In my quest to learn more about the deep affection Koreans have for rustic ceramic teaware I asked my friend and artisan tea producer Cho, Yun Seok of Jukro Tea if he knew of a ceramic artist that we could visit in the Hadong area. His aunt, who owned a tea room in Hwagae Village, knew of someone high up on Jiri Mountain. Yes, he could arrange this and we would visit him tomorrow.
We picked up Cho’s aunt in the morning and further down the road we collected Joshua Park, Cho’s business partner at Jukro Tea. Jiri mountain is high and the winding road spiralling upward became narrower as we climbed. The larger bamboo branches brushed against the car. Eventually the road turned into a trail and we left the car to walk the path to his studio.
Attired in pale grey loose cotton clothing a young man emerged from his house and greeted us with a shy smile. We spoke of small things for a few moments and then he offered to prepare for us some tea using teaware that he had thrown. In the heat of August it was too hot to fire up his kilns so he had time to sit and talk about his work.
As we sat down for tea in the midst of Bamboo and Pine forests, I asked An, Sang Heup a few questions. Below is a loose translation of his answers.
Where did you study ceramics?
I have been creating pottery for 10 years. I studied in Mungyeong, which is a centre know for traditional ceramic teaware. I studied under Moon, Kyeong who is still alive and in his eighties. (Mungyeong has introduced a Tea Bowl Festival in the past few years.)
What sort of clay and glazes do you use?
I use Hadong clay (from the area). I don’t need to clean it, but I sometimes need to filter it. I use different types of clay for various bowls. Originally I used a natural glaze from sand, but now I use a mixture of natural and commercial glazes. Some bowls have cracks and aesthetic flaws. When tea is poured on them it opens them to the beauty of the tea experience. It can take 3 years for a tea bowl to develop this effect. A monk who had one of my bowls brought it back after 3 years because he was afraid it might crack, but this is actually the best condition of the bowl to be so fragile.
Your kilns look very solid. Did you make them?
I made the kilns from a special type of clay. They are built to withstand very high temperatures. I will start to fire them up again at the end of August. The air pressure is ideal at this high elevation and contributes to the success of the firing. I use pine wood from the forests around me to fire the kilns.
Do you produce only teaware?
I make traditional ch’at gi tea ware sets of 5 or 10 cups (maximum), but really I will make anything to custom order. I am hoping in the future to be available outside of Korea. I am hoping to sell in Berlin.
At the time of publication of this post, An, Sang Heup still has no website and I’m unable to find his name on the internet. This will not impede his ability to make a living in the tea destination of Jiri Mountain. His work is carried by local retailers. There is a steady demand from Tea tourists, particularly Japanese, who love the rustic glazed classical teaware which he creates. He has the best of both available worlds – remaining a recluse, creating his pots and living a peaceful life with his Chow Chow whilst availing himself of the latest news reports and TV series from his satellite dish and bopping up and down Jiri Mountain in his Bongo truck.