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Korea`s remarkably healthy and rich craft tradition

Posted February. 15, 2001 19:33,   


I`ve always liked crafts. And I`m not sure why. I think it is because I was raised in `the family business` - a small family-owned hotel in South-western Ontario. In a family business nothing is really `personal`. Nothing is `hand-made`. I ate off factory-made china, drank out of factory-made glasses, and slept in a factory made bed. There was nothing ¡°made-by-hand¡± in my childhood environment. It was ALL factory-made. The famous British ceramic artist, Bernard Leach, said many years ago that ¡°in factories the principle objectives are sales - and aesthetic considerations must remain secondary.¡± Unfortunately this was SO true. My childhood environment was SO dreary - SO impersonal - SO factory-made. But Korea changed all that.

I first visited Korea in 1977. And what a shock it was. It was my first introduction to a rich craft tradition. I could not speak or read Korean, so I asked some Korean friends to help me to drive to Ichon, where I saw for the first time a remarkable range of hand-made ceramics, of all kinds and all prices. I saw not only decorative bowls and plates, but also wonderful handmade dinner-plates, cups and saucers, bowls and serving dishes for use in every-day life. The Canadian craft industry was in its infancy. We had nothing to compare with this. I was sure that I had died and gone to ¡°ceramic heaven¡±.

Bernard Leach has also said that ¡°the crafts of a society are the essence of its culture¡±. A visit to Ichon proved Leach¡¯s belief. I recall, in particular, that we visited him to see his wonderful celadons. We only had vague directions to his studio. And I will never forget turning off the paved road into a small laneway that receded into the distance through endless rice fields. It had rained, and the laneway was very muddy. As we drove along, the raincloudes became more ominous, and the lane became increasingly narrow. I began to fear that I would become stuck and never get back to Seoul. But our fears were misplaced. We found his studio and his wonderful celadon creations - truly, as Leach suggested, the ¡°essence of Korean culture¡±.

Our happiness suddenly turned cold and our hearts sank. He told me that everything in his studio had been produced for a Japanese client. There was nothing for us. My disappointment was so obvious that asked us to stay for tea, in hopes of brightening our spirits. It was over those cups of tea that I was first exposed to the great love of a Korean potter for his art. Our conversation - through Korean friends - became so animated, and our mutual love of his pots was so obvious, that he relented and agreed to sell me ¡°one pot¡±. Even though he could only part with one pot, he let me chose which one. I have that pot to this day with me in Seoul.

I returned to Korea in the summer of 1998. And the tradition that I had first experience 20 years earlier had truly blossomed into a remarkably strong and vibrant craft culture. Ichon, and its neighbours of Kwangju and they are even more wonderful in 1998 than I recall from 1977. The potter community has grown, and designs are remarkably varied while still drawing on the timehonoured themes of the great Korean ceramic tradition. I was delighted to discover the many shops devoted to the pots of a single artist - shops usually managed by the spouse of the potter. And these wives are remarkably devoted to the creative skills of their spouses. He creates the most beautiful blue and white ceramics I have ever seen. And his skills in the traditional Punchong ware are a delight. I hope to add many more pieces from their hands to my personal collection.

Eber H. Rice, councilor of the Canadian Embassy in Seoul