MADRID . SPAIN

From Gangjin to Madrid: the modern ceramicist

Located in a very traditional, quiet part of central Madrid is the world, the work and the woman behind LaOn Pottery, Korean artist Ju-hyun Baek. We went to meet her in her ceramics studio to find out where her affinity with clay began, how fate and love brought her to Madrid and how she’s bringing ceramics into the modern world.

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La On Pottery

From Gangjin to Madrid:
The modern ceramicist

Close to the royal palace and surrounded by plazas and pedestrian streets you can find Ju-hyun’s workshop tucked away on Calle Factor. Petite with a big smile, friendly and easy-going she welcomes us in with a cup of tea, and as we sit down to chat her cat purrs hello from beneath the table.

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Wondering what brought this farmer’s daughter more than 6,000 miles from home, we ask her to take us back to where her love for the art of pottery began.

 

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‘During my studies, even before visiting Spain, we had a teacher from Barcelona who once told me she wanted to learn about pottery, so we started searching for workshops where we could learn. We found a very shabby space in the corner of a café where we learned for three months’, she explains. With this ceramics training under her belt, Ju-hyun took a different path and travelled to Alcala de Henares to devote her time to Hispanic studies but when it ended she wondered, ‘what next?’ She remembered those pottery classes and although time had passed quickly, ‘the sensation of touching mud was a feeling I’d never forgotten. I realised I wanted to reclaim it’. Unknowingly Ju-hyun was responding to a deep tradition in her hometown, which is steeped in centuries of ceramics history; it wasn’t until she left home and discovered her love for the craft that she realised just how integral pottery was to the area.

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In pursuit of pottery, she left Spain to return to her tiny hometown of Gangjin where a childhood friend pointed her in the direction of a government-subsidised ceramics school, and it was here that chance intervened; although it wasn’t the season for accepting students, Ju-hyun was ‘lucky enough – and really insistent in begging them – to be accepted as the only student’. Unafraid of hard work she began life at the school as a resident, working from 7am through to 1am-2am, ‘around the school there wasn’t even a single bar’, she laughs, ‘just a small kiosk with the basic necessities, so work was basically the only thing I could do’. Ju-hyun describes this time in her life as ‘an amazing personal experience’, one filled with frustration, failure and a heavy workload. Her teacher provided her with training assignments and soon she was producing 50 then 100 bowls per day, but she initially tired of the lack of advice on ‘how to position your hands, or the technique itself, his classes consisted of him creating his own pieces and me watching him do it… he didn’t explain anything’. Despite this, she came to realise that ‘however much they explain the theory, everyone needs their own time to gain the experience and skills’, and just two months in she flourished and was hired as a teacher and administrator for a year, ‘preparing the classes, baking the pieces, working with the lathe’.

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So, what led Ju-hyun back to Madrid? ‘Shortly after I arrived in Madrid for the first time, I met my boyfriend. It was a tough time for us, visiting each other continuously during the year apart. After that we decided to get married, so the return to Madrid was for the wedding’, she says. After attending the municipal ceramics school in Madrid for a couple of months Ju-hyun searched for a workshop to create her own pieces, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Her first challenge was finding a pottery lathe. Ju-hyun’s choice of lathe is unusual here in Europe, ‘in my culture, most Asian countries use the lathe clockwise, and here it’s the opposite. It was really hard to find a lathe that could turn both directions’. Opening a store with her former business partner Saul was also more difficult than either of them had imagined, and despite making a success of it she left after four months, ‘because we had different ideas’. She spent a frustrating 11 months hunting for her own space before settling in the Calle Factor studio we find her in today. Talking about her studio and her city Ju-hyun seems very happy with life in Madrid, ‘I love it here; it’s more like a town if I compare it with some cities in my country. It’s spacious, with many parks, and I like the weather, the people… all of it’.

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We’re curious to know what inspires Ju-hyun, and how she continues to reinvent and put her distinctive mark on a craft with such a deep history. ‘I basically do what I feel in the moment. Sometimes I create something in detail, but most of the time I just prefer to create on the go. When I have a very defined idea the design demands a lot of detail, which also makes the result lose its freshness. That is why I prefer to trust my gut and let the inspiration flow. It’s like capturing the moment. The result is always fresh, and quite different.’ Ju-hyun tends to use the world around her as a muse, ‘I get a lot of inspiration from my land. What I like most is when I go out to the countryside; the lichens, mildew and fungus over the rocks and trees, those colours, they’re fascinating!’ She is also unafraid to say that she will always be a student, ‘I am constantly learning about ceramics. For example, some varnishes are toxic and not able to be used for consumption purposes, so it’s really important to know which materials to use… but I create my own varnishes with natural products such as wood ash, or mix some sand from the field with clay. I am constantly trying different materials’. Ju-hyun’s work is not just practical, it is also beautiful, ‘I do mostly tableware’, she says, showing us the hanging shelves running down the studio lined with her work, ‘I like to do pieces that will be used, or interior design pieces like vases or vessels’. And it’s true, her pottery feels as though it should be touched, not just admired; from the beloved Moon Jar pieces that remind her of her homeland, to bowls and cups in delicate pastel and earthen shades.

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But what does the future hold for La On Pottery and Ju-hyun? We ask her if she intends to collaborate with fellow creative and artisans in Madrid, ‘I am just starting to. I’ve been in my space less than a year, so people are now getting to know me and some collaborations are coming up’. It’s clear that Ju-hyun adores Madrid; she never stops smiling as she talks about the way of life here, but undoubtedly the foundation of her work will always be Gangjin and South Korea, ‘the shapes and varnishes I use come from what I’ve seen and learned in my country, I’ve grown up seeing all these pieces, and I try to adapt them to the modern world’.

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