Sunday, August 8, 2010

Celadon strings

Readers: Today I am addressing my blog entry to my friend Val, who as a potter and educator, would appreciate everything that I experienced today so I would like to share with him.
Dear Val, August 9, 2010
Gangjin Celadon Festival
Gangjin, ROK
I wanted to share with you the magic of this place. Gangjin is a very mountainous area situated by the sea about 5 hours southwest of Seoul. Haze seems to hang in the air here, and the breezes, even when coming off the water are warm and full of moisture. The city was once protected from a Japanese attack by an army of scarecrows that were dressed in traditional clothing and outfitted with weaponry and strategically placed along the shoreline, we pass the monument to this army on our way to the festival each day. The event is taking place at a pottery center that is located in one of the many mountain meadows and it houses the National Celadon Museum. Celadon and ceramic education is so important to existence here. I am amazed at all I have witnessed. The workshops for the public seem to guarantee a sense of pride in the crafting of celadon, and the heritage it has supplied. I have to admit that until my arrival I had no clue as to what Celadon really was. I always just assumed that it was a glaze type (calcium based?) that’s color was influenced by the amount of iron that has been added to the glaze compound. I also assumed that celadon was a glaze that was traditionally applied to porcelain. I have learned differently this week and it has opened my eyes even further in terms of the nature of the materials being used.
Its not the first time I have seen artwork directly tied to culture and a culture influenced by the artwork it produces, however, this is the first time in my life where I have been immersed in a situation where I am witnessing the nuances of just that. It is as if this is a national team sport. (Sorry, I am assigning a western mentality to explain, which doesn’t do it justice). The people and the artisans here have great admiration for those who work with their hands and as foreigners who are willing to come to their country and share a love of clay with them has granted us somewhat of a celebrity status. I was even asked to autograph an exhibition card next to the picture of my work.
In any case, I arrived to the festival yesterday with a very tight agenda. We had a two hour workshop on carving and inlay with Jung Ki Bong. It was extremely informative, and made me want to go home and make some better tools for my own carved work. When I get home the umbrellas and elastic bands from my boys needed to be discarded underwear does not stand a chance. This is also where I learned about the nature of true celadon, and how the color is controlled by the iron content of the clay and firing material more than the amount of iron placed in a glaze. It was explained that the inlay technique was started originally to hide firing blemishes but the average potter may study the creating of one particular form for about fifteen years before learning those carving and inlay techniques. What does that mean for his pots prior? I spent a good portion of the time recording Jung Ki Bong working so that my students can enjoy the experience as well.
On the way to the workshop I took a look into the kiln shed. I had noticed the day before that they were getting ready to fire and I had never seen such a maticulously clean kiln area in my life. The kiln was candled at around 10PM and the crew was just starting to get a good firing rhythm going. It was also starting to get very hot outside, and I found myself being very empathetic to the crew that were glued to that spot. I fired Chris’s kiln last year on a similar type of day, 9o+ degrees and very high humidity. I suffered tremendously. Never the less, the firing was just starting to gain speed and they were wonderfully gracious about letting us witness it. The anagama was about the size of Chris’s with no appendages (salt/soda chambers). It is housed in a beautiful shed with tremendous gardens planted all around it.
During the workshop, I took a break and ducked back into the firing to see how things were going, camera in hand of course, and Yon Jae Jin, the factory manager snatched up my camera and placed wood in my hand and directed me to stoke the kiln. Which of course he took pictures of. One of the firing crew called me over to where he and the others were sitting and had me join them for some cheongiu and seafood pancake, which they happily announced was Korean Pizza in broken English. I indulged and then excused myself as politely as I could and snuck back into the workshop, a bit snickered I might add.
After the workshop we dined on black noodles, scallion pancakes, and more cheongiu. We had an hour of free time in which to explore the festival. I have been here two days and have yet to see it all. The event is that massive. We then returned for a workshop with Mying, Jae Hyeon who is considered a maser of the sabal, or bowl. Did you know that unlike the Japanese tradition, in Korea a bowl is not granted a specific purpose such as rice or tea? I found this quite utilitarian.
In this workshop, I also learned that the north and south are not brutal enemies, as portrayed in the media, and cultural exchanges and commerce are still a vital part of the society. Which surprised most of the group. Traditional Celadon is manufactured in two places, here in Gangjin and up in the North. Artists, to this day actively exchange cultural information as if the preservation of the cultural tradition supercedes politics. This was heart-warming to hear.
When the day of learning was wrapped up, I headed over to the kiln, to see how the firing had progressed. I was again handed some wood. I had a few hours of free time and allowed myself to sit through a few stoking cycles to see how they fire. Two things amazed me, all the wood-fire potters from our group seemed to be doing the same observational research and comparing notes and though there was a pyrometer, they were relying more on the color of the smoke that was coming out of the chimney than anything else to dictate stoking, including the blowhole. They seemed to be keeping the kiln in a consistent amount of reduction, as the smoke was a very light grey as well as wispy. They stirred as much as they tossed, and the firebox was completely open. This was something every one of us was marveling at, wishing we were fluent enough to ask the proper questions such as the effects on the draw. I was thrilled to have had that experience and cannot wait until I return today to see how the firing has progressed and how well the crew is faring. They told me in very broken English that they fire for 3 days and cool for 7. I am hoping to share with them the vimeo link to a firing I documented at Chris’s a few years ago.
I arrived here in a melancholy state knowing that the end of this trip would be met with a return to the chaotic sleep deprived schedule of school. I am four days into the trip and realizing how enriching this experience will be for my students. I have come up with numerous ideas and will be reframing a handful of lessons. I still have a great deal of time between now and then to further my repertoire. I leave Gangjin on Thursday to head out on a tour of the other 8 pottery centers in South Korea. I am sure I will have many more adventures to disclose.
I hope this has found you and Elsie well. More later.
Have fun playing with mud today!

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