Beyond Time, Beyond Medium: Technique,
Philosophy and Nature Presented in Roe Kyung Jo¡¯s Art

Article by Lee Heekyung
Assistant Professor of the Department of Ceramics,
College of Design, Kookmin University, Korea

Ceramics Art and Perception, NO. 74, 2008
(Printing St. Croix Press, New Richmond, Wisconsin, USA)

As a ceramic historian, I would posit that the potter Roe Kyung Jo is in the line of both the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Folk Art Movement (Mingei Movement). Both movements, the former developed in Britain in late 19th century, the latter in Japan in the 1920s, put an emphasis on the necessity of maintaining traditional craftsmanship in highly industrialized societies. The Folk Art Movement found its important inspiration in the traditional crafts of Korea, where Roe was born. Roe is one of those successful artists who harmoniously integrated elements present in certain traditional Korean crafts into modern art practices.

Roe Kyung Jo is presently a professor at the Dept of Ceramics in the College of Design at Kookmin University. From April 25th to the May 24th 2007, Galerie Besson hosted an exhibition of his paintings and ceramics in London entitle "From Canvas to Ceramic."

The exhibition showed twenty pieces of his ceramic work and seven oil paintings dating from the early 1970s to 2006. The exhibited pieces selected from throughout 40 years of the potter¡¯s career, capture the essence of his life work.

1. Features of his work
As Korean art historians Chung
-Yangmo and C-hoi, Kon have already noted, Roe's work may be grouped into three categories according to the manner in which the form and surface decoration were done. The pieces shown at the Galerie Besson were not exceptional.

The first group consists of bottles. When examining the first group, the viewers can instantly notice that the potter found his inspiration in similar forms of the late Choson dynasty (1392-1910) in Korea. The Choson model for this group is a rectangular bottle attached with a short neck and a mouth. As Choi notes, the potter makes minimal and barely noticeable alterations. The surface decorations done on this group of vessels, on the other hand, are more like those of stoneware decorated with a marbling technique called "yeollimun" that were produced during the Koryo dynasty(918-1392) in Korea.

He uses a number of different types of clay (natural, white and red clay) in order to create a design closely resembling marble. He carefully mixes the clays, kneads them and builds up bands of clay all calculated to produce a final visual effect. After glazing and firing, the surface finally reveals the specific design that he intended to create. It is usually comprised of varied bands of subtly differentiated shades of yellowish-brown. Under a thin coating of transparent glaze, the subtle differences in the color and texture of the clays are vividly displayed.

This yeollimun technique is known to have been developed as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907) in China. Korean potters began producing yeollimun ceramic wares during the Koryo dynasty under the influence of similar Chinese wares. Upon viewing yeollimun wares from the Koryo dynasty, Roe explored, experimented with the technique and finally claims to have re-discovered the secret methods. In the first group of vessels, freely curving wide bands created by the subtle difference of the clay colors usually take up a substantial part of the surface area. In general, in terms of both form and surface decoration, the first group is strongly based on traditional designs from the Choson and Koryo periods.

The second group exhibits purely geometrical structure. It is composed of rectangular cube-shaped vessels with minimal surface decoration. They neither have a neck nor a mouth attached. This second group of bottles was constructed in accordance with extremely precisely measured geometric lines, angles and proportions. The last group is composed of boxes with lids. These boxes are basically a rectangular tube shape with or without slightly rounded edges. The second and the last group have no corresponding form among traditional Korean pottery. It is interesting to note that although, in the body shape, these groups did not draw directly on any traditional forms, these vessels are still reminiscent of certain Korean traditions, including those of Choson crafts.

As Choi noted, in the case of the second group, this might come from the surface decoration where the potter made tiny holes in the bottom of the vessels, or stuck on small triangular or square dots to the four sides of the vessels. He probably got the ideas of making tiny holes from some small pieces of wooden furniture from the Choson period or pots from the Unified Silla period (668-935). The idea of the small dots appear to have been developed from the simplified form of the zig-zag shaped handles of Choson ceramic sacrificial vessels that were often found in punchong (stoneware decorated with slip and covered with pale green glaze from the early Choson dynasty) and white porcelain wares.

It is interesting to note that, in most cases, the amount of yeollimun decoration used in the second and third group diminished drastically. In the second group, in particular, this decorative effect can often be seen on some edges along the line or half of the line. In the final group, Roe minimized the decoration confining it to a few spots on the edges. Instead, the potter put other types of decoration brought in from the tradition, for example, white slip painting and scratching as those used in punchong.

2. Understanding the old and creating the new It appears to me, however, that those surface decorations were not entirely responsible for the certain Korean- or Choson-feeling exuded by the pieces. Interestingly, it is the geometrically constructed rectangular cubes in the second group for which no specific analog can be found that give the viewer the greatest impression of Choson or Korean crafts. The thorough geometrical construction gives the impression that the potter focuses on such elements that exhibit efficient planning, simplicity and endurance. These are the qualities that well-made high crafts of traditional Korea, particularly, those of Choson often demonstrate.

The case is similar with the boxes. While the ceramic boxes from traditional Korea usually have an expanded and voluminous form, the potter¡¯s boxes form a rectangular tube shape although, occasionally, with slightly rounded or curved lines of edges. The main wall of the box is substantial and thick. The potter attempts variations in the form of boxes, particularly in that of the lids. The upper part of the lids is neither that of a rounded globular shape as usually found in traditional wares. In one of his boxes, the lid is shaped into something resembling a pyramid with a flattened top. The surface is facetted into several flat sides including the top; also, a small triangular shaped hole is cut into the center of each side of the foot of the box. It is also true that not a few numbers of rectangular shaped boxes and facetted vessels are found in Choson wares. Yet, Roe¡¯s boxes appear to have been differentiated from those vessels in terms of his careful and precise planning of the geometry and strict adherence to it.

Although such a geometrical structure with an extreme simplicity is not directly from the Korean arts, the potter, however, appears to feel that they compliment the Korean arts well. Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961) who led the Folk Art Movement respected Korean, in particular, Choson crafts because they were solidly built, their designs were strictly faithful to function, and economically made without any unnecessary adornment. Connoisseurs and critics regardless of Yanagi¡¯s influence do not deny that those qualities are distinctive of Choson crafts. It appears that the potter attempted to represent in his work such qualities of Korean crafts using the concept of strict geometrical forms.

In the potter¡¯s boxes, another significant and interesting fact is found. While the sizes, proportions and angles of the boxes are executed with extreme correctness in accordance with a thorough mathematical plan, certain details such as the edges were, not in a few cases, rounded or left slightly less-finished or undulated. It appears to me that the potter often attempted to allow a viewer somewhat natural, relaxed, and easy feeling, alluding to traditional Korean or Choson craftware that was used in daily life. Above all, Yanagi and other connoisseurs all admired the relaxed atmosphere and comfortable feelings found inherent in Korean folk crafts despite all their practicality.

To me, it does not appear that Roe uses a specific type of traditional Korean or Choson crafts as his model. Rather, he seems to thoroughly deconstruct and analyze every element that comprises what he considers well-made or aesthetical in Korean or Choson crafts. This is reminiscent of what Yanagi has done. Yanagi had attempted to analyze Korean traditional crafts before other people tried. It is often the case that when people approach same materials, they usually share their opinion at least in certain elements that appear obvious. So, I don¡¯t attempt to claim that the potter has unconditionally accepted and followed Yanagi¡¯s views. Roe sometimes goes beyond his predecessors' analysis, re-interprets many of the elements and redefines the Choson-style or Korean-style in accordance with his own knowledge and ideas. He then seems to refer back to those elements as he freely and fluently combines and reconstructs an entirely new entity. Those elements might be simple in terms of structure, reserved yet efficient, and economical in terms of the surface decoration. However, they nevertheless demonstrate a great deal of vitality, and full use of the natural qualities of the materials in keeping with function and design.

The above analysis shows that Roe is indeed an artist who is bringing traditional elements to the forefront of contemporary art. Is this then a type of inheritance or succession of tradition? Yet, his understanding and reference to the past do not seem to entirely separate him from the modern world. Rather, his work appears very modern.

What could be the reason? This summer I had a chance to visit his workshop at Yang'pyong in Kyong'gi Province. On the way to his studio, I asked the potter how his work could be both traditional and modern simultaneously. The potter gave the exact answer that I had assumed. "It occurs to me that the monochrome period of white porcelain ware, that is representative of the Choson period, corresponds with the Minimalism in modern art. The source of inspiration for my work is partly in Minimalism as well as Korean crafts."

Rectangular tube shapes are often used in Minimalist architecture and design. The potter appears to have modeled the geometric elements upon those of Minimalism. These geometric elements mesh superbly with certain elements and decorations inspired by traditional Korean arts. This harmonious integration is represented in his work particularly from the second and the third groups.

In a way, it appears that the potter implanted Korean or Choson elements into essentially Minimalist works. Yet, perhaps, the reverse might have been the case as well. Overall, I found the potter¡¯s keen aesthetical sensibilities to identify the essential elements and the harmonies and integration that these two different arts could orchestrate.

Roe appears to have used all his talents and skills to achieve a visual construction representative of his philosophy of art. I believe that his philosophy has originated in his ardent and academic interest and comprehension of the arts and traditions of both East Asia and the West.

3. Reservoir of motivation, inspiration and ideas On the way to his studio, I could see that the Paldang Dam was full of crystal clear water. I asked the potter about his early years and his education.

At the end of the Choson dynasty Japan annexed the Korean peninsula. The country had never fully opened its door to Western civilization before this and was often described as being ¡°the land of the morning calm." His maternal grandfather was one of the first generation of people to take advantage of a modern Western education in this calm land. He was a graduate of Meiji University and majored in religion, philosophy and law. His wife (grandmother of the potter) was a ¡®new woman¡¯ specialized in piano, having been educated at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. His paternal grandfather and many other members of his family, including his father and uncles, received modern educations and became professors or professionals in their fields in Korea and the USA. Thanks to his paternal grandfather, who also appreciated Korean traditional arts and artifacts, Roe grew up surrounded by a huge collection. Such a highly intellectual, academic and artistic environment played a key role in nurturing him to open his eyes to both traditional culture and Western and modern ideas earlier than many others.

He was also extremely lucky to have outstanding mentors, including Choi, Sun-u (1916~1984), former director of the National Museum of Korea, a great connoisseur of the period. While working at the National Museum, Choi was also invited to teach an art history course at the Kyung Hee University where Roe was attending. Thereafter Roe was an ardent student of traditional arts and art history. After training at the graduate school of the same university, he went to Japan in 1977 to continue his ceramic training at the Kanazawa College of Arts and Craft. Upon his graduation from Kanazawa, Choi recommended Roe's work to numerous exhibitions, and also recommended him to Kim, Su-gun (1931~1986), the most representative and renowned Korean architect of the time, then the director of Kookmin University where Roe is currently teaching. Kim installed an exhibition corner for Roe at the Gong'gan (Space) Gallery, a prestigious gallery that was exclusively open to acknowledged artists and architects. It was through this process that the potter came to step into contemporary art circles.

The potter's passion for the Korean tradition led him to pursue almost every excavation throughout the country conducted by the National Museum of Korea. He examined and experimented with shards collected from old kiln sites from various periods and places. His reconstruction of the yeollimun technique is one of the results of such efforts.

As Miyoung von Platen, an independent curator who prepared the Galerie Besson show, described in detail the method by which yeollimun wares are made, the potter made great efforts to produce the precise design of yeollimun, and the color and texture that he desired. Maturing the clay can only be made through an extremely complicated and demanding process in which the temperature and moisture levels in the clay are carefully controlled. Sometimes this process took several years.

His enthusiastic desire to learn and master traditional pottery eventually drove him to build his home and studio in Punwon-ni (literally, a village where the branch of the Culinary Office of the Choson royal court was placed) in Kwangju in Kyong'gi Province. This was the final home of the kiln factories of the Choson royal court. He spent twenty years there before he moved his workshop to Yangpyong in Kyong'gi Province where we were heading.

4. Beyond the canvas, beyond the ceramics
The exhibition was a bit different from other ceramic shows because it exhibited paintings along with ceramic works. Upon learning that the exhibition included oil paintings, I asked myself, "Why on earth is this ceramic artist interested in painting?" After examining his paintings, however, it occurred to me that his painting and ceramic work were intrinsically linked.

The wide brushwork that he used to lay down neutral tones creates an almost monochrome effect on the canvas. The use of thick contours further simplifies the subject and the background. Regardless of the media used to express the artist's ideas, whether it is canvas or the surface of ceramics, common features consistently emerge.

As Platen described, the seven early landscape paintings and portraits and the twenty rectangular ceramics in this exhibition (dating from the early 1970s to the recent past) demonstrate that Roe is interested in modernism as well as traditional arts. In the early 1970¡¯s, Roe painted landscapes and portraits in oil, depicting places in Seoul that were familiar to him such as Pukhan Mountain and Kyung-Dong High School (which he attended). He interpreted the landscapes using wide bands of color executed in two or three neutral colors. Thus, the canvas appears almost monochrome with only a few subtle changes in color (green, gray and white). It is similar to the way yeollimun appears on his vessels.

As a potter, Roe used the surface of the pots as his canvases as Platen described. Working with fire and chemical interactions, he shaped the raw materials to produce a wonderful artistic experience. He said, ¡°Varied unexpected phenomena have occurred and have produced mysterious results.¡± These ¡®accidents¡¯ have proven valuable learning experiences. The wisdom gained from these experiences has accumulated over time.

5. Finishing the interview at his studio by a forest We were reaching a small village brilliantly covered in green leaves in Yangpyong. Under a small hill, along the edge of the forest was his redbrick building, which serves as his studio.

I could not find any traces of human dwelling in the studio than the potter himself. It was so quite, neat, and it provided a solemn feeling like that of being in a ¡®sanctuary.¡¯ It reminded me of the space in monks¡¯ residence for son (Chinese: Chan, Japanese: Zen), where monks retreat to do meditation. Along the four corners of the floor a number of his ceramic works were exhibited on flat stands. The shelves in the mini-kitchen were stacked with rice bowls, dishes, plates and tea sets all made by the potter himself. At the rear of the studio was his workshop full of materials and tools.

It appears that I was right when I though he was in line with both the Arts and Craft Movement and the Folk Art Movement. His studio demonstrates that Roe is obviously a potter who is extremely faithful to the method of traditional craftsmanship. He carried his work from beginning to the end on his own. He does not have an assistant, as many others people do. Thus, he is able to control the entire process from beginning to end.

As he himself describes his work, I feel something similar to moss tinting here and there in his work. It occurs to me that the naturalness of his work creates a sense of familiarity. It is so natural that the forms, tones and textures of the clay have always been in our minds, yet, they were never so easy to visualize by ourselves. He quietly and fluently brought them out as if they spontaneously revealed themselves.

The development of these compelling feelings of spontaneity and familiarity may not be limited only to Koreans who are familiar with the aesthetics of Korean or Choson crafts. I believe that William Morris (1834~1896) who led the Arts and Crafts Movement and his mentor, John Ruskin (1819~1900) who found the best virtue of crafts in Medieval Gothic art might also have had similar feelings.

This is because the familiarity of Roe¡¯s work originates in his organized and sensitive construction of his work through his careful selection of elements that could provide the work a breath of durability, functionality, and simplicity, yet gives a sense of liveliness, and, above all, that could bring in harmonies between those elements themselves. As previously mentioned, this way of directing his own designs may have been based on his ability to deconstruct and re-interpret certain Korean traditional crafts including those of Choson, along with his reference to some modern designs such as Minimalism. Gothic art has similar qualities: functionality, simplicity, use of natural materials, harmonious combination of materials, function and design, and above all an emphasis on traditional craftsmanship. I am certain that Yanagi and his colleagues who knew the Arts and Crafts Movement, particularly the English potter, Bernard Leach (1887-1979), would have sensed certain common features between the Medieval crafts and those of Korea, particularly, Choson arts. Not only these pioneers, but also not a few modern studio ceramicists, who understand the nature and spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement, will have an affinity for Korean and Choson crafts, and the qualities of Roe¡¯s work that has abstracted many of the best features of them. Yet, most of all, to many other people who do not know anything about art history, these qualities might be naturally appealing.

It¡¯s time for me to leave the cottage studio by the edge of the forest. As I prepared to depart, I could smell the scent of the green leaves from the forest. The leaves had grown dark and their scent was fresh and vital as the days ran towards the summer solstice. Nature is always punctual, scientific in its own term, practical, yet comfortable and simple. I found a similar atmosphere in the potter¡¯s art.

-Yangmo, ¡°Professor Roe Kyung jo - His Life and Arts,
¡±paper read at the 3rd Workshop for Koran Art Curators held by the Korea Foundation,, 2000; Kon Choi, ¡°Beauty of Simplicity,¡± Ceramics Technical No. 20 (2005), pp.28-30;
2.Miyoung von Platen, ¡°Roe Kyung Jo, From Canvas to Ceramic,
¡±, 2007
3.Platen, ¡°Roe Kyung Jo, From Canvas to Ceramic,¡± 2007
4.Platen, ¡°Roe Kyung Jo, From Canvas to Ceramic,¡± 2007

-Yangmo, ¡°Professor Roe Kyung jo - His Life and Arts,¡± paper read at the 3rd Workshop for Koran Art Curators held by the Korea Foundation,, 2000.
Choi, Kun, ¡°Beauty of Simplicity,¡± Ceramics Technical No. 20 (2005), pp.28-30. Von Platen Miyoung, ¡°Roe Kyung Jo, From Canvas to Ceramic,¡±, 2007

Dr. Heekyung Lee is a Assistant Professor at the Dept of Ceramics, College of Design, Kookmin University. Dr. Lee specializes in the history of ceramics and decorative arts in China and Korea, and obtained her Ph.D. at the University of London. During the last decade, she has focused her research on white and underglaze blue ceramic wares from traditional China and the neighboring countries, at museums and sites in China, Korea, Japan, and Britain. She was a visiting curator at the university museum and a research fellow at the Dept. of Art and Archaeology in Seoul National University. She has contributed a number of articles at international conferences, and symposia, and published in international journals.