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A visit to Min Young-ki

Min Young-ki in his studio
Min Young-ki in his studio

When I visited Sancheong for the first time in 2010 one of the items on my agenda was a visit to Sancheong’s finest potter – and indeed Korea’s most renowned tea-bowl maker – Min Young-ki (민영기). Unfortunately owning to a diary mixup Min Senior was not there, and instead I had a very pleasant meeting with his son, Min Beom-sik (민범식), himself a fine potter.

The privelege of being Sancheong’s goodwill ambassador means that I get to make return visits. And when I returned in 2011 the great man himself was in his studio and was good enough to show me round. In 2012 he insisted that I stayed with him.

Finished bowls waiting their turn. If they pass quality control, they will be fired
Finished bowls waiting their turn. If they pass quality control, they will be fired

Min Young-ki is artistically descended from the Joseon dynasty potters who were kidnapped by the Japanese invaders at the end of the 16th century. After those brutal invasions, Korea’s finest potters found themselves in Japan enriching the enemy’s ceramics industry, leaving Korea’s own ceramics culture impoverished. Some of this know-how found its way back to Korea in the 1970s when Min Young-ki and two other leading Korean potters went to Japan to study with a descendent of these kidnapped artists. After studying in Japan for several years, Min returned to Korea to bring the lost arts back home. With the help of his teacher he selected the ideal location for his workshop and kiln.

Min Young-ki's house in Sancheong-gun
Min Young-ki’s house in Sancheong-gun

His traditional house, set in a picturesque garden, is in an area of Sancheong that has been associated with pottery for centuries, and 15th century kilns have been found nearby. The attraction of the area is not only the good quality local clay but also the water from the Gyeongho river which flows nearby. But unfortunately, a sad by-product of progress, the Seoul to Tongyeong expressway screams past the bottom of his garden, somewhat disrupting the peacefulness of the setting.

Work in progress on Min Young-ki's wheel
Work in progress on Min Young-ki’s wheel

At one side of Min’s plot of land is a multi-purpose building which contains the workshop where he makes the tea-bowls for which he is famous, and a more formal reception room where he receives guests for tea and displays some of his finished work. Walking from the house to this studio, a visitor is greeted by enthusiastic dogs tethered outside their kennels, a necessary burglar alarm given the prices his best pieces can command from discerning collectors.

At the bottom of his garden, beyond the mounds of clay stored under plastic sheets waiting to be used, is his kiln. Needless to say, the kiln is wood-fired, and of a time-honoured, traditional construction.

Min Young-ki's kiln
Min Young-ki’s kiln

When working, Master Min makes around ten pieces a day. This might seem a prolific rate, but he only fires one pot out of every hundred, the other 99 not meeting his exacting standards. And not everything that he puts in his kiln survives the flames – or indeed the post-firing quality control. So the output of his finished work is slow.

Outside his kiln is a pile of shards from pots that didn’t make the grade:

Rejects that didn’t quite make the grade
Powdered green tea

Powdered tea is made in the tea bowl itself rather than being infused in a pot. It is common in Japan and becoming increasingly popular in Korea. A spatula measure of tea powder is placed in the tea bowl and hot (but not boiling) water is added. Then the mixture is whisked to dissolve the powder, and in the process a bright green foam develops. The result is both refreshing and slightly bitter. To offset this bitterness it is common to have a dainty sweet delicacy to accompany the tea – perhaps some green plum jelly, a sweet rice cake, or, since we are in Sancheong, source of some of Korea’s best persimmons, some sliced fruits: and some frozen persimmon is particularly fine on a hot day.

Once you have finished a bowl of powdered tea it is normal to drink a couple of bowls of leaf tea – this rinses the bowl of the residual foam. Hanjae Yi Mok, the father of Korean tea, claimed that the best tea is a good cure for a hangover. I can confirm from experience that it’s as good a cure as any I’ve tried.

Those who are familiar with Korean leaf tea, whether from visiting temples or otherwise, will probably be used to the small dainty tea cups you see in tea shops and souvenir shops across the country. Min Young-ki’s much larger tea bowls (찻사발) are designed for use with powdered tea. The bowl can be held reverentially in both hands – as when you nurse a mug of hot chocolate on a cold day – or, if you are feeling casual, with just one hand. But one of the features of a typical Korean tea bowl is its tactile quality: you want to feel it in your hands, rotate it, appreciate the roughness and thickness at the foot of the bowl which graduates into the much smoother glaze and thinner clay at the lip. The larger size of the bowl (compared with the small tea cup) gives greater opportunity for variations in colour which sometimes resemble the mottled flesh of a salmon, or at other times take on a more humble earthy tone. Colours in the clay can range from a near sky blue to oranges and pinks via all the browns, greys and ochres in between.

Mr Min is having to restart a tradition from scratch in a country which had forgotten the ancient skills (or had them stolen), and more importantly which had to a certain extent forgotten the aesthetics and sensibility associated with the appreciation of fine ceramics.

Having learned the lost Korean arts from Japan, Min has retained his high reputation there. When a Japanese prime minister wanted to study Korean ceramics, it was with Min Young-ki that he studied. And Min has found that his tea bowls are much in demand among Japanese collectors where they can achieve eye-wateringly high prices. Their irregular and simple appearance speaks to a sophisticated sensibility that can appreciate natural and uncomplicated beauty.

Green tea made out of powder
Green tea made out of powder (Photo: Joongang Ilbo)

Master Min has been working with the clay of the Sancheong area for some 35 years, experimenting with different blends and mixes. A feature of working with natural materials is that seemingly the same clay subjected to exactly the same treatment can give rise to two almost inexplicably different bowls. Min is meticulous in taking notes as to what works and what doesn’t. Like a scientist, he wants to leave behind for the next generation the benefit of his accumulated experience. And the next generation is his son, as he has until recently been unwilling to take on any other students.

Two tea-bowls made of almost identical clay
Two tea-bowls made of almost identical clay

When I visited Min Young-ki in March 2012, he was preparing for his next exhibition. From his stock of newly finished work he had set aside a longlist of pieces he thought were suitable for exhibition. His teacher was going to be visiting in the following week to help curate the final selection. The exhibition is soon, in the Mitsukoshi Department Store Gallery in Tokyo, 4 – 24 July 2012. If you’re in Tokyo, be sure to pay it a visit.


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