A Conversation With the Artist Young Sook Park in Her Studio, A White Porcelain Story
Interview conducted by Hong Nam Kim (Kim)
Kim: I noticed quite a few Korean antiques coming into the studio- antique stone sculpture, wooden furniture. Have you collected any other Korean antiquities? When did you begin your collecting?
Young Sook Park (Park): I grew up in Gyeongju which was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla for almost 2,000 years. In Gyeongju there’s a world-renowned Buddhist temple, Bulguksa, where two famous stone pagodas called Dabotap and Seokgatap are located. If you dig just inches into the ground, the earth was full of ancient ceramics; blue marbles, jades and so on. Bulguksa was my childhood playground. As a child, I’d explore all the ancient histories that surrounded me, which had an enormous impact on who I was to become. Gyeongju blessed me with a rare kind of education. I didn’t have formal art or art history training, however, I had wonderful mentors. Gyung Ryul Yoon taught me about art and artifacts. He was considered to be the last descendant of the Silla civilization and was a wealth of knowledge on ancient Korean cultures and traditions. A son of the Choi family was my history teacher. It was truly magical to grow up in Gyeongju; the earth was full of wondrous objects. My mentors would teach me about my findings and explain to me about these artifacts and histories. At first, I was very young, maybe thirteen years old. I would enter the antiquities stores and the proprietors would not want to sell to me because of my age, but I would tell them that I was just doing my homework, so they would let me buy. Then, they’d get upset because I would choose only the good pieces. They were left with the bad pieces, and I was just a kid. When I was a child my father owned a souvenir shop in front of the temple. Back then you had to have a permit to run a shop like this. In order to obtain the permit, it would be required that you carry Silla antiquities. In the corners of my father’s shop, he would have a display of my Silla antiquities. Over time, historians and known collectors would come through the shop and inquire about my collections. They’d be surprised to find out I was a just a child. Over time, I acquired a reputation for my displays and these people would make a point to come by the shop when they were traveling from Seoul to Gyeongju just to see my collections. I became known as the go to person for Silla antiques. They started calling me the Bulguksa kid.
Kim: Name a few of these people that you met as a kid.
Park: Sooyoung Hwang, Hong Seop Jin, Jaryong Cho, Yong Hye Ye, and of course, Sunu Choi. They would tell me to collect whatever I was drawn to, whatever I liked and gave me no instruction. They trusted my taste and would buy from my collections on their visits. As I recall, Mr. Sooyoung Hwang collected Buddha sculptures. Jaryong Cho would collect the antique roof tiles of the Silla period. I think they were enamored and impressed by my abilities, especially considering my young age so they would often bring me presents; shoes, cakes, and so forth. My reputation continued to grow and because of the connections I’d made to important collectors in Seoul, many merchants and vendors of antiquities in Gyeongjuin would frequently visit me in hopes that I’d purchase their objects. If a vendor came and I wasn’t at home, they would wait hours just to meet with me. Kim: What types of works was Sunu Choi looking for, in particular? Park: Earthenware and metal artifacts of the Silla period. Gyeongju was known for these kinds of artifacts. At that time, my collections and knowledge were limited to the Gyeongju areas. But Sunu recommended that I expand my collections to include porcelain and wooden furniture. So I began to look at works outside of the city of Gyeongju, around the North Gyeongsang Province. Last year, in 2014, I was sitting in Sunu Choi’s home and it occurred to me just how profoundly an effect Choi had on my life. Sunu introduced me to the world of white porcelain. It was his encouragement that directly led me to broaden my artistic horizons.
Kim: Was there a specific moment or catalyst for you to become a ceramic artist? I had heard that Ufan Lee was involved in your becoming an artist somehow.
Park: Years ago, my husband opened an art gallery in Insadong, Seoul. In the corner of the gallery, I would display some of my ceramic creations- pieces that I was making for hobby. One day, Lee Ufan came by, this was the first occasion I had to meet him. Ufan liked my work, and we became acquainted at this time. Later on, Lee Ufan told me he was interested in my work because I displayed a real talent for portion and ratio in my creations. It’s likely this talent came from growing up in Gyeongju, surrounded by such amazing historic art and artifacts. So, yes, Lee Ufan did encourage me to pursue a career as a ceramic artist. Before meeting him, I felt like I was just a house-wife making ceramics for fun. A while back, Young Bang Song, a respected painter and friend visited my home town. He was meeting with Gyung Ryul Yoon, my childhood art teacher and mentor. We all four were together, Song, Yoon, myself and my husband. Yoon had escaped from the North, and had left his entire life behind, but I remember that night when he was asked by Song if there was anything that he regretted from his life, having lived here in the South for 30 years- Yoon stated that his one regret was not pushing me to go to art college. I remember this to be very striking, you know, considering the life he had lived. From that point on, my husband became very supportive of my work. Kim: Was there any specific artistic direction that Ufan Lee gave you? Park: No, there wasn’t any. But he did say that ceramic art can not be achieved overnight. This was very good advice. I understood what he meant; that I would have to have patience with my work, that there would be no easy road to achieving perfection in this medium.
Kim: What is your idea of a master piece of ceramic art and what are your standards for perfection in this medium?
Park: Making a masterpiece of ceramic art, for me, first involves reviving the lost methods of the Chosen dynasty and utilizing these traditions to make contemporary works that go beyond the majesty of the white porcelain and buncheong of Chosen. I’m sure that most of the potters of the Chosen period had the same goal that I have- to achieve a perfect translucent whiteness. But I have to assume the working environment of the time would have made it tremendously difficult to produce porcelain of this caliber. As a result, you rarely see ancient masterworks; maybe one out of thousands. These masterworks were all produced and owned by the royal courts. Take a look at Mangwoodae plate. This is a beautiful plate and I consider it to be a masterpiece. It was produced by Chosen’s royal kiln. When I first began, Lee Ufan pushed me. He has meticulous taste and uncompromising standards. Lee believes in universal beauty, conveyed through form and composition. Whereas some people may say, a little imperfection here and there can be a part of the artistic process. Lee won’t accept this. He was very strict and I tried hard to follow this direction. I choose to focus in ways that would enable me to explore his levels of obsessive perfection. As my mentor, Lee challenged me to create the entire Chosen ceramic tableware collection. This was a real test for me, there are so many shapes and forms, which was demanding in it’s own right but to make all the pieces match together - it was very difficult. This gave me confidence and the skill set to try much more ambitious things. So, in short, my standard of perfection is as follows: Color, form, proportion- these elements must be in perfect harmony. There should be nothing that distracts the viewer’s gaze. I strive to achieve a universal beauty and aesthetics.
Kim: I’m glad you mentioned the Mangwoodae plate. I was very impressed by this piece as well. Ehwa Women’s University Museum had a few pieces that came from the same kiln. You’ve been collecting for so long, and you have such refined tasted. Is there anything that inspired your artistic production?
Park: The Mangwoodae plate and the moon jar are very special to me. Both are in the Leeum Museum’s collections now, and both have become national treasures. The Mangwoodae plate was first brought to me by merchants when I was in my 30s, still living in Gyeongju. I loved it so much, but I couldn’t afford it. I asked my friend who was also a collector to buy it so we had an appraiser look at it in anticipation of a potential sale and they said it was a fake. I knew in my heart that it wasn’t a fake. So I took the plate to Sunu Choi who was the Director of the National Museum of Korea at that time. Choi said that the piece belonged in a museum. This recognition from Sunu Choi made me very happy because it affirmed my knowledge and intuition. The museum purchased the plate for their collections. Later, Hoam Museum purchased the plate from the National Museum of Korea. Speaking of the Hoam Museum, they also have some of my other collections: earthenware and wooden objects. When the Leeum Museum opened, I gifted one of my white porcelain collections in celebration of the inauguration. I was very happy to do this because of my longstanding relationship with Hoam Museum and the Lees.
Kim: Your path hasn’t been easy! Where did your passion for all of this come from?
Park: Making ceramics takes a lot of effort and a lot of financial commitment. In the case of white porcelain, it’s even more hard work and expense. I remember a while back, I reached a point of exhaustion. I told Lee Ufan that I couldn’t go on anymore; I just wanted to do Bunchoeng, which is more fun and less demanding. Lee told me to come to Japan. He wouldn’t tell me why, but he kept pestering me to visit. So I went. During my visit, there was a remarkable exhibition on the Koryo Dynasty period at the Osaka City Museum of Fine Art. What stood out to me about this exhibit was that all of the truly superior pieces were completed by one master, not as a collaboration or school. It was an eye opening experience for me, and a turning point for my career. I ascertained that, historically, there’s one voice for a generation and that it’s one artist who produces the most important works of art. I had a realization that I wanted to be that artist for my generation. So I rededicated myself to my work, even though I understood how difficult the task would be. Once I’m gone, it’s unlikely that my work would be continued by my own children, or any other artist of our time. This made me feel a sort of obligation to finish what I had started. If I don’t, who else would do it? I decided that I wanted to be the one to connect contemporary Korean ceramic art to the incredible works of the Chosen dynasty. Kim: Making ceramics for over 30 years, you must have had many difficult moments. Park: Throughout my life, from such a young age, I have been supported by individuals who have believed in me. I know they have expectations for my success. It’s important to me that I honor their support. For instance, Lee Ufan brought many heavy books to me, and all the way from Japan! He encouraged me in so many ways. Letting these people down was not an option for me.
Kim: Are you religious?
Park: I go to Buddhist temple, especially when I am having low moments. My beliefs help me through hard times with my work. In the early 90’s, I visited temple to pray 3000 bows. My pieces weren’t coming out the way that I wanted them to. Korean Seon Master Seuongcheol and I had a close relationship. He came to me and encouraged me. He told me he would help me. He believed that I needed to share my work with the whole world, not just Korea. At that time, the master gave me the name of “Myo Hye Wol”; miraculous and wise moon. Ten years later in 2003, I started making moon jars, but in 2011 I hit a wall. Nothing was turning out the way that I had imagined. The two halves would never fit together. I felt it was impossible but I wouldn’t give up. I vowed to do the best that I could do. I felt that achieving the moon jar was a metaphor for my life. At that time, in 2011, I’d been signing the jars “Park”, but I began signing them “Myo Hye Wol”. Then, as if by fate, they began to turn out nicely. It seems as though every time I reach a point of wanting to give up, someone or something happens that pushes me in a better direction. It’s as though the heavens are affirming that my fate is to make my work. Looking back now, making a moon jar was a truly difficult and challenging process but I enjoyed every moment of it. If someone had asked me, what is your life like, I’d say- I’ve had a great life...and I have no regrets.
Kim: It sounds like making ceramics is your fate? Do you feel that way?
Park: Pot making, the more you do it, the more interesting life becomes. I just really love making ceramic pieces more than anything else. For me, doing anything short of the thing I’m most passionate about feels unproductive. Korea is often overlooked with regard to their legacy of ceramics. China’s recognized as the best. I felt that if I could do what the Chinese did, but do it better, perhaps I could do justice to the Korean tradition of pot making. The Chinese traditionally would make huge plates. I felt that my challenge was to make larger, better quality plates than China. So, I started out making very thin plates because the Chosen traditional plates were very thin- modern plates are much thicker than the old ones. Making very thin plates is the secret to being able to create larger plates. Some of my big plates are almost five feet in diameter and it takes six people to turn the plates over. If you want to make bigger plates, they must be thinner at the base so that they will not break. I only sleep four to five hours because I stay up to do my research. I pray to the Buddha figure I have at my house. Every morning, I pray the souls of the past potters of this nation; I pray for their wisdom, knowledge, for their strength, so that I might be the person who can represent Korea in our time
Kim: I have the impression that you are better known overseas, is that correct? Park: I wanted to promote not just myself, but Korean ceramics, so I opened my own gallery in New York City, on Madison Avenue and in doing that, I gained more recognition in the west and gained a few good friends, as well as collectors and patrons of my work. All these individuals are well established, worldly renowned in their own field. I feel very fortunate to have met and befriended these individuals, and am thankful for their support. Kim: You mentioned a gallery on Madison Avenue in New York, what happened to it? Park: It was adventurous for us to open that space. Ceramic art is new to American culture. It was a tremendous financial burden. The rent on Madison Avenue is very expensive. It was a worthwhile, but challenging venture. It gave great exposure for my work and introduced me to the west as well as to many of the aforementioned collector. But, in the end, it became too costly to maintain, given the art market and economic situations. My son is now living in New York City to promote my work.
Kim: I want to know about your working process. Lately, you’ve been focusing on white porcelain. Do you make buncheong still at all?
Park: I rotate from buncheong to white porcelain. When I’m working on one, I focus on it completely. Buncheong and white porcelain can not be done at the same time. They are very different processes, and require different things of me. Buncheong is very rigorous. It must be attended to from early morning into the late evening. When I have momentum going, I can’t stop or even take a break. The clay must be kept moist, or else it will crack. So, once I start the piece, I have to see it through to completion, or it’s a waste and the work will be lost. When I am doing the brush work, I must be extremely careful to keep my stroke continuous, or the flow will be broken. If the flow of the brush stroke is distrupted, this will show and the piece will not come out as I had planned. My patterns are expressive and intuitive to whatever I am feeling at that moment. For example, I began making ceramic birds when watching my grandson playing, and I was inspired to create something playful. Now that my grandchildren are grown up, the inspiration has evolved away from that and into different areas.
Kim: Very interesting. Where do you find your clays and how do you create your glazes?
Park: The Chosen people would not have had the tools or access to the clays that are deep in the earth, so I try to use surface clays. Sometimes I mix them with fermented glazes, or I’ll use clays from my hometown. Some time ago, I’d noticed that when the the pieces came out of the kiln, some would come out in a different shape that they went in. They become distorted, or tilted. I discovered that the clay responds to the fire in the kiln. This reaction occurs to the parts of the clay that encounter the heat first. In order to maintain proper form, every single project requires for me to amend the composition of the clay, and the glazes, and the temperature of the kiln. It’s become intuitive to me to make these amendments to these elements. As for my glazes, there will be left over clays. I can manipulate these clays in to glazes. For buncheong I use fern ash from deep in the mountains. I’ll ask the people of the mountains to collect the ferns and then I make fires and burn them into ash. Or sometimes I go out to my backyard to collect the acorns to mix into my clays for glaze.
Kim: I remember you mentioned in an article that 99% of your white porcelain pieces that go into the kiln will result in failure. Is that true?
Park: Making ceramics is a complicated and intensive process. It’s as though I’m making something as precious as a gemstones from the earth, but I’m making it out of dirt. Diamonds can be carved from stone and polished to be made beautiful. But ceramic can not be achieved simply by doing my best or trying as hard as I can. There’s fate and luck involved too. When these works are in the kiln, they shrink 15-20 %, and the direction of the shrinkage is not even. Sometimes the works will collapse. The process is an endless cycle of trial and error, even if I always did my best, 50% of the process is the fire, which I have no control over. After it enters into the kiln, it’s in God’s hands. Nature, the heavens, the winds, they must all work in my favor in order to create the works that I intended to make. Even though I’ve been working for thirty years, tiny changes and differences in the ways that I interact with the clays cause the pieces to come out different, and make the work totally unexpected.
Kim: Can you tell me more about your process for making buncheong?
Park: Buncheong is more difficult to do in the winter. I prefer to do this during the Spring when there is moisture in the air. A copper glaze on the other hand, is made better during the Fall. At the height of the season, the colors in the glazes appear to manifest more intensely. I believe that because pottery is made of clay and firethe elements of the earth- it’s affected by the changing of the seasons.
Kim: Out of your ceramic, there are pieces that come out completely unexpected and unintentionally, right? Can you tell me about some?
Park: Yes, there is a table that I have in the studio that I have been using for a while. When they did the bisque firing for this piece, it was broken into two pieces. I had heard of a metal that would melt at 1330, so I used this metal to connect the two and it worked, resulting in the creation of an abstract sculpture. Once a moon jar folded in on itself from the middle part of the side. I still found the piece to be interesting and pleasing, so I kept it. Last year, I was supposed to show 6 pieces at the National Museum of Modern Art in Korea. These were all white porcelain eggs, and the title of the show was “Birth”. I tried very hard because it was the grand opening of the museum. I wanted very badly to have the works completed for this event. Two pieces came out very nicely in the bisque firing, but despite having chosen a fortuitous date for the glaze firing, they came out cracked. Yet, I felt that they still somehow maintained beautiful shapes. When I showed the two cracked pieces to the museums, they were so in love with them and asked me to donate the works to the museums. But I couldn’t give them away, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to recreate the works.
Kim: Young Sook Park’s white porcelain, how do you view your own work?
Park: The ceramics used in royal courts of Koryo and the Chosen Dynasty were outstanding. Approaching the later period, there are some works of lesser quality. The colors are milky or yellowish colors due to the uneven firing process. Some were used in everyday life so they’ve collected residues, and wear and tear. Korean homes back then were smaller than today. I employ methods that were used during the Chosen periods, but I also developed my own techniques with modern sensibilities. For example, I fire the works gradually, slow like cooking rice. Regarding emulating forms, I noticed that the Chinese have really large ceramic pieces because traditional Chinese architecture is on a much larger scale, so it was natural for them to have larger pieces of ceramic. I believed that we could do that same thing, and now that our contemporary homes are larger. So, I made my works larger. To me, simply reproducing the pieces of the past is somewhat meaningless. What was needed in the past was needed for their lifestyles, but now we have different needs so I try to create work that fulfills those needs. The pieces from the past, were handmade, so the particles of the clay were larger. In modern times, works are made by machines but when you use machinery, it can look artificial. So I use the techniques of the past such as hand pounding the clays with tools like mortar and pestle. This contributes to a more authentic aesthetic. Even though my works appear smooth, they hold a more natural beauty. They are more organic, and they have more personality.
Kim: For a while you did a lot of buncheong with iron glazes, are you doing this still?
Park: Having lived in Gyeongju was beneficial to developing my iron glazes because when it was the capital of the kingdom, the irons were abundant. The antique stores are full of these metals. I would buy these pieces, some of which were decrepit, and I would put these metals into a mortar and pestle. Once I had grinded them down, I would add to the glazes as an experiment. But there is a secret to it, you can’t just apply the glazes to the surface. You must place on the piece and then pour down over the clays so that when it comes down, the color of it is glamorous because it has decayed and aged for thousands of years. Then the color is able to come to life.
Kim: Lastly, how do you feeling about this exhibition? What were your aspirations for the exhibit and how do you feel about how things turned out?
Park: Last year I was sitting in the backyard of Sunu Choi’s old house, watching guests leave one by one. I was the last one to leave. I kept thinking of Sunu Choi, and I felt that if I could put my creations in his home, that perhaps I could bring the space more to life. After all the displays were set up, and they were photographing the works, I sat on the floor of the house. Sunshine was coming in, and I was sitting on the warm floor. I was thinking what a wonderful fate, for me to have met Sunu Choi when I was young, and now to have become who I have become, and then for me to have an exhibition of my works here in his home. I felt like maybe he was looking down on me, and I wanted to tell him that I have come so far because of his help and support. Not too long ago, I had eye surgery and I almost lost my vision. I thought that if God were to take something away from me, it would be my eyes, of all of my talents. This experience gave me an opportunity to look around at my surroundings and I thought that perhaps I was too into my own work, that maybe I should be doing more to give back. When this exhibition was being discussed- I felt that this would be a good thing, to donate my works here. I felt maybe this was a test from Sunu Choi. The last piece I made for this exhibit is one of the greatest that I have ever created. I wanted all of the best for this exhibition, and for it’s fundraising, for the Old House Project. I want Suni to see my works. If he’s listening, “Hello Mr. Choi, what is my score? How did I do?”