We have spent this winter weekend pruning the fruit trees in the orchards.
The citrus crop is now coming into its own. We are harvesting ripe citrus every few days for our breakfast entre.
I’m sitting in the kitchen writing this, it’s a sunny morning and the sun is streaming in through the northern windows flooding the kitchen with bright colour and light. So bright in fact that I can’t see the screen properly. I have to move my chair, so that I’m positioned in the shadow of one of the window pillars, otherwise the light in my face makes me squint and makes typing very unpleasant. I could move to another room, but I love the sunshine on this winter solstice morning. I can look forward to the nights getting shorter and the days longer from now on. Not that it will make any difference in the short term as it always gets colder after the solstice, just as the hottest days are after the summer solstice. It’s more of a mental recognition that things are on the change that is reassuring.
from the re-imagined, re-used and resourceful sweeper upperer.
Winter brings on the lemons and not just on Monday or Friday!
All the citrus a coming on and although it is very early in the season, we have a load of fruit to get through.
Potter, kiln surgeon, clay doctor, wood butcher and Post Modern Peasant.
Not just catching up on the past emails and book orders, but immediate things like the fact that the big gum tree on the corner of our street that was hit by lighting just before I went away, has needed to be lopped and made safe. The fire brigade came and put out the fire, but didn’t fix the mess, as it’s not their job. The tree was badly damaged, burnt, split and shattered. It’s not our tree either.
I get to make another visit to the clay processing building, as there is a problem with the rock crusher that they have just acquired, 2nd hand. Apparently the electric motor starts to smoke after 20 mins of use, i have a close look at it , just from the outside. I can see that the motor is recently reconditioned, the over-spray is still evident on the motor housing and wiring. I’d say that it has burnt out the motto previously in its past life, That may be why it was for sale 2nd Hand?
I suggest t hat they do some research on other new models of this kind of machine and check out what sort of horsepower in really needs. I typed this last sentence in 10 seconds just now, but last week it took me about ten minutes to say all this is several goes at it using the translation app! Waiting for them to formulate a reply or ask another question, then I type my one fingered reply on my tiny, phone virtual key board. It takes a long time.
That’s just the way it is here with me and complex ides and a language that I can’t speak. I feel like I’m a child sometimes. I ave some complex questions that I would like to ask, but when I start to formulate the sentences. The moment has passed and I can see that i will al lot more contextual material for this all to makes one sort of sense. So i give up and wait for another occasion. They must think that I’m stupid sometimes.
It’s a fantastic resource to have available to them to efficiently process their own sericite porcelain from the excellent, but slow, ‘wet-method’ from ball milled slip, filter press and vacuum pugmill.
While my work dries and I wait to pack the bisque, there are a few people and places I need to catch up on. I’m invited to both a lunch and a dinner with the students and staff of the Museum on two different days. I love Korean food, everything comes with chilli, even some sweet things!
After we have finished eating our lunch, it’s time to settle down and help the residents of the Baekto Porcelain Village make a thousand glaze test tiles. Everyone gets involved at different times. Many hands make light work and they are all made in one day.
I’m not really part of the group and I’m not too sure how I can help out in an unobtrusive way, so I decide to do the picking up off the floor of the cut sections and place them within reach of the real workers who know what they are doing. Later, having shown interest and done my time on the floor. I’m promoted to press-moulding the curved sections ready for assembly.
Before leaving the village, I wander up to the kiln shed to check out the kilns and I see 4 pallets of 2nd hand fire bricks, all cleaned and wrapped and one pallet of new firebrick slabs. I quickly calculate that this is about 2,000 bricks and 90 slabs. I’m guessing that these have been purchased for the kiln building workshop that Mr Jung has proposed to me. It may take some time to eventuate, as there doesn’t seem to be a a floor slab or roof for the kiln as yet.
I am scheduled for a meeting with Mr Jung and The Premier of the County of Yanggu, or State President, along with Myeongki Shim, the translator who has worked with me in the past and did the translation of my book, 5 Stones, into Korean. We are scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss the idea of offering a workshop style summer school open to potters to come and take part and learn about the down draft firebox in the process. I can see this taking some time to organise.
It might not be the lack of a slab and roof that hold things up? Political realities being what they are, and money being hard to come by. We’ll have to wait and see.
I’ll need to do some calculations to get the whole thing to work correctly, as all the bricks are solid, hard fire brick, so this will limit what I can achieve with just one simple fire box. I’m also told that they don’t want to use ceramic fibre here for the lightweight firebox stoke-hole door, so there goes the idea of a top loading firebox lid and a throat chamber lid. It is starting to look like I might be building quite a small kiln, as I want to build and demonstrate a simple example of a single firebox, single chamber kiln that can be fired fairly cleanly in one day. Something in total contrast to the week long firings that take place in the traditional 5 chamber kiln that they have here.
The water wheel is working today, as Daewoong the resident wood fire potter, is keen to prepare some porcelain stone by the old method of using the stamp mill to crush the sericite. I’m unsure what he is planning, it could be for glaze instead of body material. Time will tell.
I can see across the valley to the new solar power farm that has recently been installed to generate solar electricity for the village. The admin block here was already covered in Solar PV panels, as is the Museum roof. It is noticeable to me that the new solar farm hasn’t taken any usable flat ground that was already used for farming. They have chosen to use the slope of the hill to get a good azimuth angle to the solar rays and not upset any farmers by taking over fertile, flat, productive land.
There has been a firing going on in the big gas kiln all day. The kiln is used by the residents in the porcelain Village. They can book the kiln individually, or as a group firing. They only have to pay for the gas consumed. As I understand it, the residents get free rent of studio and housing spaces, plus free use of the equipment like kilns, wheels, slab roller and pug mill, etc. They only have to pay for their own food, heating, kiln fuel and any exotic raw materials that they may wish to pursue. It seems like a too-good-to-be-true deal from my point of view, as an outsider from Australia, where the Arts are more or less ignored, or if acknowledged, they are mistrusted and/or miss-understood by the general public, encouraged by the Murdoch press, and any money spent on the Arts is roundly ridiculed by the conservatives. No wonder the facilities here are all full. It seems that the locals think that this is normal and complain about having to pay their own heating bill! I couldn’t get a room in the student accomodation building this time round. Everything is fully utilised, so Mr Jung has kindly offered to allow me to stay in his home with him, 30 minutes away in Yanggu.
When I get to the Museum and Research Centre the next day. The bisque kiln is ready to be packed. My work is all completely dry now. I take it over to the kiln room for packing. There are 2 large electric kilns used for bisque firing on a regular basis. These are used to fire the the part-time students work from the teaching facility.
My work is slotted in where it will fit among the regular student projects. My work isn’t large, so it can be fitted in economically. I nest stack them to conserve space. I start with a 5 high stack, but I am discouraged by the technical assistant/pottery teacher. He seems to indicated that with this clay, its particular dry strength and firing characteristics, it is better to just go 2 high, so I do. The firing goes on over night using a ramp programmer. It’s all very modern and efficient in this regard. However, in contrast to this, they also have a 5 chamber traditional wood fired climbing kiln as well for the wood firing enthusiasts. We took part in a 4 day firing of that wood kiln the last time we were here.
While my pots are cooling down from their bisque firing. Mr Jung arranges our us to go on a geology expedition up into the mountains behind Yanggu. There are some logging tracks that we can use to get us up there quickly. He tells me that because he was born and grew up here in the foot hills of these mountains, he has tramped over most of it through the years. We swap his LPG-hybrid, city sedan, for his parents small 4 wheel drive, and set off. He wants to show me a couple of sites that he thinks might be worth our while investigating.
After a slow and bumpy 45 minute drive over the rough logging tracks, we arrive at the first of what turns out to be 5 sites. This material looks to be a weathered or kaolinised, fine to medium grained acid rock with some small amount of free silica. It’s impossible to say what is in it, but I can hazard a guess that it has some sort of primary clay such as Kaolinite, Halloysite, illite or dickite. It also has the obvious spangles of some free silica that is just visible in the bright sunshine, then there may be some flux minerals such as the felspars or micas, if they haven’t all be weathered down to the clay minerals. The stone is very soft and easily broken up by bashing it together, so I’m certain that it will be low in flux and higher in clay minerals.
The stone is so rotten, that the fragments are just tumbling down out of the hill side. To my naive geological eye, it looks pretty much like a lot of the material that I have collected back home in the Southern Highlands. It may be able to be finely milled to become sufficiently plastic to be throwable. But they already have a marvellous sericite body here that is beyond excellent, white, plastic and translucent. This new stuff won’t compete. I’m thinking that it might be possible to make a glaze out of it, but it looks a bit too weathered, kaolinitic and refractory to make much of a glaze with just limestone as a flux. I’m not sure, I get the feeling that it might need some extra felspar as well, and perhaps a little ash with it as well?
I have no real concrete evidence for this thought, it is just what I have experienced back home in my previous research in Australia. The stones that are hardest to crush usually have the most intact alkali content and melt well. The softer materials that are very crumbly, have usually lost a lot of their alkali during weathering and are more refractory. Where this stone fall on the spectrum i can only guess at this point. I won’t know until I have fired some. However, my guess is that it will fall somewhere smack in the middle. Unmelted on its own, but forming a glaze at the end of the line blend series, requiring the maximum calcium flux.
When we get back the the Museum a few hours later, I set to work making a few tests. I Start with a grid tile test to ascertain the chemical analysis. This is a unique test that I developed during my PhD. I involves producing a series of line blends with specific additions of a set ratio. The resulting grid tile when glaze fired, shows a particular range of melts and colours. By comparing the new material test with my data base of known and chemically analysed test tiles. I can deduce the chemical analysis of the oxides present in the new material to with in a couple of percentage points. It saves having to send the material off to the university chemical lab and pay a lot of money to learn the same thing.
Pretty clever I think, if I do say so myself.
Apparently. I am the only one who thinks so and says so. Everyone here watching me work, have no idea what I’m doing. but they keep an eye on me, just the same.
I also take a risk and follow a hunch and prepare a line blend in a series of 5 simple steps that I think will show some worthwhile result using this material as a body ingredient, based on my research on similar materials that I’ve worked with back at home. I’m guessing that it will be nice in a wood firing, but I’ll never know, as I only have sufficient material crushed and ground to made these few basic tests for the gas firing coming up. There isn’t a wood firing due at the moment.
I used a bisqueted test tile that I have brought with me from Australia in my suitcase to do such a test if necessary. I’m glad that I did, as there is no time to make one now and get it through the next bisque in time. I decide that I will only do the first three line blends on this occasion, as the last line will be too siliceous to tell us much about a stone like this one. Or so I think. I decide to use the remaining material to make the body line blend of 5% increments.
The next day, the bisque firing is unpacked and I start to glaze my work.
I get all my work glazed and fettled and out into the sun to help it dry out by early afternoon. The smaller and lighter of my bowls are quite delicate and thinly potted. So I can only afford to swipe them through the glaze in one second, so as not to saturate them. Otherwise the glaze will start to run off before it dries. I like to glaze all in one motion if I can, but these pots won’t have sufficient glaze on them to develop any depth of colour. So I decide to partially dry them and give them a second dip to create a thicker glaze coating. This carries a risk of causing pin holing and crawling, but I weigh up the options and decide to take the risk.
I could choose to spray on a thicker coat, and that would work better, just as the ancient Chinese did a millennium ago, but I’m not from around here and don’t know if there is a spray gun available. There certainly is a compressor, as I’ve already used this once before to blow the dust of my bisque ware. However, I don’t want to outstay my welcome, by constantly bothering the staff, who are always busy, by asking questions, unless it is absolutely necessary. Of course I am incapable of asking any question directly. I involves the use of the translation app on our phones. It’s a slow process and takes up their time typing out questions and answers with one finger on the tiny virtual key pad.
There is a change in this regard this year. I’m asked to down load a new language app onto my phone. This is a new Korean developed translation app, and every one here is using it. It is specifically built to translate Korean. It handles spoken word input too, which speeds things up. There is a little hick-up here with this. My Australia Post prepaid travel SIM card doesn’t handle data. Only calls and texts. Data packs can be purchased for other countries, but not Korea at this stage. So it turns out that I can only use the ‘Papago’ Korean translation app. when i have WiFi service to log into. That really limits where I can use it.
The standard porcelain glaze that they have developed here looks to be made using some sort of ash, as it has a fine grey cast to it and a infinitely fine dark speckle in the dried surface. It just looks like an ash glaze. I can’t justify that opinion any more than that. The next time My Jung, The Director of the Museum passes by, I have my question already typed out on the phone. “Is this glaze made with ash?”. He responds to me in English, “tree ash?”, I respond “yes, tree ash!”. He indicates to follow him into the next work area. I haven’t spent much time in here at all. I have only just glanced as I passed. I have had no business to be in here. I try not to cause any trouble as a guest. A position that I am very grateful to be in.
Mr Jung takes me to the ash preparation area. There are a series of very large tubs where ash is washed and sieved, then left to settle. In the settling tank, there is a rope suspended in the water. I must look puzzled, as Mr Jung the word in English, “magnet”. He shows me this by lifting it out by its rope and sticking it to the metal floor grating, which he demonstrates, he can now lift up out of the drain, just by the power of the magnetism. The big round magnet must be very powerful. He takes the magnet to the sink and washes it, and to my surprise, it is not big and round at all, but narrow and skinny. It was clustered with irony material stuck to it. I don’t know where all this iron came from, perhaps they burn the organics in a steel furnace?
The cleaned magnet after washing off all the irony ash particles.
Mr Jung then takes me to the glaze store room, where he shows me the working stock of dried ash that they make here. There is ash made from all sorts of plants. Mixed tree ash, Pine ash, chilli plant ash, chrysanthemum ash, ginkgo ash, even calendar flower ash! I’m stunned. So much work! I know what I’m looking at, because we burn plant material to create ash back home and sieve it and dry it. But not on this scale. I guess that it helps if you have a staff of 12 to help you get everything done. The biggest problem that Janine and I face, is that we are trying to do everything ourselves. We are getting older and not surprisingly, we get tired.
I wouldn’t mind a staff of 12 to help get things done. Not too sure how we would pay them though? Actually, just a part time staff of one would be nice.
My glazed and fettled pots are now packed into the glaze kiln. They will be committed to the fire tomorrow in a 12 to 13 hour reduction firing to 1260oC. I’ll have to just sit it out and wait-n-see.
Sericite Journal 2 – 5 More Stones
I arrive in Chuncheon from Seoul by bus and I am met at the coach terminal by my friend Mr Jung Do Sub, the Director of the Yanggu PorcelaIn Museum and Research Centre. He takes me to dinner and then home where I will be staying in his studio, attached to his house.
It’s a stunning new architectural space, it is so new that he is still working on it. Brutal, modernist, bare cast concrete on the inside, with a recycled brick cladding on the outside, heaps of double glazed glass facing the southern sun. (This is the northern hemisphere.) The sun comes right in onto the polished concrete floor. The cast concrete walls and roof are over 500 mms thick. I suspect that a lot of this thickness is taken up with some substantial insulation, as it hits minus -30 oC here in winter.
The next day we drive to the Porcelain Centre, where I start work immediately on getting things ready to make some work.
There are a number of sericite porcelain bodies here for me to choose from. The number has increased since I was last here. There are two new ones that I want to try out. When I visit the clay processing facility a few hundred metres away from the Museum. I see one of the new raw materials, the whitest sample, revealed from under a green tarpaulin, just outside the clay stockpile shed. It is actually off-white, but quite pale looking when compared to the standard local sericite that is mined near by. However, when this new white material it is crushed and milled, the whitish raw material in the wet plastic state becomes somewhat darker. This is usual with clays and I’m used to it. It becomes almost a pale khaki, buff beige colour, whereas the local sericite which is slightly greyish white when raw, becomes whiter when wet?
After stiffening, the resulting plastic pugged clay is mid khaki colour. I’m surprised to see that the fired sample from the reduction kiln comes out very pale grey from under the local standard pale celadon porcelain glaze. I’m intrigued.
There is a related material from the same pit that is slightly pinkish in the raw state, but processes to a pale apricot colour. A colour rather beautiful and very pleasing to my eye. This sericite body fires to almost the same degree of pale grey as the white sample, just a little bit darker, when reduction fired with the same base glaze. I’m quite surprised to see how similar they are after firing, just looking at the difference in the raw colour.
I get to try all 5 different sericite porcelain bodies over the next week or so of throwing and turning. The original local sericite that is mined just up the road here is highly vitreous at stoneware temperatures and is prone to slumping, even at the lower stoneware temperature of 1260oC. However, with a small addition of JinJu kaolinised sericite obtained from farther south, the resulting mixture throws very well and stands up to the 1260/1270oC stoneware reduction firing very well. I have discussed this beautiful porcelain body at length in previous posts, so won’t dwell on it again here.
My first mornings work involves me securing a wheel space in the crowded workshop. This is a community teaching facility open to the public. It’s mandate is to communicate the history and beauty of the local porcelain, and to offer that experience to the general public. I’m the intruder here, a foreign oddity, here for just a brief moment in the very long history of this place. So I know my place and ask permission before doing anything. I don’t speak the language here very well – if at all. I rely on the translation app on my phone to get me through, so I’m careful to be polite and not get in anyone’s way. I know that translation app software out-put is full of errors, so I’m careful. Some of the staff have slowly come to trust me with their very basic English as well. This is my 5th visit here, so I am getting to know everyone. Together we slowly and carefully explore a more friendly, trusting, and may I say ‘intimate’ way of communicating in this strange mix of two poorly pronounced and impoverished lexicons, extended by faulty software. What a mix! We manage to work our way through the errors, pitfalls and misunderstandings. Trust and friendship slowly develops. I’ve come to really like and trust these wonderful people. I’m so lucky.
Next, I have to source some batts, get a few extrusions of this special local sericite porcelain body pugged and de-aired. Then I clean the wheel scrupulesly to make sure that there is no cross contamination of other clay fragments under the wheel head and in the edges of the tray. I don’t want to contaminate other peoples work with my experiments here when I toss my turnings into the recycling tubs.
I sort out my tools and start to work up a lump of this marvellously plastic wet mica rock dust. It’s so hard to believe that it is not clay. At least not as we are familiar with the term in Australia. This body might have 10% of Kaolin in it, but that is all. The kaolin is not there to add plasticity. I have used the ‘Jinju Kaolinised Sericite’ that has been added to this mix straight by itself 100% and it is rather floppy and ‘fat’. The Bangsan sericite is plastic enough without it. What the Jinju material offers is not plasticity, but a slightly higher alumina content to increase its firing range.
An aside: Before I left home to come here I packed up three pots to donate to the Porcelain Museum. Pots that I made over the previous 6 months since my last visit here. I made these pots from stones that I collected myself, directly from out of the ground here. I had the resulting powder analysed and it contained only sericite and silica, so I know what authentic, pure sericite mica is like to throw with on the wheel. It can be amazingly plastic. This isn’t always the case though. The sericite that I collected from the ancient and abandoned sericite mine on Tregonning Hill In Cornwall was almost totally non-plastic, As was the siliceous sericite that I collected from the top of Sarri Mountain near Yeoju, here in Korea. The most plastic sericite that I have ever encountered was from Cheongsong in the south of Korea. A strange place, but marvellous clay. It is a pity that it is totally unavailable for foreigners to access due to the difficult personality issues of the manager of the site.
I should point out though that these most plastic Korean bodies are not the whitest. Surprise, surprise there! The whitest sericite is probably the extremely expensive ultra-white special grade of hand sorted Chinese sericite from China, near Jingdezhen. This ‘sericite’ is very hard to get, and not just because of its extremely high price. Following that is the highest white grade ‘Gao Bai Neantu’, version of Jingdezhen porcelain. It is very good, as is the hand-sorted white Amakusa sericite stone body from Arita, but the Amukusa sericite body is not anywhere near as plastic and also a little tricky to glaze fire due to its very high silica content.
Note to self: try a blend of Amakusa white with Bangsan cream. That would be an unholy pairing from Hell! Possibly considered a cultural crime, due to their difficult historical legacies, but it might work well? Each mitigating the short comings of the other. I just might try it in secret at home, where no one will be offended.
To return to my experiences here at Bangsan.
I only get to start throwing by 11.00 am. I begin by making the clay ‘chucks’ that I know I will need tomorrow when my pots are stiff enough to turn their bases. A ‘Chuck’ is a hollow cone shape of fairly thickly potted clay. This is used to support the delicate rims of the pots while they are having their bases ‘trimmed’ or ‘turned’. I throw these chucks on ‘batts’, flat circular wooden discs, so that when I pick them up off the potters wheel, there will be no warping. I want the chucks to be running true and perfectly round when I come to use them. Even so, I usually trim them and tidy them up when leather hard by trimming them with a sharp tool to ensure that they are as perfect as it is possible to get them. By lunch time I have my 4 chucks out in the sun and 3 larger sized bowls made as well.
In situations like this, I always start with the largest items first, then work my way down to the smallest pieces last. In this way, they are all ready for the kiln at the same time. No waiting for the bigger bowls to finish drying and holding everything up. My time here is limited. I only have a little over 2 weeks. I know from past experiences that I can get everything done in time if I follow my work schedule pretty precisely. 5 days throwing and turning, 2 days drying, then bisque firing and cooling, 2 days glazing and packing the glost kiln, one day firing, 2 days cooling and then unpacking and fly out home. It can be done! I know this, as it is my 5th visit here. In China, they don’t bisque fire, but spray the glaze on dry. They also fire over night, crash cool, by opening the door at top temperature and crash-cooling the kiln. They unpack and repack the next day. So a full cycle can be reduced to as little as just 8 days! If everything goes to schedule!
Once the main body of work is thrown, I get to play with the new sericite samples. The apricot coloured one is very nice to throw but suffers from a tendency to split and crack if they are too thick. Too thick in this extreme case is anything over 5mm! This body may be only suitable for very small, thinly potted items, or so it seems? I try my hand at the special school mix that they have developed here that is a mixture of three sericites. This body was developed to make it as forgiving and easy to used as is possible. It is used for all the classes. The Porcelain Museum and Research Centre also has a teaching facility where members of the community, school children, aged care groups, retirees and even squads of Army soldiers come in and learn a little bit about the history and culture of this part of Korea. As complete beginners, the work that they make is sometimes a little bit heavy and somewhat clumsy. The blended teaching clay body that they use for the students is designed to be easy to use, forgiving of lack of technique and indestructible in drying. It works remarkably well. I really like it. I’m not properly trained in porcelain. I’m entirely self taught, so this kind of clay is a great advantage to me as a ‘blow-hard, wanna-be’ potter of average skills and insights. However, I really like the challenge of the single stone varieties, even though they are harder to use. I don’t always get successful results, but I love to learn new ways of compensating for their – and my – short comings and developing new skills in coping with their individual difficulties and character. Giacometti once said that every failure brings you one step closer to success. There just might be some sort of truth in that. If you persist!
The teaching ‘clay’ mix of 3 sericites, appears to be a little bit speckly when I cut through it. I’ll wait to see how it fires. It just might have some iron specks? Although I don’t see any in the students fired works. Some of the students recognise me and remember me from my last few visits. They welcome me warmly. I’m impressed and thrilled to be included in their conversation, even if it is at the most basic of levels. One student even comes up to me and addresses me by name. He produces my book from behind his back and asks me to sign it for him.
The standard body, on the other hand, is rather fertile this time round, with some sort of organic growth in this well-aged sample. This is of course no problem and will fire out in the bisque.
I end my 5 days of throwing and turning with 45 finished pots from the 5 bodies. The apricot coloured clay continues to self destruct day by day afterwards, all I can do is sit and watch.
The pale coloured sericite body doesn’t like being wire cut, it stresses the clay particles too much and they tend to come apart as they dry out and start to shrink. It seems to lack cohesion? It doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem however, as the cracks are only surface splits and they are easily turned out. I have seen cracking just like this in Jingdezhen in their porcelain body, but in that case some batches of the clay are almost impossible to use without significant losses due to high rates of shrinkage cracking. Those cracks transferred all the way through the pot, so there was nothing that I could do to solve the problem. The Jingdezhen clay also has a tendency to chip and tear too, if turned anywhere near leather hard or softer. It benefits by being left a little bit longer to stiffen more, waiting until it is completely covered in the white drying rings, then it turns a lot easier and smoother. The whitest batch of the teaching mix is also prone to chipping when turned a little too soft. Just like the Amakusa porcelains from Arita.
The staff who work here are so professional. Their skill levels are very high. The Post-Grad students who study here after completing their Masters or PhD, are also extremely talented and dedicated. The quality of their work is exceptional after 3 to 5 years of post graduate specialisation in porcelain techniques in this place, they are very accomplished. I can’t impress anyone here with my amateurish skill levels. The thing I can impress is the clay. I use my initials and the Yanggu Seal to represent the workshop where my pieces are made. I impress the seal in to he clay. I love it. It’s such an ancient way of identifying pots, and this is a place with a very ancient tradition.
I am so lucky to be able to work here within this system of nurturing support – as a foreigner, an outsider. The Other! Not from here. These people embrace me and go to great lengths to engage with me and include me in their life, day to day. They include me in their lunch time meals in one of the local family kitchens each day. It has proven impossible for me to pay for even one of these meals. I offer, but no one will let me pay the bill. Everyone here is so open and generous. I wish that I could say the same for Australia’s treatment of refugees! People who really do need, comfort, help and support.
I make a suitable mess all over the floor, as the wheels here don’t have trays. I have no problem in throwing without a tray, I own a Japanese ‘Shimpo’ potters wheel at home, Although I don’t use it often, as I prefer to use the wooden kick wheel for most of my work. However, I have taught myself to use very little water when throwing and don’t ever seem to get any clay slip splatter on me or the floor and I never use a towel on my lap!
But trimming is another matter. I can’t stop the spirals going everywhere onto the floor as they effortlessly peel off from the razor sharp turning tool. I just get used to sweeping up at the end of the day. After I have turned the last of my pots, I sit down and go through them and sort out a few obvious faults, mostly hair line cracks or slight warping. Then I give a little time to examining the forms pretty closely, as well as the weight and balance.
I cull and I cull. Each day I re-examine my work and trash a few more. I go through the almost dried work and cull another half dozen that are not up to scratch. No point in firing something with a form that isn’t as perfect as you can make it to begin with. Ceramics is the ultimate pollution. It last forever. Everything that we know about ancient cultures was dug up as ceramics! It won’t get any better with glaze on it. I will go through them again just before packing the bisque, once they are all fully dried. I may cull a few more!
I’m down to thirty pieces now, some of my forms were not sufficiently pleasing and didn’t pass muster. I’d like to come away with a dozen good exhibitable pieces for showing eventually.
My throwing time here is now ended, and the less interesting period of packing the bisque and bisque firing is coming up. I will have some spare time, so will start to write all this up.
It is such a honour to be able to work here with these amazing sericite materials. To get this unique experience, and possibly get to take home a few exotic, one-off pieces of unique sericite porcelain. Pots with a history that goes back 700 years on this site.
I have arrived in Korea to spend some time refining my interest in sericite porcelain stone, researching and making a few pots too. I am spending the first few days in Seoul to begin with to catch up with a few friends.
I spend the first day wandering around to get my bearings and just seeing what turns up. I spot a very narrow door tucked into a small corner between a department store and a clothes shop. I investigate and it turns out to be a tiny restaurant .
Every little space is utilised!
I meet up with my friend Ms Kang and her partner, she takes me to a part of Seoul that I haven’t been to before. It’s the trendy ‘hip’ part. There are a number of streets full of eateries. In the evening, after work, all the restaurants spill out onto the streets in fine weather. It’s May and the weather is balmy, so every space is utilised. We spend the night walking the streets looking for a ‘cool’ wine bar that she has read about, but don’t find what we want. We walk down many laneways, dingy small alleys and descend into dimly lit basements or up flights of stairs to single darkened rooms, windows blacked out. Rooms that might once have been small office spaces, and presumably very cheaply rented. They masquerade as ‘hip’, ‘cool’ night spots now.
We find three wine bars. But they are all up-themselves with too much ‘cool’ and not enough wine! The wine is priced at a ridiculously expensive rate, for unknown cheap Chilian or South African quaffing grade vino, you have to buy the bottle, there are no tasting notes, or a price by the glass. We are in a group and against my better judgement, the consensus is to buy a bottle. The owner goes to great lengths to decant the wine into an airing flask. It’s all so pretentious. This wine has nothing to loose to the air, it doesn’t need airing, no aroma. In fact the sulphates are the only flavour it has. It has no nose, no taste and no finish. It’s completely flat throughout. I’d rate it as a $3.00 ‘Aldi’ cooking wine. Pity we had to pay over $60 to find out. I offer to pay, as these people are my friends, But Ms Kang is very generous and covers the bill, speaking in Korean to the bar owner, telling him to ignore my plastic card and take hers.
Lesson, don’t bother going to a Seoul wine bar. We are so spoilt in Australia with so much affordable, good wine to choose from. I’m guessing that wine tasting is new to Seoul. The next day I find some Australian wine for sale in a small local convenience store, so I buy a bottle that I recognise from home, I buy it as a present for my friends. It is not top notch, but I know it and know that it will be 10 times better than the ‘vin ordinaire’ that we were meant to appreciate in the bar. Had the wine been OK, the ambience was quite interesting in a retro kind of way. All candle lit, it reminded me of the beatnik clubs of the late 60’s.
The next day, I’m off to the Ewha Womens University, where I’m to meet a professor of Ceramics. We are organising for me to do some teaching to her students. Ewha is the oldest university in Korea, as I understand it. It’s a nice campus with a mixture of new and old buildings. Open and seemingly spacious, as the most modern example of its architecture is entirely under ground, leaving a large space above for gardens and greenery. Every little space is utilised! I like it. I am invited to give a presentation of my research to the students.
In the afternoon, we wander the old market district. I seem to find myself in what feels like a kilometre long avenue of dried fish stalls. It goes on and on and on! I’ve never seen so much dried fish.
Then it’s the chilli isle.
Though the dried vegetables whet my appetite, I don’t buy, as I have nowhere to cook. Then through the food hall isle and into the fashion lanes.
I find some very nice open-weave natural ‘ramae’ fabric, and although I’m tempted, I resist. I find a ready made, long sleeved, ramae shirt, but it costs a lot more than I can afford. Over $150. If it were my last day here and I still had some money on me I might be tempted, but this Is only my 3rd day and I haven’t done any work yet, so I need to make my budget stretch.
The next day, Ms Kang takes me to icheon, the potters village, to visit my friend Lee Jun Beom. It is the May Ceramics Festival time and all the studios have their stalls out. There are some very impressive pieces, some less impressive and some amazing miniatures .
I was quite taken with the ‘fake’ irridescent blue oil spot tenmoku. I imagine that is was made by painting on the dots with something like a bismuth lustre?
It is a really interesting day, aimlessly wandering from shop to shop, studio to studio. The last time I was here, my friends took me to the local Ceramic Art Gallery and Museum. In conversation with the Director, it transpired that my research was of interest to him. He asked to see my work. I only had small images on my phone to show him. I didn’t come prepared to represent myself. I was taken off guard. My friends talked me up quite a bit to him it seems. I can’t speak Korean, so don’t know the content of their conversations, but it transpired that he became interested in collecting a piece of mine for the international section of the collection in the Museum. Regrettably, we didn’t seem to wander to that part of town on this trip. However, instead, we found our selves somewhere completely different.
I walk into a small studio, quite unpretentious, there is nothing outside to give the game away. Suddenly, I realise that I know this work. I recognise it. I’m sure that I know the maker. I have met her before. In another place and at another time. I’m almost certain. This lady does the most intricate carving on porcelain. I saw her demonstrate two years ago at the Yanggu Porcelain Museum Conference. I was very busy at the time, demonstrating and preparing give my own presentation, so I only had time for a cursory glance around the demonstrators. Janine had more time and got to speak to this lady at length. Her name is Shin Lee, going on her visiting card that I can see on the table. Luckily she can speak some English.
I walk up to her with my friends and say that “I think that I know you from Yanggu.” She replies straight away. “Yes, is your wife with you today”!
How amazing is that? She remembered meeting Janine and speaking with her from two years previously. This potter, or should I say artist/carver/decorator is a real master! It appears that her husband throws the pieces and she incises the intricate images, particularly of Hydrangeas.
I like her heaps, it’s a real joy to meet her again. She is lovely and her work is impossible to fully appreciate until you get up close and handle it, feel the intricacies, appreciate the subtleties of the carving that highlights the shading effects of the bass relief carving. Again, If this were my last day, I’d buy a piece, but my suitcase and back pack are already chokers with stuff that I need to unload when I get to Bangsan.
I haven’t even reached Yanggu yet, so my cargo of porcelain pieces that I made at home during the last 12 months from the ‘borrowed’ Bangsan sericite porcelain stones takes up a lot of space and weight. I’m returning the stones I ‘borrowed’ as finished pieces, shaped from the 100% Korean sericite, crushed, milled and made plastic in my workshop. I transform them from mere stones, into porcelain clay body, by crushing, grinding and milling them into a wet, plastic, malleable clay-like substance. I form them into pots on my old wooden potters wheel, then bisque and glaze fire them into permanence. I glost fire them using pure Australian sunshine, glazed with my own porcelain stone celadon/guan style glaze made from my local weathered white granite glaze stone, enhanced with the addition of some local kangaroo bone ash. I’m donating the pieces to the Yanggu Porcelain Museum as a gift that represents the meeting of two minds, myself and that of Mr Jung the Director of the Museum.
As both of our cultures enjoy drinking beer. I see it as a ‘Cultural Shandy’. A contemporary melding of Korean and Australian ceramic cultures. Well, that is my take on it anyway.
I signed the bowls with both my usual initials stamp, my workshop seal, but also the ‘Yanggu’ chop in Korean lettering, to identify its true origin. It represents the journey from Bangsan to Balmoral and back again.
The next day, I spend some time in the Namdaemun market area of Seoul. There are some astounding figures quoted about the number of stalls and number of visitors that the area gets each day. The market site is a very ancient one, but during and after the Korean War, there was a thriving black market in renditioned military goods. The economy was in ruins. The country was largely destroyed. Society was in turmoil and almost everyone was living in hardship or poverty. The market offered a way for the necessary transfer of goods, services and information in an informal and I believe quite efficient way. The site has persevered and sustained itself through necessity, it’s quite simply very popular. Even as the concrete high rise of the city encloses it, it still continues to exist. I wonder how long a market like this will survive against the pressures of development?
I wander the very narrow and intensely interesting back lanes. I come across a narrow lane of kitchens. Every one calling to me to step past and around the hot stove and into the seated area to have a very freshly prepared lunch. It’s enticing, but it’s also only 11.30, so a bit early for a cooked lunch. Instead, I take a photo and keep walking.
I eventually decide to buy a small ‘Panjun’ style round handheld pancake. Korean style walking fast-food. I choose this place simply because it has a queue of 30 people waiting to buy one. If the locals are prepared to queue and wait for it, it must be good. Or so my thinking goes. This time last year, when I was in Seoul, I had a meal in a restaurant with loads of other respectable citizens at lunch time peak hour in Insadong. I knew as I ate it that something wasn’t right. As I left, I felt quite unsettled in the stomach, half an hour later, I almost blacked out, got quite dizzy and threw up in the street at the bus stop. Janine and I shared the meal together. However, I was the only one to eat the pickled chilli relish in the jar on the table, Janine didn’t. It was a respectable, busy restaurant, in a posh part of town. How can you tell?
I’m pleased to repot that the pancake was delicious, followed by no unpleasant side effects – and only $1 great value!
While I’m here in this place where so much is possible, I decide to get one more name stamp carved with my initials. I find a tiny shop with a young lady that does such things and draft out my design, but regrettably, she doesn’t get it or doesn’t care, or perhaps she has no inherent sense of design flare? I don’t know. But my own hand-made wooden stamp that I cut myself at home has a better look to my mind.
Mine is a bit wobbly, but looks better overall. However, it doesn’t really matter, as it is so small and is only on the foot ring, such that no-one will ever really see it.
The next day I leave Seoul and take the train and bus to Chuncheon where I am destined to meet up with the director of the Yanggu Porcelain Museum. I have texted him an image of my buss ticket, so that he will know where I am and at what time.
Over my 5 visits to Korea, we have become friends. United by our common interest in sericite porcelain.
On this visit, my fifth, I am invited to stay with Mr Jung and his wife in their home. I’m flattered and feel really honoured by this gesture of generosity at a very personal level.
The next day it’s down to work in the Porcelain Research Centre. My time is limited, so I must get busy. The Yanggu Porcelain Museum is situated in the tiny village of Bangsan right up near the DMZ, in the geographical centre of (the unified) Korea. The site has a history going back 700 years. ‘Sericite’ mica has been mined here for that long. Sericite is otherwise known as ‘Porcelain Stone’, ‘Do-suk’, in Korea, ’Bai-tunze’ or ‘Pai-tun-ze’ in China, ‘Groan’ in Cornwall, sometimes ‘Muscovite’ Mica or ‘white mica’ in Australia. This is the stuff of the original porcelains that were independently discovered and developed, long before kaolin and felspar was added into the mix. It seems that porcelain was invented wherever sericite was plentiful.
The Museum here has several bodies available. All based on sericite, most of them are available to be used individually, but the Porcelain Centre also has a couple of blended bodies that are much easier to use. These are prepared for use by the part-time students and visitors who come on cultural tours. The blended sericite bodies have been cleverly developed by Mr Jung to over-come the various short comings of each of the individual materials.
There is a 2 material blend that combines a very low temperature maturing mica With a more refractory one. Individually they need special attention and different firing temperatures, but combined they work very well together. There is also a 3 way sericite blend. These blends have the advantage of all firing at the same temperature, which makes life a lot easier for the staff.
Like me, Mr Jung, the Director of the Porcelain Museum, has a life long interest in sericite porcelain, He being born and raised here in Yanggu County.
They no longer use the original mined sericite from 700 years ago. The mine site is now lost. No-one knows where it once was. I suspect that it is probably over the border in North Korea a couple of kilometres away to the North. Just over the hill from the Museum. There is however a site, closer to the border, where the mined sericite or Do-suk, was sorted into different grades and stored, before being carted down the valley to the river to be shipped to Seoul and the Royal Porcelain Works. Ancient documents name the site and list how 70 tonnes of material was shipped out in each 12 month period, usually in spring and autumn, at high water, when the river was not either in flood or dried up.
I have visited the ancient storage site on 3 occasions to investigate and collect samples for my research. I have had my samples analysed at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The results are published in my recent book ‘5 Stones’. The ancient material is indeed almost pure sericite with some silica. It is beautifully plastic to throw on the wheel even without ageing. I was thrilled to discover this when I got my box of stones home and processed them into a plastic body.
There isn’t much to be seen these days. And I wouldn’t know that it was there, except that I was shown the remote site. On my last visit, I arrived just after torrential rains had caused havoc in this part of the country. On arrival at the site, I found that the rain had caused some quite deep erosion in the gutters of the dirt track leading up to the site. Because I knew what I was looking for, I was able to identify small white fragments of the stone that had washed down the road in the gutter. I rescued these, washed and cleaned them, and ‘borrowed’ them to make the work that I am now returning to the Museum as fired pots.
No-one here seems to be interested in collecting ‘in-situ’ materials for making ceramics. It’s not taught in the schools or Universities here, so no one knows how to do it. Added to that is the fact that you can buy almost anything you want already prepared from a pottery supply shop. There is no incentive to try unknown and untested wild materials.
I’m lead to believe that I am the only person to attempt to make work from these ancient stones in the past few hundred years. All the current sericite comes from an industrial sized mine site a few kilometres away up the river. Korea it seems is very geologically rich in Sericite sites.
However, things may be about to change. Since I was here last. Mr Jung, the Museum Director, has taken an interest in my research and reads my occasional emails about my prospecting and mineral processing with interest. He was recently out bush-walking in the hills behind his home and has discovered what he thinks might be a seam of sericite in the side of a road cutting used by loggers. We have hatched a plan to go up there and investigate. We will go as soon as I have finished throwing and turning my pots. Perhaps while they are drying prior to bisque firing.
So far I have tried the two blends and 3 individual sericite bodies that Mr Jung has prepared. There are two new materials that I haven’t seen before. The raw material appears just off white when raw and dry, but develops into a beige to khaki colour when wetted down. The other is slightly pinkish when raw, but develops into an apricot, to pale terra cotta colour after processing. They are both quite plastic to throw, the apricot one has a tendency to split though. I feel that a little addition of ‘Calgon’ to the slip during processing might help ameliorate this?
I have seen the fired samples and they both seem to be good, firing just off white, but not too translucent. I think that they may be quite good in wood firing, with the lowish iron content, they may flash well.
The view from my room in the early morning, just after sunrise at 6.00am is not a Shepards Delight, but just a sign of the filthy air quality here, and this is way out in the far countryside. Hours away from the centres of heavy industry and Seoul. The locals claim that all this polluted air is blown over from China, and some of it probably is, but Korea is a highly industrialised country with a majority of cars and certainly all trucks being diesel powered. My Jung and I are in agreement that the origin of the pollution is probably somewhere around 50/50. Whatever the origin, the air most certainly has to be cleaned up. People will be dying young with lung diseases growing up breathing this toxic mess.
World wide, we need to phase out diesel engines and coal fired power stations as an easy first step to cleaning up the environment. I say easy in this case, simply because there already exist cleaner alternatives such as solar and wind power to generate electricity. Of course it won’t be politically easy. The UK spent a whole week this month, May 2019, with all its coal thermal power stations off line, relying entirely on its non-coal sources of energy. It can be done now.
Of course there will be screams of denial, loads of hand wringing and calls for extensions by the very powerful vested interests and their political allies who get generous ‘black’ donations from the carbon intensive industries. The Murdoch press will wail and nash their teeth, publishing hysterical headlines, based on untruths, if the past is anything to go by.
Change is over due, Cleaning up our environment has to be done. We desperately need to clean up the disgusting mess that we have made in this generation. It’s our responsibility to start to fix what we have largely broken. The climate crisis has already gone too far. We are going to need a combination of government regulation and free market solutions to claw back the global heating to manageable levels. Profitable business opportunities await the entrepreneurs who dare to make the change and forge the way. The broken old vested interests are simply being lazy. It’s time for them to step aside, stop holding us back and let the future begin.