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Yoon Kwang-cho

Korean, born 1946

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One of the master potters of his generation in Korea, Yoon Kwang-cho (born in Ham Houng City, Ham Kyung Nam Province) found his vocation almost by accident--it was his brother who first suggested he try pottery. After graduating in 1973 from the prestigious Ceramics Department at Hong-Ik University in Seoul, Yoon studied at a kiln in Karatsu, Japan, where the first Korean potters in Japan had worked four hundred years earlier. Upon his return to Korea in 1975, the artist was determined to further explore the ceramic traditions of his ancestors.

Yoon was particularly interested in the fourteenth- to sixteenth-century wares called punch'ŏng, characterized by their freedom of design, unusual shapes, and coarse potting. (The word punch'ŏng is an abbreviation for punjang ch'ŏng sagi, or "dressed blue-green pottery.") His first experiments with these wares, such as One Hundred Eight Anguishes, feature the sanggam inlay technique, in which designs are incised into the clay and filled with white slip (liquid clay) before firing. Yoon decorated these early pieces with circular, stamped motifs and incorporated Chinese characters from Buddhist texts or classical Chinese and Korean poetry.

For his Harmony series, Yoon adapted another punch'ŏng technique, in which designs are incised into the wet surface of a piece coated with slip. When the piece is fired, the iron-rich, brown body shows through the incised areas in the white slip.

Harmony marked a turning point in Yoon's career, according to the artist; although he still employed traditional methods, he reshaped his wheel-thrown pieces by hand and invented his own free, abstract motifs. Over the next ten years, Yoon used sand and bamboo knives, as well as his fingernails and thumbprints, to create different shapes and textures in his ceramics. By the 1990s, he had come to believe that "pottery doesn't necessarily have to be round-shaped," and he began to explore new forms. Insight was made by putting together two slabs of clay, an experiment he remembers as "the beginning of my travel to a new world."

In 1995, Yoon moved his home and studio, Kopwol-dang ("Reaching for the Moon Hall"), to the mountain recesses north of the ancient capital city of Kyŏngju. He credits these new surroundings, which he calls "Windy Valley," with renewing his respect for and understanding of nature, and reenergizing his creativity. In Meditation, Yoon achieved an irregular surface texture by applying a wood paddle to the still-moist clay. He decorated solid, square or triangular slab-built forms with incised patterns of mountains and starry whorls etched with straw onto the white slip. The Mountain Dreams series was also inspired by life in the mountains and his observations of seasonal changes. As Yoon explains, "With speedy brushwork, I divided the painting surface into two to create a tension, and with the dripped slip of white clay as a contrast, I show nature's variety." The shapes of the vessels are deliberately simple, with only the gentle curves of the top edge to suggest the mountains nearby.

In 2001, Yoon continued his earlier experiments with the time-honored practice of copying the Heart Sutra, a popular Buddhist text regarded as the summation of the wisdom of Buddha. He transcribed onto the clay the complete 262-character version of the sutra, using a nail to incise each character into the semidried surface of his hand-built vessels. Each inscription took an entire day to complete, and Yoon prepared for this ritual of devotion by meditating. "The clay does not forgive mistakes," he notes. In these works, Yoon relates his veneration for Buddhist beliefs to his reverence for the clay and earth that are his materials.

Yoon Kwang-cho's studio faces his beloved Windy Valley, and the artist fills many sketchbooks with images of the surrounding mountains and streams, the moon and stars of the night sky. Outside his studio is a small wooden platform where he drinks tea or wine, depending on the mood and company, and exuberantly shares his insights and absorbs new ideas and images. Although his life is filled with friends and travel and the cosmopolitan world outside, he works in solitude. In his studio, he is intent upon his art, often forgetting to eat or sleep while possessed by and taking possession of the clay to produce his unique and highly individual work.

Mountain Dreams: Contemporary Ceramics by Yoon Kwang-cho, 2004

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