An Article by Emily Gleason
Yeonsoo Kim grew up with several thousand years of ceramic history in his backyard. His hometown, Haenam, in Jeollanam Province, South Korea is famous for wild clay bodies used to make Onggi – ceramic fermentation jars. Yeonsoo first got his hands on some clay during a high school art class and it was love at first touch. Today, he is an award-winning ceramic artist who has exhibited his unique work nationally and internationally. This month, Yeonsoo joins us at the Mill as a special guest artist to teach an Onggi workshop. I sat down with him to learn more about the story behind his passion for clay.
As a kid, Yeonsoo often found himself in the kitchen helping his mom prepare ingredients for fermentation in their family Onggi. “I was the youngest child, so it was my job to help her,” says Yeonsoo. They made staples like kimchi, hot pepper paste, soy bean paste, and fish sauce, to name a few. Living in the countryside, Yeonsoo’s family still used traditional clay Onggi as fermentation vessels, however, this is becoming more and more rare in South Korea. With the rise of mass production, refrigeration, and migration to cities, clay Onggi are rapidly being replaced by plastic or glass containers.
Translated to English, Onggi means “jar-vessel”. Their production can be traced back to the Neolithic Age, estimated to begin about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago as a way to store food for long periods. There are four different types of Onggi classified by firing process. You can read more about the history of Onggi in a wonderful article by artist Hayun Surl, Onggi Through the Ages.
Yeonsoo discovered his passion for clay in his high school painting and sculpture class. Something about the mud stood out from the other mediums – the texture, the feeling, the wildness of it. His teacher, Subin Lee, encouraged him to follow his interest in ceramics.
Yeonsoo earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Ceramics and Glass from the Hongik University, in Seoul, South Korea. While in school, he took an Onggi building workshop and quickly became enamored with the craft. “I fell in love with making big pots,” he says.
After graduating, he apprenticed with Onggi masters Jeolla-do (Hayngjong-Oh) and Gyeongsang-do (Jinkyu Huh). “They taught me both the technical and spiritual aspects of working with clay,” says Yeonsoo. Beyond the craft, how to live as an artist – lifestyle, time management, the business of self-promotion, patience in the face of failure. While hard work, the experience helped him to develop strong roots.
Following his apprenticeships, Yeonsoo came to the U.S. and earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in Ceramics at Lamar Dodd School of Art, at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. It was through this transition from one country to another that Yeonsoo’s work began to evolve. He started experimenting more, moving away from the traditional Onggi of his apprenticeships and toward the more modern and colorful style he’s known for today.
Yeonsoo’s work takes the art of Onggi to the next level, blending the roots of a millenia old craft with his own vivid imagination and unique life experience. The results are incredible works that draw you in and hold your attention. Miniature worlds unfold across the surface of his massive hand-shaped vessels and sculptures.
Yeonsoo uses a variety of techniques including Sgraffito and calligraphy brushing to create the elaborate, brightly colored surface decoration characteristic of his pieces, including characters, animals, and objects. Memories, relationships, emotions, and expressions often serve as the initial flashpoint of inspiration.
He doesn’t plan or map out the surface decoration beforehand. Rather, he prefers to let it naturally unfold like you might doodle on a scrap of paper. “It’s about freedom over perfectionism,” says Yeonsoo. He works with both porcelain and iron bearing clay bodies, depending on the piece and decoration method. To build his large vessels, he uses a coil and paddle technique on a wooden kick wheel. Watch a video of him working here. For firing, he uses electric and gas kilns in oxidation or reduction.
Experience and Achievements
In August 2022, Yeosoo moved to Houston to begin a nine month residency at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Previously, he was a long term resident at the Archie Bray Foundation from 2020 – 2022, where he created an impressive body of work. In 2020, he was recognized as an NCECA Emerging Artist.
Yeonsoo has exhibited his work nationally and internationally. Some of his recent solo exhibitions include: You are not alone, Signature Gallery, GA (2021) and You & I, In Tandem Gallery, NC (2021). His recent group exhibitions include: Resident Exhibition, Archie Bray Gallery, MT, Pop meet Funk, John Natsoulas Gallery, CA, Material Mugs VI:Underglaze, Companion Gallery, TN, VISIBLE, Ro2 Art, Dallas, TX, Ware/Wear 2021, Pocosin Arts, NC Pottery Invitational 2021, among many others.
He has given lectures and workshops across the United States and internationally, including at the University of North Texas, The Ceramics Congress of Korea, Penn State University, Bucheon Onggi Museum, and many others. He has taught ceramics at the University of Georgia, in Athens, Georgia and at the Korean Ceramic Foundation in Icheon, South Korea.
Words of Wisdom
“It can be hard to maintain creative energy as a human being,” says Yeonsoo. “The key is to find a balance between time working in the studio and self-care.” This is not always easy. As for himself, Yeonsoo finds spiritual and creative recharge in nature, (the most exciting place for an artist). “I think the most important thing in life, as an artist and human being, is to be present, to be in the moment, with gratitude,” says Yeonsoo. “I am grateful to be in the studio and be with clay.”
Create with Yeonsoo
Register for Yeonsoo’s upcoming workshop, Onggi: Korean Fermentation Jar, September 17th and 18th, 2022. Also, don’t miss his artist talk on Friday, September 16th at the Mill!
Connect with him online at https://www.yeonsooceramics.com/ and on Instagram @yeonsooceramics.
About the Author
Emily Gleason is a writer and ceramic studio apprentice at the Donkey Mill Art Center. She has been based in Kona, Hawaiʻi since 2013. Learn more at: mthewriter.com.