Potter Hwang Chong-rae explains how the “gwiyal,” or paint brush technique, is applied to a traditional bowl at her Goyang studio.
/ Korea Times photo
GOYANG, Gyeonggi Province — The ultimate pottery creations of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) were “buncheong” ware, traditional works marked by decorative designs and elaborate carvings.
Buncheong porcelain (14th-16th century) is characterized by uniquely bold designs deviated from the aesthetic traditions of celadon and white porcelain that originated from China.
Its unconventional dynamic expressions and variety of abstract designs appeal to modern tastes. That’s why many of the nation’s first-generation potters like Hwang Chong-rae, 85, have specialized in the tradition for more than 50 years.
She is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts in “gwiyal,” one of the six major decorative buncheong techniques in which the brush marks themselves are the decoration. Gwiyal translates to paint brush in English.
In adding the gwiyal drawings as final touches to her Joseon-style porcelain, she mainly finds her inspiration in nature.
“My brush marks mostly depict grass, the sea, ocean waves, the mountains, and other dynamic features of nature,” Hwang said during a recent interview with The Korea Times at her studio. “With energetic brush strokes, I try to give my work a sense of vitality. My goal is to always be vital, energetic and creative.”
Working with the paint brushes is a special skill, which make Hwang’s works one of a kind.
“It is possible to duplicate celadon or cheongja, and white porcelain or baekja. But It is impossible to duplicate gwiyal works,” she said.
Buncheong largely disappeared from Korea after the 16th century due to the popularity of white porcelains. In modern times, the buncheong style has been revived here by Hwang and her generation of potters after the Japanese occupation (1910 — 1945).
She built a studio in this satellite city of 900,000 about 40 years ago, equipped with electric, gas and wood fire kilns. An exhibition hall displays her key works.
Her studio has been frequented by wives of foreign envoys in Korea who go to get a glimpse of traditional Korean pottery.
Hwang is considered a pioneering first-generation potter here but hers is a career that almost didn’t happen.
After graduating from Ewha Womans University in 1950 as a Western art major, she worked as an art teacher at a high school. She began her official training as a potter nine years later, aged 32.
What prompted her to change career path from teacher to professional potter?
It has a lot to do with a sense of mission to revive the nation’s pottery tradition that had been severed during the Japanese occupation.
“I was one of the first seven students to be admitted to the pottery department at Ewha Womans University’s graduate school in 1959. I was determined to revive our pottery culture,” Hwang said.
Family history also played a role.Her father, Hwang In-chun, was a master of cheongja porcelain in Gaeseong, North Korea, during the Japanese occupation.
Hwang has held many exhibitions here and abroad since her first one in 1961, including in the U.S. New Zealand and Japan. Some of her works are displayed permanently in renowned overseas museums, including the British Museum.