As a potter of traditional white porcelain ware, Kim Jeong-ok’s position is unique in that his family has
never abandoned the porcelain-making legacy that his ancestor, Kim Chwi-jeong, began approximately
200 years ago. However, it was Kim Jeong-ok’s grandfather who gained the nationwide reputation for his
family. Recognized as a master potter by the Joseon court under King Gojong, his grandfather was sent
to the city of Gwangju in Gyeonggi province, where the Joseon government was running a number of kilns
to manufacture quality ceramic ware.

By the time 40-year-old Kim Un-hi was sent to a government-run kiln nearly 100 years ago,
he was already a top potter in the hamlet of Gwaneum in Mungyeong. His new workplace, the Bunwon
Kiln in Gwangju, was the last kiln operated by the Joseon court to produce superior ceramic ware for
exclusive use by the royal households. Here he fashioned white porcelain bowls and jars, and excelled
all other potters.

The glorious era of Joseon’s white ceramics, however, sadly came to
a close in 1883 when the Joseon court decided to privatize their kilns and,
subsequently, cheap mass-produced Japanese porcelain began to flood the
kingdom. The breathtaking natural beauty of Joseon earthenware, the
serene image of a solitary moon shining softly over a gentle hill, that
had fascinated Joseon people for several hundred years gradually
faded away along with the fated dynasty. Seeing the tragic end of the
era and Joseon white porcelain, Kim Un-hi came back to his birthplace
as a poor, frustrated artisan who lost his honorary title of Master Potter of
Gwanyo (‘government-operated kiln’). Thankfully, however, his return gave
his hometown a new opportunity to reflect on its years as the center of Joseon
ceramics. The works he made during this period for the masses displayed
outstanding features that one can only expect from a leading gwanyo potter, in which
artistic imagination is interlaced with practicality to create dynamism and freedom
of expression.

Another misfortune afflicted Kim Un-hi when the Japanese colonial rulers revealed
their intention to dominate the Joseon Dynasty’s ceramics industry by introducing a
license system for private ceramics shops and kilns. Kim Un-hi had no choice but
to close his workshop and, sadly, he died soon after at the age of 70. When Korea
liberated from its colonial heads of state in 1945, his son, Kim Gyo-su, was
able to rekindle the kiln that had been falling into ruin since his death. It was an
instant success. The seizure of brassware by the Japanese invaders during the
colonial period and the withdrawal of Japanese ceramics merchants from the Korean
market after the 1945 emancipation meant there was a huge demand for porcelain.
The booming ceramics market in the1950s resulted in great prosperity for Kim Gyo-su
and his family.

In the following decades, however, Kim’s family suffered from a huge drop in demand for traditional ceramic
ware, a phenomenon caused by the arrival of cheap galvanized iron ware and plastic goods. The thriving ceramic
workshops of Mungyeong began to close one after another, until only the Kim’s was left. Ironically, what helped
Kim keep the family business going were the Japanese tourists who flocked to Korea following the 1965 summit talk
between the two countries. These Japanese tourists arrived in droves at his tiny workshop hidden in a remote valley,
and were amazed by what they believed was an incarnation of Ido Chawan, one of their most admired national treasures.

Ido Chawan (or Jeongho Dawan in Korean) is a rustic tea bowl Japanese soldiers found during the Imjin Waeran
(The War of the Ceramics) in the Joseon Dynasty. The tea bowl was later possessed by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one
of the most powerful feudal lords in Japanese history. He was so amazed by its graceful beauty that he only used
it for special ceremonious meetings with powerful warlords. Since then, a number of Ido Chawan have been designated
as national treasures across Japan, including one, it is said, that its owner would not sell even for the Osaka Castle,
home of Hideyoshi himself.

‘Kizaemon’ Ido
Japanese National Treasure

The deep color of loquat, the deformed but dignified
body that never loses balance, the potter’s fingerprint
at its waist, the coarsely-wrought foot with mottled cream,
freely-flowing lines and the maehwa design on the surface
define the unique aestheticism of Ido Chawan, in which
perfect harmony is achieved from its disharmonious parts.

Opinions vary, even among well-informed scholars, as to the origins and purpose of the wonderful ceramic called
Ido Chawan. Some say that it was used as a rice bowl by Buddhist monks, while others argue that it had a religious
function. Still, many others insist that it was a tea bowl. Whatever its use, Kim Jeong-ok is a descendent of the brilliant
Joseon potter who created this and many other magnificent works of art.

Born as the third son of Kim Gyo-su, Kim Jeong-ok learned how to use clay and the potter’s wheel at a young age
under his father’s tutelage. When he was 18, he decided to continue the family tradition and work with clay for the
rest of his life. People praised his pieces and said that his father, a master potter, had taught him well. However,
following his father’s death when Kim Jeong-ok was only 32 years old, business dwindled as both his Korean and
Japanese customers suddenly stopped visiting the workshop. A time of discouragement and frustration ensued,
after which he opened a new workshop at the side of a road in Mungyeong, hoping that traffic and increased exposure
would help bring back customers. By this time, he made everything he could to eke out a living, from tea bowls and
buncheong ware, to white porcelain and even fancy flowerpots. But his time of difficulty continued, and he realized that
he needed to win prizes in national craft competitions to gain a similar reputation as his father’s. With high hopes
and lofty expectations, he entered a tea bowl and a buncheong jar into the 1986 National Folk Craft Show, but unfortunately
they did not gain any interest from the critics

View the master's works