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Koreans in the U.S. Connect with their Cultural Roots  Pottery Exhibit and Korean Culture Day in San Francisco

Korean music, delicate traditional patchworks, exquisite buncheong ware, and hands-on activities helped to introduce a wide range of people to the culture and spirit of Korea at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco on September 17. The Korea Foundation’s“ Korean Culture Day,” a festive event for local residents, was held in conjunction with the opening of the “Poetry in Clay: Korean Buncheong Ceramics from Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art” exhibition The museum offered free admission to visitors so they could take part in a variety of cultural activities.

The Unique Buncheong Ware

The event’s sponsor, the Korea Foundation, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Since its launch in 1991, the Foundation has focused its efforts on promoting Korean culture and education around the world. The pottery exhibition features about 60 pieces of buncheong ware – a type of stoneware with a distinctive bluish-green glaze – that flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries in Korea. Earlier this year, the exhibition was presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on April 7-August 14. The exhibition in San Francisco also displays the works of Korean contemporary artists, who were inspired by buncheong’s traditional aesthetics and artistic approach. The featured artists include Koo Bohn-chang, Shin Mee-kyoung, Yee Soo-kyung, and Ha In-sun.

Shin Mee-kyoung, whose “ceramics” are actually made from soap, attracted an overflow crowd at her craft-making workshop. Each participant received a plastic cup, and was told to place into the cup whatever small objects they wanted to, like colorful fabrics, ribbons, feathers, or pebbles. Then Shin poured hot liquid soap into each person’s cup with the decorative items, which would harden into a solid form after the soap cooled off.

Shin started creating soap artworks after she moved to London from Seoul in 1995. “I noticed a white stone displayed at the British Museum and I thought it looked like a piece of soap. I felt this notion of mine came from my experience of being a foreigner in an unfamiliar city. So, I started to recreate ceramic works of both the East and the West, using soap as the main material. As soap is something that easily wears out and will disappear quickly, I wanted to shorten the gap between the West and the East, and the present and the past.”

One of Shin’s unique soap projects consisted of making small-sized Buddha sculptures, and then placing them in public bathrooms so that people could actually use them for washing their hands. When the soap Buddhas are worn down from use, Shin would collect and display them at an exhibition venue as contemporary pieces that have been quickly and greatly affected by the passage of time.

Variety of Hands-on Activities
Meanwhile, ceramist Lee Kang-hyo demonstrated Korea’s traditional method of pottery making using a basic kick wheel. His demonstration attracted young children as well as adults, as the seemingly simple technique quickly turned a clump of clay into a large-size pot, as if by magic. Young children were given a chance to participate in Lee’s work, handling the wet clay and applying their fingerprints.

“Creating onggi earthenware is considered one of the fastest pottery-making techniques in world history,” said Lee. “And because the ware can be made in such a short time, it is perfect for artistic demonstrations for non-Korean audiences in foreign countries. I’ve always received a positive response whenever I perform such demonstrations overseas, and today is especially more meaningful because what I do well complements the buncheong exhibition.”

Mindy Solomon, Lee’s art representative in the United States, said his works are extremely iconic, as he combines the traditional form of Korean pottery with expressive and even contemporary characteristics. “There is so much expressiveness, and there’s real surface dialogue going on, the way his fingers mark and move with the lines,” said Solomon. She also noted that Lee’s artistic demonstrations could bring about a new perspective of pottery art, especially for those who own Korean ceramic works, like herself.

Traditional Korean Arts and Crafts

Prof. Kim Byung-jong of Seoul National University presents a lecture on the aesthetic aspects of the art of Korea and East Asia.Across the room, Lee Young-min demonstrated the making of bojagi – Korea’s traditional textile craft. Lee, who has been living in the Bay area for about 15 years, has conducted craft-making sessions at the museum on several occasions. “I think it’s the philosophy that’s behind the bojagi making that really appeals to people here – the frugal spirit that you would use leftover fabrics and patch them together to make a piece of bojagi, and the good wishes that you convey when you make it as a gift for someone.” Mary Kim, a long-time volunteer at the museum, said the event was a most delightful experience for her.

Alongside the demonstrations, a small exhibition area was filled with artworks of Korean themes. Students from the Oakland Korean School created works of art after watching videos on Korean history and reading books about Korea over two weeks. Their paintings depicted such subjects as the Rose of Sharon, Korea’s national flower, the Joseon Dynasty’s legendary naval commander Yi Sun-sin and his turtle-shaped warship, and the Korean War. One of the paintings depicted three people, each wearing their national attire, including a hanbok and Chinese garment.

Haegum Plus, a crossover instrumental group directed by Kang Eun-il, staged three performances during the day, highlighting their signature musical style which infuses traditional Korean music with the influences of jazz and Western classical music. Kang led the group with her playing of the haegeum, a two-stringed fiddle, for such tunes as the popular folksong “Arirang,” and “Hey Ya,” a remake of the folksong “Ongheya.” The group received a standing ovation at the end of their concert.

On Sunday, Professor Kim Byung-jong of Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts gave a lecture on the formative aesthetics of Korean art as compared with the characteristics of East Asian art in general. The exhibition will continue through January 8, 2012.

Haegum Plus, a crossover instrumental group, performs at the gala reception for the KF Korean Culture Day at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Claire Lee Korea Herald Correspondent

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