Ceramic artists Han, Kim draw inspiration from nature, traditional pottery

Pieces by Jihye Han and Yeonsoo Kim comprise the exhibition “Mutual Attraction,” on display through Thursday in Strohl Art Center. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

Julia Weber
Staff writer

For Yeonsoo Kim and Jihye Han, their “Mutual Attraction” exhibition at Strohl Art Center is a love letter to ceramics, to playfulness and to each other  — but it also extends far beyond that. 

The two artists showcasing their work are not only creative partners, but partners in life, too.

The couple met through a National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts conference, where the two Korean ceramic artists bonded over a shared community.

The Chautauqua Visual Arts exhibition, curated by the Susan and John Turben Director of CVA Galleries, is on view now through Thursday at Strohl Art Center; CVA galleries are open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

For Kim, art honors tradition while simultaneously exploring new techniques, ideas and themes. It’s a way for the ceramicist to engage in a dialogue with himself: “I’m trying to speak to myself, how are you, how are you feeling today?”

Kim creates and is heavily inspired by onggi, a pottery technique that originated in Korea. Onggi pottery is used primarily for storage and fermentation, which necessitates large vessels. These vessels are formed by attaching slabs of clay to a form and using a wood paddle to join the clay together in order to make the large pot.

Much of Kim’s inspiration comes from nature. He said he is inspired by the world around him, whether that be mountains, trees, animals or flowers.

He typically creates a piece over the course of a few days. Often, he forms the vessel itself in the span of hours, but the illustration takes the bulk of the time. He uses a variety of different clays in his work; for example, he may use red clay layered with white slip, then carved away for a relief effect, or sometimes white clay that looks like porcelain with slips and glazes to illustrate on the surface.

Han said her work is a way of grappling with and untangling her childhood memories, and understanding how they’ve shaped her into the person she is as an adult. Her pieces are bright, childlike and dreamy. Many of them feature pop culture images from her childhood.

Jihye Han and Yeonsoo Kim’s “Sunset in Blue” is displayed in the exhibition “Mutual Attraction” on the second floor of the Strohl Art Center. Dave Munch/Photo Editor

“I like the clay’s character,” she said. “It’s always in-between — like me as a Korean American — because clay is between soft and strong, fragile and hard. I really, really like the idea of in-between.”

She draws inspiration from Korean moon jars, traditional rounded forms made by two handbuilt halves joined in the middle. This form is reflected through her work, which is sometimes handbuilt, sometimes thrown on a pottery wheel and sometimes a combination of both techniques.

“One of the characteristics of clay is that it’s really forgiving, but our life is not like this,” she said. “If you make mistakes, (you) always feel bad or ashamed, but if you are working with clay – especially handbuilding – if you make mistakes, it’s OK. Clay is really forgiving: You can change it, you can add more clay or you can cut it, you can modify the shape.”

Han meticulously plans out the illustrations that cover the surface of her vessels, sketching them beforehand and calculating proportions and placement. Kim, however, improvises his illustrations. Occasionally, he’ll sketch them out, but frequently, it’s in the moment.

Han’s pieces often take longer to create from start to finish than Kim’s do. For her, most of the work lies in the process of layering underglazes to accentuate color in her pieces. She gravitates toward thinner linework while he uses thicker, looser lines in his illustrations.

While Kim’s work often has starker contrast between colors and is more organic, Han’s work has subtler color combinations and is more controlled and precise. Both artists make frequent use of color in their work. Layering slips or underglazes on their pieces to achieve bold colors, the artists use heavy oxidation and reduction firing processes in electric kilns to bolster the vibrancy of the colors.

“Clay people, we love to share,” Han said. “(The) clay community is really stronger than other mediums, so if you just like working by yourself, it’s really hard to develop or hard to go farther.”

Collaborating with other artists in the clay community, including her partner, is really helpful, she said, and allows for more experimentation, learning and risk-taking.

For four pieces in the collection, the two ceramicists combined forces to create together. They used the moon jar form and attached ceramic flowers to the pieces. Han said dead flowers can be associated with bad energy, but the ceramic flowers, by nature, can’t go bad.

“If you have fake flowers or dry flowers, that gives you negative energy because (they’re) already dead, so we love fresh flowers but … ceramic flowers never go bad,” Han said. “That’s not fake because we made it, and it doesn’t get dry, so we (were) thinking about making ceramic flowers to preserve the good energy.”

Both ceramicists find inspiration in each other and their respective work. For Kim, Han has been instrumental in helping him expand his color palette in his body of work. For Han, Kim has driven her to experiment with creating bigger vessels. She also admires Kim’s work ethic and commitment to creating work consistently, explaining that it drives her to consistently create, too.

In dialogue together, the pieces in the exhibition serve as an ode to their relationship and as an ode to playfulness. The vibrant, contrasting colors of the pieces combined with organic forms invite viewers to have fun, embrace happiness and reflect on the love in their own lives.

“I’m really happy to work with him. We share one table sometimes. I really like it,” Han said.

“She makes me happy,” Kim said.


The author Julia Weber

Julia Weber is a rising junior in Ohio University’s Honors Tutorial College where she is majoring in journalism and minoring in art history. Originally from Athens, Ohio, this is her first summer in Chautauqua and she is thrilled to cover the theater and dance performances. She serves as the features editor for Ohio University’s All-Campus Radio Network, a student-run radio station and media hub, and she is a former intern for Pittsburgh Magazine. Outside of her professional life, Julia has a newly adopted cat, Griffin, and she is an avid fan of live music and a dedicated ceramicist.