GUARDIAN OF HERITAGE ‘Thinking Hands’ of Lee Hyun-bae, Master Onggi Artisan

In traditional arts and crafts, artisans of the past learned their craft through apprenticeship and spoke of their art only through their handiwork. lee Hyun-bae, however, is a new-generation artisan. the master potter learned onggi pottery (traditional Korean earthenware) through words and writings; he thinks deeply about each procedure of his work, concerning himself with modern applications of traditional culture.

The master onggi artisan Lee Hyun-bae shapes the rim of a large jar on his wheel at his workshop in Jinan, North Jeolla Province.

Listening to Lee Hyun-bae talk was like reading a written text. Whenever he paused groping for the next words, thoughts would rise, gather, or scatter in my head. I felt that way listening to his story about a time when he had been working at a pottery store for five months. He said he had felt “a sudden burst of energy” on looking at a shard of a broken pot. At the time, he had never baked a vessel, but was just trying to seize an opportunity to develop an eye for quality while working as a clerk. Calling it an “eyeopening moment,” he added, “Pondering later why I had felt such energy, I remembered that the shard’s cross section was in the shape of a sperm. The fragment was broken off from a pot’s mouth, so the cross section of the rounded rim, called jeon, looked like a sperm’s head and the remaining part its tail. Just as a sperm’s head carries all the genetic information, an onggi pot also has its information in the round rim.”
It was a story tuned to the theme of onggi ware and vitality, a story as articulate as his pottery skills, although I must say I was not fully convinced yet. However, it was just a small portion of the narrative he was building up, which at times took unexpected turns to make a point in a broader context. When talking about pottery wheels, for example, he went on to discuss certain details, such as his line of vision: “With the wheel in front, I sit on the mat with the sun to my right. I lean to that direction, pushing the treadle with my left foot, turning the wheel counterclockwise, and looking at the right side of the pot, its outer surface.”
The master artisan’s remarks, covering diverse topics with earnestness, offered a glimpse of his wisdom ripened by time. Not a word was uttered without thought.

It was as if he had sorted out all the strands constituting his idea of onggi pottery, assigning meaning to every one of them. It seemed as though he had reinterpreted the 26 years of his life as a potter entirely through the prism of his craft, and found a way to express it in clear language. His words reflected the broad scope of his thinking.
And yet, there was a hint of desperation in the way he built up the narrative — a desperate struggle to bring onggi pottery, submerged in the obscurity of tradition, up to the surface of today’s life, and to define his contemporary role as a potter. Driven by such a strong sense of mission, he looked robust like a solid piece of onggi ware, the clay structure that withstands heat exceeding 1,000ºC without buckling.

Lee and his wife work together arranging his well-dried onggi jars and lids inside the kiln for firing.

A Chance Encounter in His Wandering Days
“In my childhood, I was nicknamed Golbae, meaning an emptyheaded boy. People kept telling me to think before acting,” said Lee with a big laugh, his face all creased up. It was a laugh wrapped around the recollection of an embarrassing past. “I always wished to be somewhere else, but I would wake up every morning disappointed that I was still there. With my heart burning with inexplicable anger, I would howl and scream, only to feel afterward a void in my heart. After such solitary tantrums, I would storm out and run to stand on a riverbank, listening to the sound of water. It was the first sound that I would hear coming back to my senses,” recalled the artisan.
So he named his first child Mul (meaning “water”) and settled down at the head of the Seomjin River.

In his teens, when he was driven by wild emotions, he would run away from home to go to Seoul, or roam around his hometown pushing a cart to collect junk to make a living. For some time later, he worked at a hotel kitchen making chocolates and leading a comfortable life. Before long, however, fascinated by a sculpture in the hotel lobby, he decided to study sculpture and start a new life. In the midst of his confusion, he stopped by the Jinggwang Onggi Shop on a trip to Beolgyo, South Jeolla Province, and this chance encounter became a turning point in his life.
“When they asked me what brought me there, I answered before I knew it that I wished to learn onggi pottery,” Lee recollected, adding, “At that time, I used to spend every night reading back issues of ‘Deep Rooted Tree,’ a popular cultural magazine widely circulated in the late 1970s. Reading one of its articles about onggi pottery, I remember thinking, ‘This must be a job to avoid.’ Onggi potters could barely make ends meet, the article said, and going hungry had been my worst fear since childhood.”

“Firing pottery and fermenting food are similar in pattern because both are vital processes. The vessels quickly baked in a modern gas kiln cannot be the same as those fired tenderly and delicately in a wood-fired kiln for almost a week. Their fermentation capacities are different.”

Stoking up the fire, Lee feeds more wood into the kiln to maintain the firing temperature. After the fire is lit, it takes about seven days until the glaze on the surface of the heated pottery is melted, the last step of the firing process.

It was a time when onggi ware was falling out of favor for a number of reasons, including the widespread use of plastic goods and the scandal around the detection of lead in the chemical glaze, a substitute for the traditional natural lye, which resulted in a loss of trust in traditional earthenware. After all that, his time at Jinggwang Onggi Shop — two years and seven months, starting from 1990 — may be difficult to explain in a way that makes sense. Unlike most stories about the early careers of eminent artisans, there was no period of apprenticeship under an almighty master, whom he would have emulated to learn his skills. He was just managing the store, arranging the merchandise, and only occasionally had an opportunity to appreciate the works of Park Na-seop, a master potter who sometimes dropped by the shop. In his reminiscence of that time, two names came up repeatedly: Han Chang-gi, the publisher of Deep Rooted Tree, and Han Sang-hun, his younger brother and owner of the Jinggwang Onggi Shop. Declaring that he cultivated his aesthetic discernment through his association with these two men, Lee recalled, “In the store, we would call the publisher Grand Master and the owner Master. But the potter Park Na-seop we addressed just as Sir. Later, I would wonder why I had the talkers, not the doer, as my teachers. Then again, the easiest way to learn about onggi pottery might be through words.”
At some point after this unconventional learning process, he was expected to immediately take over the responsibility of supplying onggi ware to the shop. Acquired mostly through observation, his skills were still incomplete, so his vessels would shatter in firing, or the kiln would collapse before his very eyes. He felt an urgent need to bring order to this chaotic situation. Eventually, however, he overcame difficulties and has been “able to make the products without a hitch since 1994.” In time, he opened Sonnae Onggi Shop in Jinan and started to sell his own wares.

Clay, Fire, Wind, and Sunlight
Was the disjointed few years’ stint enough for him to learn? Why did he not try to learn more? He fell silent, seemingly searching for words, and then answered, “Well, the skills for making onggi vessels are … rather simple.”
It may indeed be a simple craft because it only involves wheel throwing, glazing, and firing. Nevertheless, the potter should communicate with the clay, fire, and air to produce a decent piece of onggi ware. Lee explained: “The clay is either dead or alive. You can tell by the color. Dead clay tastes different and has a unique smell. It cannot hold tight, so it tends to droop when you throw it. An onggi vessel made with dead clay feels heavier — even when the same amount of clay is used — and tends to buckle under the heat of the kiln.”

Featured at the exhibition “Today’s Onggi: Lee Hyun-bae” held last winter at the southern branch of the Seoul Museum of Art, an array of funerary urns are the products of the project that Lee and the Naju National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage have conducted since 2008 in order to revive the skills for reproducing the ancient earthenware coffins excavated in the Yeongsan River basin.

What would be the best clay for onggi pottery? It is easy to find such clay, he noted, usually within a radius of 2–3 kilometers from where he lives. The clay from the fields is watery and that from the mountains crumbly, so the best place for collecting clay is an area where the mountain and the field meet, he explained. Then, where is the best clay produced? He answered, “It is true that there is a better type of clay to work with. Senior artisans would say that it’s safe to mix clays from three different regions, no matter where they are. Onggi pottery is like traditional herbal medicine: the potency comes from the harmony of all the ingredients, not from the efficacy of a single, prominent ingredient.”
Then again, what texture was required of the clay? And what difference would such texture make in the final products? Asked a series of detailed questions, he backed off and just remarked, “I often heard people assert that onggi ware are ‘breathing vessels’ and so I almost expected I would find some supernatural quality in them. To my dismay, however, I found nothing of the sort. It is not the jars that breathe, but their contents do.” One of the essential functions of onggi containers is facilitating fermentation, allowing air to circulate while preventing liquid from leaking, the potter explained. “Therefore, the clay should not be too dense, but it should have both fine and coarse grains, somewhat clumsily stuck together to allow air circulation,” he added in some awe, depreciating both his craftwork and himself.
According to the potter, the particle structure is the property unique to onggi ware, different from that of porcelain. While the glaze for porcelain, applied for strength and hue, seals the surface with a vitreous layer, the lye glaze for onggi blends into the clay particles, creating micro pores for breathing. It is an optimal environment for fermented food to be stored fresh, enduring the alternating conditions of hot and humid summers and cold and dry winters.
At that point, Lee found the right time to talk about fire. Onggi vessels, which tend to slacken in summer and contract in winter, can withstand climatic differences, which prevents them from bursting, although not just any fire can bestow such power on them. He stated, “You should stoke the kiln steadily, as if simmering food, and the fire should feel as delicate as the melodies of sanjo (traditional Korean solo instrumental music), or jazz. Firing pottery and fermenting food are similar in pattern because both are vital pro cesses. The vessels quickly baked in a modern gas kiln cannot be the same as those fired tenderly and delicately in a wood-fired kiln for almost a week. Their fermentation capacities are different.”
The potter’s elaborate story of clay and fire moved on to that of wind and stars. For a few days, he went on, the thrown clay pots are left to dry before they are stacked in a kiln to meet fire. They are taken out before morning dew forms and left in the shade until the sun comes out. Treated this way repeatedly, the pots dry up more steadily. Lee says that exposure to sunshine makes a difference in the pottery although he still can’t tell exactly what makes the difference.

The Family Together in Experiments on Onggi
“From jars for storing placentas (tae-hangari) to bowls for cooked rice (omogari), crocks for collecting night soil (hapsu-dogaji), and coffins for the dead (onggwan), onggi ware has been with the Korean people all through their lives from birth until death,” said the master artisan, who sees diverse aspects of human life in onggi pottery. The list of onggi items used in households goes on: crocks containing condiments as well as fermented foods, lamp bowls lighting up the darkness, braziers for burning charcoal, pots for distilling soju (rice liquor), and many more.
Continuing the tradition, Lee presented his new pottery works at the exhibition “Today’s Onggi: Lee Hyun-bae,” last winter at the southern branch of the Seoul Museum of Art. It featured a modern interpretation of onggi pottery in the form of a variety of tableware and utensils, including noodle meal sets, Western dinnerware sets, espresso cups and coffee roasters, and single-portion decoction pots for herbal medicine. Believing that onggi ware has both practical and aesthetic appeal, the potter has consistently produced modern living items with properties similar to the traditional ceramic ware. Such efforts came to fruition as his “moon jar” and stew pots received the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts in 2008.

Sets of condiment crocks in varied sizes featured at the exhibition demonstrate the artisan’s belief that onggi pottery should keep up with modern living conditions and changing culinary practices.

But his experiments did not end there. “In my family, we’ve had discussions on the role of onggi pottery, and our reference point until recently has been the mid- and late Joseon era from the 16th century, when earthenware pottery glazed with natural lye started to appear,” Lee said. “However, in our latest discussion, I suggested we put it back by several centuries to the Goryeo era, and pay attention to pottery as self-sufficiently procured necessities of life, not as commodities produced in society and supplied to individuals. With that in mind, we’re planning various experiments — for example, firing pots in the Goryeo style and storing soy sauce in them.”
All of his family members are trusted champions of his work: his wife, who majored in painting, provides him with artistic inspiration;

his son has learned pottery and runs the business with him; his first daughter, who majored in sculpture, gives him ideas about household items, food, and other things; and his second daughter, who is studying publication editing, contributes by documenting his work. They make pottery together, discuss their different views and experiences to develop a system or methodology for transmitting the craft, and explore even broader topics like food culture in general. It is a process of learning that encompasses studying, cooking, and eating, which is also offered to the public in a program entitled “Family Business.”
Lee often goes to shops selling plastic goods or tools. He said, “I visit these shops before I start making something new. I observe the changing trends in the make-up of everyday articles. Those cheap goods have no pretentions because they are simply faithful to their functions. With time added, they become traditions.”
Finally, he mentioned “thinking hands” — his hands, he seemed to imply, inscribed with all the memories, thoughts, and actions accumulated throughout his career as a potter. It is a concept seldom discussed by other artisans holding the title of Intangible Cultural Heritage, who tend to avoid verbalizing their ideas and declare that their work will speak for them. Lee is not a potter who wants to be explained by his products; he hopes to incorporate into his work the years in which he has lived as a potter. In those years the real Lee Hyunbae and his pottery exist.

Kang Shin-jae Freelance Writer
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer
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