Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Korean Potter Lee Kyu Tak: Introduction

 Click images to enlarge. Click the X in the upper corner to return.
On our many travels to Korea, we have always tried to find one or two ceramic artists whose work is outstanding and touches us deeply.  These artists have formed the foundation of the content of our ceramic tours.  Our tour guests have often wondered how we were able to connect with so many exceptional ceramic artists.  Simply put, it takes time, dedication and many trips to Korea.
We first met Lee Kyu Tak in 2001 when we attended the first World Ceramic Exposition in Icheon, Korea.  Lee Kyu Tak was exhibiting his work and also had an artist’s booth.  Mary first spotted his work and called me to look at it.  It is rare to find a ceramic artist with such control of surface and form as that displayed by Lee Kyu Tak and also touches you deeply. 
Lee Kyu Tak Incense Censer and Case

Since the Goryeo Dynasty, Korea has made beautiful cosmetic cases.
Goryo Dynasty Cosmetic Cases
Of course it is not fair to compare old Goryeo Dynasty celadon made by humble artisans with a contemporary artist's buncheong.  Lee Kyu Tak’s cases made by a highly trained artist surpass the original in many ways.  However, the Goryeo work exhibits great skill and has a soft quality that can't be duplicated except perhaps by time.  Lee would not be producing such works had the humble Goryeo artists not gone before. 
Lee Kyu Tak

Lee Kyu Tak has both revived and re-purposed these cases for the storage of incense. 
Many potters shy away from these small cases since they must be made to fit perfectly.  Lee seems to relish this challenge.

Lee Kyu Tak began his studies by seeking out and studying with the great Japanese master the 11th Takatori Seijan.   Under the 11th Takatori Seijan, Lee developed the foundation of the discipline exhibited in his work today.
(We know that the Takatori family of potters are descendants of captive Korean potters from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Imjin War of 1592-98 that is also known as the Pottery War.)
It is not easy to connect with some artists.  We were not able to connect with Lee Kyu Tak for two years.  Then we discovered that the road is very narrow with twists and turns.  A large bus can’t make it.  He seemed hidden from the world.  But the effort to find him has many rewards.

Lee Kyu Tak's Garden

Lee’s kiln, garden, showroom, studio and home, like his work, are created with care.

Kyu Tak’s kiln is a step climbing kiln or orum gama also nogorigama (noborigama).  The word 'gama' or 'gamma' means 'kiln'.  This type kiln ,originally designed in Korea, became very popular with Japanese potters. 

A ceremonial chawan sits above the firebox. It was used as one of several offerings before the firing.


Entering Lee’s showroom we are greeted with a magnificent array of ceramics.

We had been first drawn to Lee Kyu’s work in part because of his carved buncheong (above) but his showroom revealed his mastery of many styles and surfaces.  The above style is reverse carving.

 Click images to enlarge. Click the X in the upper corner to return.
Lets look at a few examples of Lee Kyu Tak's work with a little more explanation.

Stamped Buncheong
To create stamped buncheong, Lee Kyu Tak must first create the stamps - hundreds of them.  Each stamp has been carved by hand from leather hard clay and then fired to a bisque. Then each stamped impression is carefully inlaid with soft white clay at the consistency of heavy cream allowed to stiffen and the excess is scraped away leaving the white design.  Each step takes hours of work and care.  Click on the above image twice to see the detail of his work.  

Some of  Lee Kyu Tak's Stamps

Lee Kyu Tak's versatility and understanding of the breadth and depth of ceramics can be illustrated with this and the previous piece.  This more rustic surface is the oldest type of glaze known.  It is simply a mixture of selected wood ashes and water.  However a more sophisticated artist like Lee Kyu Tak is probably also adjusting his ash mixture with some feldspar.  Natural stone in the clay body add to the feel of this chawan.    

For a Korean, this style is quite interesting.  In Japan the style is called Chosen Karatsu and is a style of glazing used by many ceramic artists in the Karatsu area of Japan.  But where did this style originate?  Why is it called "Chosen" Karatsu?  Why is it sometimes called 'Korean' Karatsu?  Ans: this glazing style comes from a type of Korean onggi.  You might say, "I never saw Korean onggi glazed that way".  That is because it comes from captive Korean potters during the Imjin War (1592-1598) who lived in the area of Korea we now call North Korea.  I'll show some examples of the North Korean onggi in this style on my onggi blog some day.

Jinsa! Copper red! One might think that the use of copper to obtain this blood red color originated in China but Korea was using copper red 200 years before the Chinese.  The Korean term for this is 'jinsa'.  There are two types of jinsa, 1. jinsa-yu that results in large areas of red often covering the pot completely and 2. jinsa-che or decoration with the brush to create the cherished blood red color often using gold.  The upper right corner illustration showing 9 examples of Lee Kyu Tak's work is jinsa-che but most likely not created by the use of gold.  The red and white areas on the jinsa-yu bottle above is the result of various amounts of oxygen in that part of the kiln during firing.  Sufficient oxygen = white, reduced oxygen = red. The glaze is the same. 

This incense censer or burner and accompanying incense case are right at home with those who understand Tea deeply. (Capital T)  Some may counter argue that the aroma of tea and incense are too competitive.  While others reply that simple incense like  aloeswood (also known as agarwood) is so subtle it enhances the Tea experience.   In any case this 'higher' relief carved incense censer and case are beautifully carved by Lee Kyu Tak to enhance the experience of tea.  I would like comments on this subject. 

Korea has a long history of Korean blue and white ware but this bold blue and white design is purely Lee Kyu Tak.  This is bold and boisterous where as old Korean blue and white ware is often very subtle and the blue is sparse.  Why?  The color is obtained through the use of cobalt.  Cobalt was very expensive during the Joseon Dynasty and the cobalt was often impure resulting in subtle grey-blue tones.  Here Lee Kyu Tak does the opposite, shouting BLUE but still there remains a softness to this contemporary blue.     
I hope this short incomplete introduction to the work of Lee Kyu Tak begins to touch the versatility, depth and breadth of his work.
All this and hardly a word about teaware.  My next post will be on  Lee Kyu Tak’s teaware.  Contact us if you are interested in the prices of his work.

Please go to the next post on Lee Kyu Tak.

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1 comment:

  1. As always an educational article. I congratulate Arthur. I like his work to spread Korean culture.