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Journey Man: an interview with ceramic artist Jaejun Lee

Lee Jaejun
Image courtesy the artist

Determination, dedication, precision, humbleness, outstanding results. These are some of the words that come to mind when thinking about the artworks Jaejun Lee (b.1987) creates in his studio after hours and hours spent on the wheel and with his tools.

Counting ten thousand followers on Instagram, artist Lee is a young and talented ceramic artist who, after receiving a BFA and MFA at the prestigious Seoul National University in Seoul, South Korea, moved to London in 2018 on an ‘Exceptional Talent’ visa to continue his art practice in a new environment. Just like his talent, his works are surely exceptional. Extremely smooth and homogenous surfaces are combined with simple yet elegant shapes, bringing to life pottery which exquisitely combines the Korean tradition of simplicity and a modern sensibility for shape and use.

In his nicely curated website, the artist shares some insights on his career and the journey, both physical and spiritual, that made him the man and artist he is today. In a writing that feels as genuine and sincere as his works, Jaejun Lee gathers his thoughts on the hardships he encountered, the tenacity with which he overcame the obstacles he had to face and, vivid and enlightening, his love for the career he chose over ten years ago.

Reading through what almost feels like a glimpse of the artist’s private diary is a humbling experience: behind all the beauty and success there are spirit of sacrifice, difficult times and the strength and determination to not give up when the dream fades away and reality comes to be dealt with.  In a way, it is a gift from the artist, as it unveils from what place his ceramics come to life, adding perhaps extra value to them, as one is made aware of the emotional connection the artist has with its pieces. It suggests, as per wish of Jaejun Lee himself, to look at the objects we consume with a different awareness and, perhaps, appreciate them more.

I engaged in a virtual Q&A with artist Lee, taking this chance to learn more about his art practice and the journey he embraced, which led the artist to give himself the nickname of ‘Journey Man’.

Jaejun Lee in his studio
Jaejun Lee in his studio. Image courtesy the artist

Every journey has a beginning. How did your interest in ceramics and pottery develop? Can you recall a moment in which it became clear that you wanted to embrace a career as a ceramic artist?

I first have to talk about the University entrance in Korea. In Korea, the name value of university is very important, and many parents and students believe that their lives can change depending on where you study. Seoul National University, where I used to study, is equivalent to Harvard in the US, and Oxford or Cambridge in the UK. I had to apply for a less competitive department in the art college: a craft major. Until I went to high school, I didn’t know about ceramics at all, but I liked it from the beginning when it was my 2nd year after foundation course.

The only thing I was worried about was the financial instability coming with this job. But I was too absorbed in ceramics in my final year of the BFA course and I just got into the Master’s directly.

I liked to make things which can make your life richer and better. For me, Art sounded too grandiose, and I just loved the routine of spending my day getting better day by day, working with colleagues together in the studio.

I devoted most of my twenties to the world of ceramics and didn’t really look at another possibility. If I had had other options, or if I had had anything else I was good at, it could have been different.

I remember that I doubted my creativity all the time in my 20s, but one of my elder colleagues said that, in the craft field, the person who can stay longer and work harder on their work can be a winner in the end. I was quite good at that, although I didn’t have very good hands and creativity. It may have been a reason why I chose ceramicist as a vocation.

Jaejun Lee: Moon Jar
Moon Jar (S), 20x20xh20 (cm), porcelain, wheel thrown, 1280 Oxidation firing, 2020. Image courtesy the artist.

You studied at Seoul National University, a prestigious educational institution in Korea, which is a country that boasts a long, excellent ceramic tradition. In what way is your education experience reflected in your art practice? How did it shape your artistic production?

I cannot say it is a good thing or bad thing but many things were already defined by where I got educated. The college has had very strong colour-identity as an institution, and it was pretty different from the normal department in art college or ceramics department at other University.

I would say it was similar to Bauhaus! In the ceramic field in Korea, there have been many debates about my University, as it is too systematised for being part of an art college, so sometimes we were targeted to be blamed as the university has too strong an influence on students so that one student’s work is much like another’s.

It can be partly true. However, we had to act and show our work as a group at the beginning of a new era at my University when my professor Kap-sun Hwang become appointed (2003), as this approach with very modern aesthetic and our try to break the very typical ceramics had to come in for criticism in a very exclusive field.

I, at least, agreed with what my professor thought and the style of my work is still based on what I got trained at, with the theme – very skilled control on pots with the best form and texture.

That movement as a group finally created a new market and also a trend. Porcelain wasn’t very often used and much appreciated when I started studying ceramics in Korea, but now many universities and artists work with porcelain. It is still my personal opinion, but many people in the ceramic field in Korea would agree that SNU had a very strong influence on Korean ceramics from around 2010.

Jaejun Lee: Jar
Jar, 17.1×17.1×21.3 (cm), porcelain, wheel thrown, 1280 Oxidation firing, 2020. Image courtesy the artist.

In 2018 you moved to the UK on a ‘Exceptional Talent’ visa. In your writing, you explained you had to work hard to find your place in the local art scene, facing challenging moments  which you eventually overcame. What kept you motivated during the hard times?

I didn’t have many motivations at that time.

I was really excited to be a full-time artist when I left Korea. I was employed at University for 2 years as a full time administrative assistant for the ceramics major, which meant I had to work at the office from 9 to 6 five days a week, and my time at the wheel started in the evening. I worked till 1, 2 o’clock almost everyday, but it was not enough.

In spite of the expectation, 6 months of setting up time was very hard and I got discouraged everyday. It went wrong from the beginning, I met the wrong people and they made everything too hard for me. I couldn’t be sure about anything and worried a lot about machinery set up as information about electricity in that property was very uncertain and it had lots of suspicious problems.

I cried a lot, and it was definitely the hardest time of my life. I was in the middle of nowhere and had no one to help dealing with setting up things and it was very hard to communicate with builders, they didn’t listen to me and even cheated me.

I was put totally alone.

Everyday, I imagined the situation of my going back to Korea even before starting anything.

But time eventually went by and I could start working in the studio.

“No pain, no gain”, so goes the popular saying. Do you have a personal motto or saying that you like repeating to yourself during challenging times?

I am not a person who can always remember the word or sentence. I become moved by them so easily but it has never been mine forever, but these days I think everything is a game of “Balancing”. I think life is the endless balancing – balancing with people, schedule, work and rest.

It is the thing I am not good at, I would say ceramics occupies over 90% of my brain, I have no evening, weekend and not many things to enjoy. To be honest, ceramics was not the object of enjoyment, it was rather the object of commitment for me.

Jaejun Lee: Vase
Vase (ver.1 type in blue), 17.5×17.5xh20.5 (cm), porcelain, wheel thrown, 1280 Oxidation firing, 2020. Image courtesy the artist.

You explained that you are now thankful for the difficulties you encountered as they made you stronger and you grew through them. This is a beautiful and inspirational outlook on the hardships one, sooner or later, might face when working towards achieving a goal. Do you have an advice you would like to give to your younger self, looking back at that challenging time?

I don’t actually want to have that experience again, and if you can stay in rich surroundings, I wouldn’t recommend to put yourself on the hardship. But since I moved to the UK, I feel like I have grown and finally become an adult as I have to decide everything on my own even for a small thing.

Going to the fair brought me a very fresh feeling about myself. The packing day before leaving for the fair is very tough. Packing pots and all the furniture and many other things should be loaded in a car and it is always completely full. It is like removal. I did it 8 times last year.

It doesn’t matter that I am not good at something, for example driving, I should go and when I finished one event and came back home safely, it fulfilled me.

Another thing I learnt from many events last year, and getting more professional mind, is that the enlightenment of that bad day is also a part of my life and my career, such as a football player: although someone is the best player, they also have the day they lose.

At the beginning, my emotion was a roller coaster, but the more experience I had, the more I tried to empty my mind when I had events.

Can you briefly describe your creative process and its main steps? What inspires you the most? Do you have a favourite stage or moment among the steps that lead to a finished piece?

Mainly, the actual process of making is made of the following steps: throwing / drying / turning / bisque firing / glazing / firing / polishing (finishing).

Every night I also spend some time at the desk leaving lots of memos and drawings.

No step is less important as every single careless action can cause a defect at the end.

I like the throwing process most and the glazing process is the most sensitive stage as, although I made a nice piece in shape, it can cause a fall in the value at the end. There is limit of control for the firing process. I just set up the temperature and firing schedule, and they are nearly in the same atmosphere, but each piece comes out differently. I call it “the Judgement of fire”. I would be happy if around 50-60% of pots from the kiln come out nicely. Polishing is the physically hardest process. Many artists don’t spend long time on this stage, but I sometimes even spend longer time on this than on the making time. It brings me a nagging pain in my fingers but I am pretty sure it is worth doing it as it can add satisfaction for your touch as well.

All of the pieces I make at this moment are the vessel shape, so inspiration hits me in any time and space. When I watch a film, there would be some good vessels of any materials at the back. When I pass by the show window of shops or go to the supermarket. Inspirations are everywhere.

It doesn’t have to be a vessel, it can be the nature, or it can be a spontaneous idea.

The most important thing is that I have to be able to make the idea or image mine. Anything I make has to be in my own context. For potters, as we all have got many general sources which we can take from, the attitude for approach to them is very important and I always try reflecting my identity into my work.

Jaejun Lee 10-Piece Nesting Bowl Set
10-Piece Nesting Bowl Set, 17.5×17.5xh10.2 (cm), porcelain, wheel thrown, 1280 Oxidation firing, 2020. Image courtesy the artist.

What guides you in the choice of colours? Is there a reason in particular why you prefer smooth and pattern-free surfaces for your artworks?

I applied colours in my work for the first time in 2013. I was part of a university-museum exhibition and the theme of the show was to reinterpret the old relics with a modern point of view. I chose a necklace of colourful stone beads from around the 7th century. I borrowed colours from it and made small pots with reinterpreted colour. I used coloured porcelain, and the colours were one each from red tone, and navy colour, and yellow green.

I still use the navy colour for my glaze. Now my colour palette contains white, grey, blue (navy) and black. I am very slow at extending my colour range, it needs consideration for a long time.

The main point I want to show people is the form of the vessel and the texture of the glaze  so the decoration on the pots can be a disturbance as I want people to catch the details of what I want to show through my work.

Your artworks have a practical destination of use. Have you ever considered creating something that has no practical, everyday use, but carries a message or a symbolic value?

Even though it is all vessel shape, my current art practice encompasses more art pieces. When I was in Korea I focused more on functional things as it was the reason why I got to fall in love with ceramics.

I wanted to be a national tableware maker, but since I moved here, I have wanted to make more various shapes of vessels. Now I try to change my main subject to the larger vessels from tableware as I have seen potential and many possibilities. When I think I have made enough vessels in this way of making, I hope my work changes quite dramatically, and I don’t still know when it will be, but I have started slowly building up for my new work from now.

You must be now used to show your works at art fairs or in galleries around the world. Do you remember the very first exhibition you took part to? Have your attitude and feelings changed in any way after years of experience?

Yes, my first exhibition was in 2011 when I was in my 3rd year of BFA. The title of it was ‘The First Intention’ and I and two of my colleagues rented a gallery space to show our wood-fired bowls.

The title showed our humility for our start. My work has been developed from that time and I have worked as an artist from that time for nearly 10 years, I know I am a still young artist and there is still a long way to go. I try to be modest more and more, but also it is very important to be cold towards my work and what to embrace for my work. Now, it is much clearer what I have to do for reaching the goal of professionality.

In your writing, you stated that “Little by little, I’ve finally started to love myself through this job and pieces I made.” In what way did your job and the artworks you make lead you to love yourself?

I am very emotional. Last winter, after the very busy long journey of the whole year, I became quite sentimental and that was written in one night when emotions ran too high.

I had the longest time ever last year with my pots, even not considering the making time.

I touched more than tens of pots everyday, looking, checking or packing and introduced them to people many times at fairs. Through these experiences, I felt people recognised me by what I made, and I could finally see that myself was quite hugely reflected on my work. It can’t be very clearly explained but it seems that I embrace all the interaction and relationship between me and my work through what happens to us everyday. When people think of me, they don’t separate me and my work, and when you have this experience, you can’t help loving yourself and your creatures.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received so far and is there any advice you would like to give to younger artists? 

It isn’t really a piece of advice, but I have in mind the word I liked when I received it.

I expect too many things in my life, and sometimes I feel a very heavy pressure to satisfy my expectation and someone else’s. Recently my friends sent me their concern with the kind message: “If it is too hard, here is where you can come back”.

Rather than wishing me a better future, when someone says I can fail, but nothing would change that much, and I still have the place to go back -back home- to my family, my friends, I feel thankful and then try to live harder.

My advice to younger artists, especially ceramicists, is quite of a different mood from that front.

It will be quite cold and realistic as it is very important to check if you really can do this forever. I think the market where I belong to at this moment is distinct from fine arts market or design industry from a certain point of view. You don’t only deal with conception or idea, you must always remember that you deal with materials, and you should handle it well and you should understand it. I think some people don’t allow themselves to have more time to reach the proper quality of work, just trying new shape and dragging interests from people and if they like it, it gets sold. However, every artist has to be more responsible for what they make and understand more of their own creatures. It doesn’t always mean the finishing quality, but before you got too eager to sell it, you should think what you want to achieve through it.

I am a person who got stressed by my financial situation a lot, as I built the system with high running cost when I was very naive with it, but try to get out of it when I work.

If you are a person who knows how to enjoy your life (I am pretty sure you are better than me), rather than worrying about your life too much, then love what you do first before you consider it as a business.

Jaejun Lee will show his works in September at Beaux Art Bath and at Oxford Ceramics Fair. If you want to learn more about this outstanding artist, you can check out his website and Instagram accounts: @jaejunlee_ceramics | @jaejunlee_collection.

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