Bento had a chance to touch base with artist Mei-ling Hom in advance of the talk on contemporary Korean ceramics that she and independent scholar David McClelland will present this Saturday, February 9, at 2 pm in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.
Bento: We know you as a sculptor and installation artist, but what is your relationship to ceramics?
Mei-ling Hom: As an undergraduate at Kirkland College my major was ceramic sculpture. After Kirkland I moved to Philadelphia and worked solely in clay for 15 years until I entered the graduate program at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in 1985. That’s when I started working in installation and exploring the nuanced understanding of spatial perception in varying cultural contexts. After graduate school, I returned to my teaching position in Philadelphia, where I taught ceramics and three-dimensional design for 26 years.
B: What inspired you to focus on contemporary Korean ceramics?
MH: While I was teaching at the community college, the NEH sponsored the Asian Studies Development Program (ASDP) to infuse Asian content into existing curricula, thereby bringing diversity to American educational systems. I knew that Korea had a lively art scene but I knew very little about it, so I applied to ASDP. I was one of twelve teachers accepted into this program nationwide. We were flown to Hawaii, where we had three weeks of academic lectures, and then onto Korea for another three-week lecture program with field trips and official government luncheons. To my dismay, there was nothing addressing contemporary art in the six-week course. So I applied for a Fulbright grant to return to Korea and conducted the research myself.
B: Tell me about the year you and David spent in South Korea on a Fulbright.
MH: To work successfully in Asia it is important to have the right contacts. When we arrived we had two: Lee Inchin, the director of the Ceramic Research Institute at Hongik University, and Cho Chung Hyun, an emerita professor of ceramics at Ewha University. We had studied with her 26 years earlier in Edwardsville, Illinois, when she was a graduate student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Our first line of business was to define a list of candidates to interview. We spent days at the Ceramic Research Institute poring over exhibition catalogs to compile our “artists of interest” list. We also had to prove our credibility to the ceramic community, so we enrolled in intensive Korean language study, attended every weekly gallery opening, and introduced ourselves. As Korean artists learned of our project, they suggested ceramic artists we should contact.
About three months into the Fulbright, we started interviewing artists. Our Korean language skills were very sketchy so we usually traveled with a translator if the artist did not speak English. David would usually photograph the studio and the artist while I conducted the interview. In the beginning we had one interview per day, but as artists learned of our project we sometimes had to schedule five or six per day. We tried to spend a lot of time with each artist so we could really develop a sense of his or her work and process.
The majority of our interviewed artists live in Seoul, where one-fourth of Korea’s population resides. By the end of the summer we were traveling outside of Seoul to visit pottery studios and conduct interviews. For the appointments in the southern tip of the peninsula we took an extended journey and found lodging along the way. The artists were extremely generous. Often they would take us to meet other potters in out-of-the way locales, and of course they shared their delicious local cuisines with us.
An unexpected side benefit to our stay in Korea was learning about Korean classical music and the new compositions being produced for classical instruments. One of the potters we stayed with in Kwangju played the Korean bamboo flute. He would wake us in the mornings with the lilting notes of his flute and in the evenings local musicians would gather at his studio to jam together. For the our CD on Contemporary Korean Ceramic Artists, we used Hwang Byungki‘s music on the kayageum, a zither-like string instrument, in the background.
B: What defines contemporary Korean ceramics? How have time-honored traditions changed in the hands of the artists you met?
MH: Ceramic artists in Korea draw on their thousand-year history of working with high-fire stoneware and porcelain. But porcelain can be used in ways far removed from Chinese prototypes. Yoon Sol has forms and a size range that clearly are influenced by his youthful obsession with putting together plastic fantasy models. Now he has translated his “hand thought” (a delightful West African term for craftwork) into a rather severe, Northern European-influenced precisionist model—which is really Korean, because it echoes a cultural preoccupation with the clarity and beauty of high-fire porcelain (itself an echo of the purity and hardness of jade).
Other artists, such as Lee Kang Hyo, Yoon Kwang Cho, and Cho Chung Hyun, draw directly on the form and surface decoration of historical pots. Their works are not recreations of any specific era but sit comfortably with their predecessors while pointing in a new direction. Shin Sang Ho is sui generis. His work can not be easily inserted into the flow of art history and perhaps we shouldn’t try. I’m sure he would quote Popeye: “I yam what I yam.”
B: For your 2005 installation at the Sackler, “Floating Mountains, Singing Clouds,” you said that you were drawn to clouds because “they travel everywhere and are perceived by different cultures in different ways.” Can a similar statement be applied to clay?
MH: The cloud is different because you cannot touch and manipulate it—it is an experienced phenomenon we understand through a mental and emotional process. Clay is utterly responsive to every nudge, squeeze, and pull of the hand. So in touching clay, a very personal and direct impulse can be conveyed.
B: How has your time in Korea influenced your own work?
MH: When I returned from Korea I was anxious to touch clay again. At the time I was involved in two large public art commissions, one for the Philadelphia International Airport and the other for the Raleigh Durham International Airport. I was, however, able to work with a country potter in North Carolina for two months. There I produced a body of wood-fired ceramic clouds, which were exhibited at the Fleisher Ollman Gallery in 2010.