How a Korean Potter Found a “Beautiful Life” Through His Art: A Short, Life-Affirming Documentary

I like to think I appre­ci­ate all aspects of the cul­ture of South Korea, where I live, but dif­fer­ent attrac­tions bring dif­fer­ent for­eign­ers here. Some come for the food, some come for the music (pop, tra­di­tion­al, or some­where in between), some come for the med­ical tourism. Oth­ers, like British ceram­i­cist Roger Law, come for the pot­tery. The half-hour doc­u­men­tary above will give you an idea of what makes Kore­an pot­tery, and the Kore­an pot­ters who craft it, so dis­tinc­tive, tak­ing view­ers into the work­shop of Lee Kang-hyo, who has become famous by there bring­ing togeth­er the dis­tinct tra­di­tions of onggi glazed earth­en­ware pot­tery and buncheong white slip dec­o­ra­tion.

“As a high school stu­dent, I asked myself some fun­da­men­tal ques­tions,” says Lee in voiceover as we watch him beat the clay of what looks more and more like a large jar into shape. “What would be good to do for a liv­ing? What is my best tal­ent? How can I enjoy a life of peace? It was then I decid­ed to become an artist.” As he cre­ates, he tells us about the long his­to­ry of pot­tery in Korea and his expe­ri­ence prac­tic­ing and mas­ter­ing the tra­di­tions in which he works. Looked at ong­gi, he says, “I nev­er thought they were sim­ply big jars. I thought they were great sculp­ture.”

“My doc­u­men­tary tells the sto­ry of Lee Kang-hyo’s search for a beau­ti­ful life, through his work with clay and the love of his fam­i­ly,” says direc­tor Alex Wright, a sto­ry that “gives an insight into the spir­i­tu­al jour­ney that plays a vital part in his artis­tic prac­tice.” For Lee, this had to do as much with the heart and mind as with the hand, loos­en­ing up and light­en­ing up even as he grew more skilled, a real­iza­tion that first occurred when he became friend­ly with Japan­ese mas­ter pot­ter Koie Ryo­ji. “Kang-hyo, why don’t you try to change your think­ing?’ ” Lee remem­bers Koie ask­ing after he pre­sent­ed him with his lat­est piece. “And he lift­ed it up and crushed it. He said: ‘Form does­n’t always have to be straight. It can be beau­ti­ful.’ ”

That les­son holds in oth­er cul­tur­al spheres as well. “Ceram­ic cul­ture is very close­ly con­nect­ed to dietary life and food cul­ture,” Lee observes. “Korea has devel­oped a fer­ment­ed food cul­ture. A lot of foods are fer­ment­ed and stored, such as sauces and kim­chi,” which might stay in their ceram­ic jars for years before con­sump­tion. And so “Korea has devel­oped the skills to make big jars, more than any oth­er coun­try” with the “quick­est and most per­fect forms.” This might sound like the mak­ings of a rus­tic, util­i­tar­i­an pot­tery — and indeed cui­sine — but in fact the work of Lee and oth­er Kore­an mas­ters increas­ing­ly aligns with the grow­ing glob­al taste for things out­ward­ly sim­ple but inward­ly refined. In that par­tic­u­lar sen­si­bil­i­ty, whether expressed as pot­tery or food or music or any­thing else, Korea might well lead the world.

Lee Kang-hyo ‘Ong­gi Mas­ter will be added to our col­lec­tion of Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed con­tent:

“Prim­i­tive Pot­ter” Trav­els into the Back­coun­try for 10 Days with Only a Knife & Buck­skin and Makes Anasazi Pot­tery

The Art of the Japan­ese Teapot: Watch a Mas­ter Crafts­man at Work, from the Begin­ning Until the Star­tling End

Kintsu­gi: The Cen­turies-Old Japan­ese Craft of Repair­ing Pot­tery with Gold & Find­ing Beau­ty in Bro­ken Things

Three Pink Floyd Songs Played on the Tra­di­tion­al Kore­an Gayageum: “Com­fort­ably Numb,” “Anoth­er Brick in the Wall” & “Great Gig in the Sky”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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