Tuesday, December 16, 2014

North Korean Onggi

We in the West most often think of North Korea only in political terms.  Historically the potters of what is now North Korea contributed significantly to the ceramic world.  Here are images of North Korean onggi.  The various styles come from different regions of North Korea.  I am working on identifying these regions but that may take a while. 

Note the high shoulder combing and 'ash blue' coming through the glaze.

This large jar is decorated by raised applied finger markings achieved with the 
use of quite wet small coils of clay squeezed onto the pot while it is rotating. Try it.

 Shoulder stamps and indented designs

 'Ash blue' glaze with a contrasting probably feldspathic glaze and subtle finger markings

Those of you familiar with Japanese ceramics will immediately see the similarity between the last three onggi images and the pottery known as 'Joseon or Korean Karatsu' (조선당진 朝鮮唐津).  During the Imjin War (1592-1598 CE) (after Japan had been given long rifles by the Portuguese) when Japan invaded Korea many, many Korean potters were captured and taken to Japan where they literally changed the face of Japanese ceramics.  Potters taken to the Karatsu area of Japan were from what is now North Korea.  The Joseon or Korean Karatsu style pf pottery in Japan began with these captive Korean potters.

Two sides of the same jar showing the contrasting rice ash over glaze
 the style adopted in Japan and called Joseon or Korean Karatsu.

A tall onggi jar in the same style as above.

If you know Japanese ceramics, you can readily see the similarity of these North Korean pieces with Japan's Joseon or Korean Karatsu. 

This piece is an example of contemporary Joseon or Korean Karatsu.  The Korean influence on this now Japanese style remains after  400+ years of use in Japan.
The author Dr. Alan Covell, author of books on both Korea and Japan once said, "Removing the influence of Korean potters on Japanese ceramics would be like removing all African American musicians from the Jazz museum." 
I'll be posting more on North Korean potters on another blog site.  I'll link to that post from here when it is available.     

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Rare 1920’s Onggi Film: Forming

If you are lucky sometimes an opportunity presents itself that allows you to combine several topics at the same time.  Such it is with this post.  I hope you enjoy it as it is setting the stage for things to come. 

Onggi has an unbroken history in Korea from prehistoric times to the present.  Paintings depicting onggi and onggi potters have been created throughout the centuries.  Once photography was developed many photographs of onggi potters were also taken.  Today it is not difficult to find digital movies of onggi production on YouTube. 
But it is extremely rare to find a movie of onggi that was filmed prior to August 15, 1945 the end of Japanese occupation of Korea, or even July 27th 1953 the signing of the cease-fire ending the Korean War. 
1895 was a terrible year for Korea.  There was rebellion in the streets, rampant typhoid fever, a war (the First Sino Japanese War Aug 1894 - April 1895) was being fought over the control of Korea, followed by horrific Japanese imperialism that culminated with the assassination of Queen Min (Oct. 8, 1895) who had been friendly with China. and most likely my grandfather's assassination a few years later as well.  This was one of the darkest periods in Korean history.  One book reviewer wrote, “The atrocities committed to Koreans during this period are only comparable to the Holocaust by Nazi Germany during the Second World War.” 
Various attempts at systematic cultural genocide made life in Korea under Japanese occupation extremely difficult.
Realizing that much of Korea’s rich culture might be lost, a group of German Catholic missionaries in the mid 1920’s set out to film aspects of Korean culture for posterity.
Because of our work promoting Korean arts and culture my wife and I were given a copy of that film. with the understanding that we share it.  It has found its way even into Korean public television from those we shared it with.  Now we are getting ready to bring some of it to you.
Be advised that in reality none of the film captures in a substantial way the full depth of the aspect of Korean culture being filmed.  Non-the-less each segment is enlightening and under the conditions of the time it is amazing that a single minute of any aspect of Korean culture from that time exists in this form.   While these snippets of culture may not show a complete picture, much can still be learned if we look carefully at what was filmed.

Forming a Small Onggi Jar

 1920's Onggi Potter

To begin to look at this film I want to try to set the stage.  It was taken either at a festival, at a street fair or simply of a potter trying to sell his ware by demonstrating to the crowd.  It was not filmed in the potter’s studio.  The wheel is sitting on the ground not in a pit as was and is standard onggi practice.  The practice of setting the onggi wheel or dok mulay  (also mulrae) in a pit in the ground allows the potter to stand at wheel head level when forming large jars.  The wheel in this position may also account for the size of the jar being formed, although I have witnessed very large jars being formed on onggi wheels sitting on the ground at contemporary festivals.

Forming The Bottom:
This old film begins part way through the forming process.  This provides me with the opportunity to both bring you up to that point in the film and also introduce you to the methods used to form an onggi bottom.  There are basically two similar methods for forming the bottom for an onggi pot.  Both bottoms begin in the same way.
I’ve searched my image archives but didn’t have the best images to illustrate the very beginning of forming an onggi bottom so I asked my friend Adam Field if I could screen capture some images off his video of Kim Young Ho from Adam’s YouTube posting.  Thanks Adam for granting that permission.

There are primarily two different methods for attaching the bottom of the pot to the wheel head.   In both cases they used powdered volcanic ash (pumice) to prevent the clay from sticking to the wheel head.  Today they use many different powders for this.  I have been told that pumice was historically used.  The pumice is sprinkled on the wheel head and spread to create a ‘disk’ of powder.  These illustrations are for a larger jar so the bottom in this case is quite large. 

A ball of clay is placed on top of the powder and beaten into a disk.

 The repeated beating of the bottom acts to compress it and smooth it.  Notice that the clay is spread beyond the disk of powder.  What happens next separates the two different onggi bottom forming methods.  The first method is used when making single smaller vessels and large forms.  The second method is used most often when making a number of smaller vessels of the same size and type.

When the onggi potter is making just one individual pot or the bottom for large jars  [1] is used.  When they are making a number of smaller vessels of the same size and style method [2] is used.  What is the difference?
1:  The outer edge of the bottom is secured to the wheel head.  When the pot is finished, the bottom edge of the pot and bottom edge are trimmed cutting off the securing edge.  Since powder is preventing the rest of the bottom from sticking, the pot is easily lifted off without cutting the bottom off with a wire.
2:  I know they look similar since the outer edge is also secured on the wheel head in [2].  But in this case a kal or knife is used to cut a circle of clay forming a securing ring of clay around the actual bottom of the pot.  That ring of clay is stuck to the wheel head and stays in place.  Each new pot is lifted out of the ring of clay that is holding the bottom in place. 
In [2] a small amount of powder is added within the circle of clay and new balls of clay are added to the center of the ring and beaten into place each time a new pot is formed.  In both [1] and [2] the bottom edge of the pot is trimmed with the exception that a ring of clay remains with method [2].  In [1] the bottom is always completely removed.

Let me try to bring you up to the point where the video of the 1920’s potter begins.  Because he was repeating forms, he used a style [2] bottom.

Once the bottom is in place, the potter picks up a piece of clay and forms it into a fat coil. (To illustrate the beginning processes I had to combine three different sets of photos of the same potter so you will see different colors of pants and clay.  The potter in the illustration is Park Byung Teak a cultural treasure in Silla style.  Silla style uses onggi processes.)

It is now time for water to be added.  Reaching into is water container, a wet thick narrow thick cloth was taken from the water jar and placed over the spinning coils and the clay was “thrown” or “turned” into a cylinder from which the pot would be made.  Thirty years ago that cloth was typically a short piece of a dhee or tai kwon do belt.  Today many onggi potters still use this method of adding water.  It appears as though the potter in the 1920's film also used a dhee.  Water is only used on smaller items and the final few inches of large forms in forming onggi.
In the film the dhee  is in the water jar but the wooden tools are on the table.  These tools, made of Asian pine, are normally kept wet, a practice that insures their smooth glide over the pot and also prevents them from cracking should they become too dry.  Notice the jar also serves as a prototype for the form of the pot he is making. 
The onggi potter turns the wheel counterclockwise by pulling the flywheel toward him with his left foot.  This allowed his right hands to remain steady as he forms the spinning clay.   Even today the flywheel has very little “carry” and did not spin long without pulling the wheel often.
Now lets watch the film.  In it he is using two tools a flat wooden rib that he uses to shape the entire form and a long mit ga sae or literally bottom knife that he uses to trim and shape the bottom side of the pot.  In the video suddenly the top of the pot appears as though by magic.  Obviously the filmmaker stopped the film for a while or had to load more film into his camera.  That top was added by adding a coil of clay.  As the video progresses, the potter takes a small piece of clay and rolls it between his hands to make a coil.  Then with a wet hand he ‘pulls’ a handle from that coil and attaches it to his pot. Quickly he uses his finger to indent the pot to create space for the hand on one side of the pot.  On the other side of the pot he attached a handle but does not make an indentation. 
Enjoy the film:

Before leaving this post, I should say something about Korean handle forming.  Traditionally only onggi potters ‘pull’ handles.  Handles for more classic Korean ceramic styles are made by hand often using stick forming methods.  We teach those methods along with various really interesting and productive methods for forming coils of all sizes as well as many other forming methods in our Korean ceramic workshops.  Contact us if you are interested in organizing a workshop in your area.
Join this blog to be informed when we post on onggi glazing and reveal a great old film on onggi firing.
(If this post is too confusing for you to understand these processes, please let me know.  Sometimes I may be too close to these action processes to explain them clearly in words.) 
Click here to go to our beginning post.
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Monday, December 6, 2010

Links to Onggi: Korean Onggi Images

  Lee Hak Soo and Kim Il Mann

The Korean onggi images on this post are all from either Kim Il Mann's studio near Yeoju or Lee Hak Soo's near Bosong.  Kim Il Mann uses coils to form his work and Lee Hak Soo uses slabs. (Click Link)
To view the image slide show, click the above link.  When the page opens you will find a "Play Slideshow" link with some images under it.  Click that link and the images will play automatically or you can advance the slides individually.  These are not process images but give a feel for the studios and kilns.  To stop the show simply click on the photo and scroll to the control.  Click on the red dot to return to start page and the back arrow to return to this blog.
Once you return to this page click here to go to the next post.

Links to Onggi: The Ulsan Onggi Movie

  Four Hands Onggi Ulsan

In some ways the posts I call "Links to Onggi" could be accomplished with one click connecting you to our web site on Korean OnggiThat is why I'm giving you that option.  The purpose for these "Links" posts is to help you connect the two websites KoreanOnggi.com and KoreanOnggi.blogspot.com opening the content there more directly with this site.  
I am creating separate link posts so that you can find what you are looking for more directly.
This first link post is to a slide movie on Ulsan.  It was made as my first attempt at movie making and was created very quickly on the spot at an Apple Store as part of a lesson I was taking on movie making.  That's why the voice over is a little erratic.  Never the less, I think the video serves the purpose of introducing you to Ulsan's Or-goson Ongi Village and their approach to forming onggi.  You will need to download Quicktime to view that movie properly.  Simply click on the back button there to return to this blog. 
I hope you enjoy the movie. The Ulsan Onggi Movie.
Click here to go to the next post.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The ChoWol Onggi Village 1978

 Please begin with the Introduction.
Click on the images to enlarge and the back button to return.
All images and text on this site are the property of this site.

More than 30 years ago, I visited the ChoWol Onggi Village near Icheon.  It was one of the most important onggi sites in Korea at the time.  I have lost my images of that place but it was such an important introduction to my understanding of onggi that I decided to try to write about it.  I can't do that without also introducing Kim Il Mann and his Ohbuja Onggi Studio and the videos provided by Adam Field.  I hope their images, both still and in video form and  these words will begin to describe ChoWol.  
As mentioned, the still illustrations, with one exception, come from the Ohbuja Onggi Studio home of Kim Il Mann who was recently designated National Intangible Cultural Asset in Onggi.   His studio, shared by his sons, is the only onggi studio in Korea that has returned to the old ways of producing onggi.  You probably already know about Adam Field for his wonderful videos on onggi production methods.  Adam has given me permission to link from this post to his videos on YouTube for the video illustrations.  Simply click the links and watch the videos.  Then use the back link to return to this site.  Thank you Adam for that permission.  
I will further highlight the Kim family,  Adam Field and the Ulsan Onggi Village site of the "lifting" image in later posts.  Join this site to be informed when they are available.
An old video of ChoWol Onggi Vilage does exist.   I'll eventually create s special post featuring that video.

ChoWol was a fascinating village and enormous in size.  To give you an idea of the size of that village, when it was closed, sadly it was replaced by a country club.  
As you entered ChoWol village, on the right were a couple of homes and workshop buildings including a long low gray studio with a number of large windows.  Outside, in front of the buildings, was an enormous clay field approximately the size of a tennis court.  It was at least 6 times larger than my illustration below. 
At one end of the field were a couple of mounds of earth, each about eight feet tall, composed of different types of clay and perhaps feldspar.  These earths had been dig by hand the winter before when they were frozen and easier to dig.   The earths were now in small chunks similar to mounds of dirt.  

Slurry pits

Next to them was a small shallow pit into which these earths were shoveled in loosely measured amounts from each of the mounds through a large course sieve to remove stones and twigs.  (See the above image.  Those at ChoWol were larger in size.)  The shallow square pit was a place for the clay to be mixed with water and worked into a slurry.  Then the slurry was ladled through another finer sieve into a deep cone shaped pit.  That cone shaped pit was about 6 ft deep and about 4 ft across.  Into this pit more water was added and the heavier materials, such as smaller stones sank to the bottom.  Watery clay slip from this deep pit was ladled through a finer sieve onto the field.  

 Wet Clay Field

The field had walls that contained the slip.  After ladling enough slip that almost like water spread across the field, the slip simply sat there until enough water evaporated from the clay for it to eventually form cracks.  

 Cracked clay waiting for processing

This water process produced very strong and very plastic clay.  No sand or grog was added.  Although the clay cracked in the open air, it remained very plastic similar to the bagged clay many of you purchase to make your ware - perhaps a little softer.  Today, many onggi potters use filter presses to achieve clay of similar quality.  The long water process is the secret to onggi's plasticity.   
On this day, the clay field was filled with cracked clay about 8 inches or 20 cm thick.  One of the workers was loading large chunks of these clay pieces, each weighing about 25 lbs or 11 kg, into a cart to be pushed into the studio.  Once in the studio these chunks of clay where unloaded eventually creating a large circular pile about 4 ft or 122 cm tall and across.  A "clay boy" (that is what they called the workers) pounded each block of clay into this mound with a large mallet like hammer, blow after blow after blow seemingly all day long.  

 Wooden mallets sit next to the beginnings of a 'pounding' mound

Not far from that mound was another pile of similar size that had already been compressed by pounding.  At that mound another clay boy was using an adz-like tool to shave clay from the mound.  

 Slicing clay in preparation for forming the coils.

These shavings were rolled into a ball and hand pounded onto the clay floor into blocks of clay each weighing about 12 lb or 5.5 kg before they were made into coils for the forming of the work. 
The coil forming process is fascinating.  The block of clay is 'squared' again by lifting and pounding it onto the clay floor many times.  Slowly this cube is elongated by continuing the lifting and flopping process. The clay is now about 3 to 4 feet long  and about 3 in sq.  It is still flat on 4 sides.  

 Twisted coil forming

Now it is twist rolled into a coil.  Above, Kim Chang Ho demonstrates this stage of the process.  Then the coil is further stretched by lifting and flopping.  The clay arches into the air time after time as the coil slowly reaches the length and diameter desired, usually about 2.5 in.  
Each of the potters sits next to a window.  Even today, with electric lights, many onggi potters sit next to a window.  From this point the jars are formed.
I won't try to describe the beginning or later forming  processes but suggest that you visit Adam Field's YouTube videos.  Click the links  to go and the back button to return to this site.  (Thanks Adam for permission to make these links.)
Immediately after each jar was formed it was lifted and carried out in to the drying area to stiffen before glazing.

 Ulsan Onggi potters carry a freshly made jar.

Glazing was done while the work was leather hard in a large tub filled with glaze.  The jars were set on their sides into the glaze.  Some glaze is allowed to flow into the jar and if necessary additional small amounts of glaze were splashed into the jar and the jar was rolled in the glaze thus coating all sides in and out.  Then the jar was lifted up onto its lip, the glaze inside poured out and the bottom simply wiped with the hand to remove the excess glaze. ( Click the Glazing link.)
The Korean onggi glaze is a combination of clay, ashes and "lye".  Interestingly, the early American southern stoneware 'alkaline' glazes are a very similar formula using some form of silica as the third ingredient.  That glaze was brought to America from China by missionaries.
The ChoWol village had two or three enormous dragon kilns each at least 100 ft or 30 meters long into which these jars were placed for firing.  They fired them seven or eight days slowly drying the ware before raising the temperature.

The Kim Onggi Kiln

A look inside the kiln
There is nothing like a good onggi woodfiring.  I will be posting a video shortly on the firing of an onggi kiln 90 years ago.  You will be amazed, especially when you compare that firing to this one videoed by Adam.

 My ChoWol Onggi Jar

The image above is of my onggi jar made at the ChoWol Onggi Village.  In some ways it is not typical of the work produced there.  I chose this jar because it was both matte in surface and dark in color.  Many of the jars produced there were slightly lighter and shiny.  The lid is also dark but more shiny.  I really like the strong direct finger marks on this jar.  It is a prized possession.  
The ChoWol Onggi Village is now nothing but a fading memory of a great onggi village.  Fortunately with it onggi didn't also fade from Korea.  That is something we feared when we heard of the passing of ChoWol.  
While onggi is not as strong as it was thirty years ago when we could drive out into the country and find many onggi potters.  Onggi in Korea is very much alive and well.  Click here to go to the next post.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


To those of us in the West it may seem odd that I would call Korean onggi the ‘mother’ of Korean culture.  Onggi seems so masculine and strong, created and fired by ‘real men’.  Indeed, most onggi (not all) is made and fired by men, but women are the primary users of onggi.  Like a mother, onggi alone has nourished the Korean people from the beginning of time.  It may be possible that there is no other aspect of Korean arts and culture that has been a part of Korean culture as long as the storage jars that we now call ‘onggi’.
It is this continuing partnership between men and women -the Korean people- that has made onggi what it is today.
Today it is easy to go on YouTube and find examples of onggi potters working.  Some of those videos are quite good, particularly those videoed and edited by Adam Field, but those videos tell just a small part of the story of onggi.  Don't get me wrong.  I applaud the dedication and work by those who are posting these videos, but all videos record just a portion of the story and much more needs to be explored. 
This blog will begin to explore some of the aspects of Korean onggi that seem to interest artists and art educators the most.  From the processing of the clay to the forming of the work, using various methods, to the building and firing of the kilns, this blog will explore these and other aspects of onggi in Korea.  We’ll also try to answer your questions.   Eventually  we may offer some onggi wheels, tools, other equipment and possible videos that you can purchase at reasonable prices and provide you opportunities to witness Korean onggi first hand.  If you are interested in purchasing pieces of onggi, we may be able to help you find the right piece although many onggi potters are hesitant to ship small orders.  Ceramic artists may even be able to study with an onggi potter by connecting with them through us.
Our research into Korean onggi spans more than 30 years.  During that time we have collected countless photos and met many onggi potters.  Recently, I returned from the Ulsan Onggi Exposition 2010 where I had been invited to present the keynote address.  I mention these things simply to provide you with a little background of my credentials to attempt to publish a blog such as this.
We are attempting this blog to help you get more personal with onggi and hope you will find this blog interesting.  It should be able to do some of the things our web site Korean Onggi can't do.  I look forward to your comments and questions as we take on this new blog adventure.
Along the way we’ll see if my assessment of onggi as the mother of Korean culture holds up.  I hope that you will join me in this new adventure. 
I must ask for your patience as this blog develops.  We have several other obligations as we attempt to introduce you to various aspects of Korean arts and culture and I do try to find time to produce some of my own work and prepare for a few exhibits each year.  
If you follow this blog, that will help me determine if there is an interest in our continuing this onggi blog, and your questions will help me determine the direction this blog should take so I look forward to them. 
To contact us directly leave a comment or email us. 
Click here to go to the next post.