Korean Sericite

A couple of months ago, Janine and I were lucky enough to be invited to Korea to speak at a Porcelain  conference. We made the most of our opportunity and spent time in Seoul on our way to the conference to visit friends. I also made the most of this once-off, free travel opportunity, to re-visit one of the remote Sericite Porcelain Stone mining sites in Korea. This site dates back into the 1300’s. Sericite Porcelain has been mined there for over 700 years. I have visited this site before during my research trips, so I don’t need to put on my Indiana Jones hat and consult the ancient parchment map to get there. I know the way, at least I think that I do. I do have trouble convincing Janine of this though when we come to unexpected junctions in the track. We are tramping with our back-packs and although I have found my way here before, we just take the time to walk up a few dead ends into the hills, and retrace our steps a bit, before regaining the correct path. I managed to find my way here after the last conference and re-discover the site. I know that I can do it.

I must say that even though I’ve been here before, it’s amazing how easy it is to forget all the details of the way when you are out in the bush. I remember all the twists and turns in the various tracks that I need to follow to get there, but over time, things have change and the bush has grown over some landmarks, however, there are enough clues that come to mind at each change of direction, so that from time to time I recognise specific points along the way and I am convinced that I am still on the right path.

Eventually we find our way there. This ancient site is pretty damaged now, as the stone hasn’t been obtained from here for some time. I don’t know how long, but perhaps a couple of hundred years. However, there is still a small amount of the sericite embedded in the ground. There had been some heavy rain since I was last here and quite a few good large chunky samples have been exposed, so that I had no trouble filling my small pack with a couple of kilos of good clean samples. I hand pick the best and whitest bits from the dross that it is mixed with.

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IMG_3095Now that I’m home and have caught up with all my other more pressing life events. I have time to deal with this most recent research. I set about crushing and grinding these new samples. Prior to this, I have only collected a few hundred grams of stone, purely for analysis and academic research. This time I have enough to be able to throw a few pots.

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Seiveing the fines from the crusher, before going to the mill.

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I put the stones through the jaw crusher and then the disc mill, then finally through the ball mill. If I had more to deal with I would put the slurry out on the drying bed. But as I only have a couple of kilos of material, I put in into the plaster drying tubs to stiffen up.

This turns out to be a really fantastically plastic sericite. I can wedge it up using spiral kneading straight from the drying tub with no ageing. Amazing for 100% milled stone. It seems that Sericite can be as plastic as any other ‘clay’ – even though it isn’t! (clay, that is).

I was very impressed with the plastic sericite from Cheongsong in south Korea. That was the best single stone porcelain that I had ever experienced up to that time. However, I wasn’t allowed to see the mine site or any of the processing that was carried out, so I couldn’t draw any conclusion, other than to say that the experience of throwing it was excellent.

This time I’m absolutely sure of what I have in my hands and on the wheel in front of me as I have collected it direct from the soil with my own hands and done all the processing myself. It is very slightly floppy on the wheel, but this is to be expected for a very pure primary ‘clay’ – ground stone actually, with no ageing. It certainly works infinitely better than an ‘Eckalite’ china clay body prepared under the same conditions. I’ve been there and done that.

I might just add here that I have a batch of ‘Eckalite’ kaolin based porcelain body that I made 25 years ago. It was un-usable straight from the pug at that time. Floppy and useless. However, it has been ageing in the cool dark clay store now for all this time and it is quite plastic to throw with now. As good as anything else on the market these days. I only wish that I had made 10 tonnes of the stuff back then. It would have been totally worth it. I don’t have 25 years left in me now, so it’s pointless speculating as to what might have been.

Any young potters out there interested in materials and porcelain. I’ve done the research for you. Make use of it.

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I have no trouble throwing it on the wheel, it is smooth, fine and creamy and stands up well for small items, keeping its shape and not slumping. If only I had discovered this stuff  20 years ago too! It would be amazing by now.

As far as I can ascertain, from what I have been told through translation. Nobody has used this stone for a few hundred years. It has almost archaeological significance, embedded in its remote, hidden hillside home. No-one in Korea has taken an interest in it as far as I can tell. There is only myself and the local Porcelain Museum Director who seem to have any fascination for ancient sericite porcelain. You’d have to be mad to go about doing research like this strictly for the sake of academic interest. It appears that I am that person who is mad enough. So I am going to donate the best of any successful pots from the firing to the Porcelain Museum for their collection. It will be the only pot made from this stuff for the past few hundred years. Here’s hoping that the firing is a good one.

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For an extensive discussion of Sericite porcelain, I refer the reader to my book ‘5 Stones’ which details my 16 year research into sericite porcelain around the world.

Peak Cherry Season

In this last week of spring, we are in peak cherry season here. We made the effort to cover the trees with netting a few weeks ago, so now we are reaping the benefits. If we don’t cover the fruit trees as the crops come into season and ripens, then the birds will take it all. We have learnt that we need to get the nets over the trees before the fruit colours – about a month in advance. We move the nets from tree to tree as the season progresses. Now, this week, there are simply too many cherries for the two of us to eat fresh at this time.

We eat as many as we can straight from the trees each day, but at this time of year we can’t keep up. If this is the worst problem that I have to cope with in my life, I have nothing to complain about.

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These last few days we have been stoning the excess of cherries and cooking them to preserve them. We have tried a couple of different recipes. For the first batch we de-pipped them and then brought them to a low simmer and added a spoonful of honey, a dash of white wine and a little squeeze of lemon juice. By blanching like this we can preserve them by either freezing them or keep them in the fridge for some days. We also tried blanching them in a small amount of cheap supermarket moscato wine. It is sweet and slightly acidic and does much the same job. much of a muchness.

We sit and work together at this time-consuming but very rewarding job. If you don’t put the effort in, you can’t claim the reward. Although it isn’t at the fore-front of our thinking at all times, we are cognisant of this very important attitude to life in general every day as  we plan our days work. We work with our hands, but also with our minds engaged in this self-reliant, mundane, seasonal work, quite simply because we have a long-term philosophy. We will continue to enjoy this beautiful after-dinner desert treat several times over the coming months.

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Hard work is it’s own reward. The real hard work was put in 40 years ago, when we dug the dams and installed the irregation lines, then  fenced the orchards.
It was only then that we could plant the cherry trees. Now we can enjoy the litteral fruits of our labours.

Veggies and Flowers

When we came here 43 years ago. There was next to nothing here, Only the derelict shell of the old school classroom. We had to work 7 days a week for the first few years just to pay the 23% interest rate on our money-lender mortgage on the property. It was a huge impost, an exorbitant interest rate, but they were the only people who would lend us the money.

Because of this huge level of debt, In those first few years I had to work the equivalent of 8 working days in each week. Seven full days and two nights, that equaled an extra day. I got part time work at 4 different art schools, then on Saturdays and Sundays, I flew out into western New South Wales each weekend to different towns, all over the state to build pottery kilns on-site as weekend workshops. Janine worked a couple of days and one night at Liverpool TAFE college. It was a killing work load, but we managed to pay off the first of the two mortgages early and save a load of interest.

During the school holidays, we were able to establish an orchard and a vegetable garden around the house. We were complete novices in the vegetable garden, but learnt by doing. The gardens started out as a way of growing wholesome, fresh food cheaply on site.

A few years later, I got to see a few French period films set in the south of France. “My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle”, based on books by Marcel Pagnol. These films and others like it, (Jean de Florette) opened my eyes to the possibility of growing both flowers, vegetables and fruit trees, all in the same garden. Our life is much more under control now, and we are finally solvent, with more time to relax and enjoy the fruits of our labours.

In the past few decades we have introduced a lot more flowers into the edges of the garden beds and these are now self seeding and well established year on year.

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So now we grow herbs, grape vines, fruit trees and vegetables all in the same space. It is all netted over now, mostly with hail proof, fine bird netting. However, we have incorporated side panels of 35 mm hexagonal, galvanised wire mesh in the walls that allows all the little insect feeding birds easy access. We get all maner of finches, fire-tails and wrens flittering through in waves thoughout the day. They do a great job of cleaning up all the little pests and grubs, without touching the food crops. It this way we don’t have to use any insecticides.

So here we are arriving at some sort of way station on the journey that we set out on together over 40 years ago.

It’s nice, but I keep in mind that nothing is ever finished, nothing is perfect and nothing lasts.

Chair bodger

One of my hand-made steamed and bent Windsor chairs has suffered a broken arm recently. I made this chair from the one piece of wood, cut from a Japanese cedar tree that died in the drought in our garden. It was probably about 80 years old. It was a fine tree and the wood was too good to waste. So I decided to make a chair out of it.

As this tree was only small. It was hard to find a good piece of straight grained timber. for the lang arm. There was a fault in the way that I made it. I couldn’t find a piece of straight-grained timber that was of the correct dimensions for the job, so I used what I had. There is only so much straight grained timber in one tree. My tree had quite wavy grain. I compensated a little by sawing it out along the grain on the band saw, instead of just in a straight line on the table saw, but there just wasn’t a long enough section for me to use without the grain running off along the grain.

I used this piece where the grain ran off on the bend. It worked really well for almost a decade, but finally split when someone put a bit too much pressure on it, possibly leaning back on the back two legs and stressing the bent back. (I wasn’t home at the time)

I glued the broken arm back together, but it started to part company on the bend and split again within a year, even with careful use. I re-glued it, clamped it securely for 24 hrs. until the glue was well and truly set, then decided to reinforce it with a brass strip behind, where the split had re-started.

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It’s a broken chair, no doubt about it, but its a well-loved and valued chair that I spent a lot of time building, all the way from cutting down the tree, seasoning, sawing, cutting out, carving the seat base and spindles then fabrecating and assembling the whole thing. This chair has an added history. It means something to me so I used brass to give the repair some added value. A bit like the way that I use gold to repair one of my beautiful, but damaged bowls. What I’ve done here is like kinsugi, but it isn’t kinsugi, because kinsugi means gold repair.

Maybe this is some kind of brass chair bodging variation on kinsugi. Perhaps I should call it brassugi?

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Garlic Harvest Time

It’s the first of November and it’s time to harvest the early garlic crop. We plant garlic from March through to June and it takes about 6 months for the crop to mature. Over the years, we have tried many different varieties of garlic as they became available to us, but a few have always done better than others for us here with our specific terroir. The large ‘Russian’ garlic does well here, but I don’t particularly like the flavour. I find that it has a somewhat metallic aftertaste, which I find unpleasant. So although it grows well here I don’t plant it. The large white ‘Melbourne market’ variety does well, but is a little bland. The smaller growing red skinned variety, which I was told came from China after the opening-up to the West in the 70’s, does well and although it is only small, it is quite intense in flavour. I like the taste, but it is so fiddley to peel. Last year was not a good year for garlic for us and this variety grew so poorly to be only just worth harvesting. I didn’t bother to even attempt to peel it. I just put it whole into the garlic press and expressed the pulp as best I could and used it straight like this, even mixed with a little of its paper coating. The Italian pink seems to grow quite well and its of medium size and medium flavour. I plant the mall each year and let them fight it out, to see which one does best in each years different climate and rainfall conditions.

We have lifted half of the crop and have about 70 good knobs to hang up to dry from this first plot. There are also another 20 or 30 smaller bulbs that aren’t worth plaiting or hanging. We put them in a small basket on the kitchen bench top for use straight away.

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Back Home in the Garden

We are back home again now and the garden needs a bit of TLC. I get all around the beds with the strimmer mower cleaning all the paths and edges and then plant out the summer vegetable seeds and seedlings. Because there is always the possibility of frosts until November, we put a few temporary cloches over the most sensitive seedlings to give them an early start.

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The early poppies are starting to bloom now, always a good sign of the warmer weather.

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Moon Jars

While the long wood firing is in progress, there are simultaneous demonstrations of Moon Jar making by 3 exceptional makers. These mysterious white porcelain globes, have fascinated people for centuries, including potters in the West like Lucie Rie, and Bernard Leach.

There is Mr Cheol Shin, The traditional potter who we met a week ago in his workshop while he was wood firing. He is the maker who threw 1000 jars to learn how to make them well and with feeling. He tells us that it was only after that epic effort, was it that he felt confident that he could interpret this elusively simple form with sufficient understanding and confidence to do them justice. He is such a confident thrower, that he makes a dozen ‘halves’ on the first afternoon and then with time up his leave, he make 20 large dishes as well.

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Mr Changhyeon Jeon,  makes Moon Jars with a modern, humorous take on the ancient tradition. His work is great fun, although to my mind he seems to be taking the whole forum very seriously indeed rarely smiling. It seems to be Mr Cheol who is cracking all the jokes during the throwing demos. He is very relaxed and very confident. Mr Changhyeon, on the other hand works on quietly, being very careful and studious. He isn’t interested in volume, only making two jars in total, but each with applied sculptural additions. He has been developing a long series of moon jars with little whimsical horses, that climb up on his pieces and bite a chunk out of the rim. He was commissioned to make a number of pieces for the Korean Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last year. In that series, his horses broke off pieces of the rim of the jars and made skies, snow boards and a luge, then took off down the steep sides of the pots.

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And then there is Mr Jung Hong Park, he makes Moon Jars with a very modern twist. For a start, he is working with black stained porcelain. His technique is to transfer high-definition, digital NASA images of the moon’s surface onto his forms. The detail is stunning and the time it takes to create the image is astonishing. I watched him work on and off for the 3 days and he managed to finish just a couple of square inches of the image. I congratulated him on the effort and he told me that this was only just the first layer of slip inlay, He will come back over it and inscribe another layer – or more. He works with ten different colours of slip, graduated from white to black, to get the fine-grained digital effect. He told me that he will spend up to 2 months to finish the image. Making the form for him is less important, it’s all about the totality of the enterprise, of which the image plays an important part. I’m impressed by his ability to concentrate and apply himself to this sustained project over such a long period of time.

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After work, on the way to our accommodation, we pass the local co-op. The light is on and I can see a lady inside working. I go in and see what she is up to. There are a number of machines in there, some are clearly for working with chilis. There are machines specially for removing the seeds, others for course. medium and fine grinding the powder, depending on the desired outcome.

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Tonight she is renting the oil processing machines. She has brought in her crop of ‘perilla’. I grow a variety of this plant at home myself. I call it ‘shiso’ and use it in salads, as a garnish and as an ingredient in pickles. It has a very distinctive flavour. The variety grown here is not the same and tastes similar but different. Here however they let it grow to full maturity and let it go to seed. The seeds are collected and pressed for their oil. They call it wild sesame here because the oil taste very similar to sesame oil, only milder and slightly sweeter. The mature leaves are used along with lettuce leaves to wrap the meat and pickles in the dish called ssambap.

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We see a hedge of perilla growing around the edge of a ripe crop of rice being harvested, and some real sesame being dried on the pavement in the village along with other recently harvested crops of chilis and herbs spread out on tarps to dry. You don’t want to see a good bit of unused pavement being wasted on a nice sunny day in autumn.

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