korea in 2001 a special display showing the influence of Korean ceramics on the work of Hamada Shoji was featured. That exposition is held in three cities including also Yeoju and Kwangju. We continue to organize both tea and ceramic tours to Korea. Please contact us if you are interested.