By: Mark Byon

May 4, 2015

Did you eat? <affection, Korean greeting>

밥 먹었어요? 식사 하셨어요? <정, 한국 인사>

My student, a man in his 50s, asked me if I had lunch. He brought some takeout chicken, and we ate before beginning our interview prep class. Sometimes my older students would bring me a smoothie or iced coffee. It was kind of them to treat me. But the other times my younger students asked me the same question, there was no food. They would ask me, seemingly abruptly, at the end of class if I ate. My American ears thought they were going to invite me to dinner. Why end class with this question?

The main entrance of Yido Pottery Yeoju

I was puzzled, but just continued meeting students. Another student of mine, Won Mani, started off as any other student. We began reading through an English business textbook, but our lessons quickly turned into conversations about why she was attending classes. After graduating from NYU, Won returned to Korea for several years and was looking to brush up on her English skills. She was working as the Director of Global Operations at Yido, a Korean ceramics company that focuses on mealtime pottery. I didn’t know much about Korean ceramics, except for a ceramic artist in my family lineage from some generations ago, and the various jade vessels that my parents kept in the house. Mani began telling me about Yido – its unconventional focus on mealtime pieces, and its founder, her mother, Yi, Yoonshin.

Yi, Yoonshin (intentional comma), is a ceramic artist based in Seoul and the founder of Yido (이 + 도자기 – Yi, surname + dojagi, ceramics). Growing up in Seoul as an only child, Yi would frequent art galleries, listen to music, and sketch. She felt the urge to express herself differently from others, an inclination that hasn’t left her. Just last year, Yi went around Seoul with neon pink hair, something not really done in Korea. As a high school student, Yi thought she would enter university as a musician, and originally began training in classical piano. But she knew she wasn’t qualified as a pianist, and that studying piano was not the right path for her. She instead entered Hongik University as a fine arts student focusing in ceramics.

Traditional Korean ceramics is comprised mostly of large classical pieces, such as 백자 (baekja, white porcelain), 분청사기 (buncheong sagi, blue-gray celadon), and 청자 (cheongja, celadon). Yi followed the protocol and sculpted classical vessels like her peers, but she then questioned why she was producing these pieces. The process felt rote and left her uninspired. There was one plate that Yi made as part of the department’s curriculum, but she didn’t think anything of it. Upon graduating from Hongik University with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (1981) and another in Industrial Art (1983), Yi and her husband, Won Kyung-hwan, whom she met in university and who is also a ceramicist and a professor at Hongik University, left for graduate studies at Kyoto University of Art & Design in 1983 after having their first daughter, Mani.

When Yi left for Japan, South Korea was undergoing rapid development. Foreign materials like nylon and cotton were imported as modern materials of mass production and consumption. Korean cultural artifacts like brassware, mother of pearl, and folk songs, were thrown away in favor of plastic containers and silverware, and buildings were knocked down to make way for urban development. Embracing the future meant erasing Korea’s seemingly outdated materials and cultural practices.

Yi also witnessed a drastic change in mealtime. Korea was in ruins after the war, and nourishment was a daily concern. The greeting, “밥 먹었어요?”, was an expression of sincere concern for your fellow Korean. Mealtime in Korean culture used to be shared family time, a space where the elders would pass down their knowledge to the younger generation. But Korean families began sitting down together less frequently because of intense work and school schedules. The simple and common practice of eating together was being lost to the hustle and bustle of modern life and the global aspirations of Korean people. These days in some cases, fathers move away from home to earn money, a phenomenon known as “기러기 아빠” (gireogi appa, goose father). Asking if someone ate is now more of a habit rather than a sincere question for many Koreans.

While traditions were being pushed aside in Korea, Yi saw something drastically different in Japan. Although Korea had its own ceramics techniques and culture, some of which influenced Japanese ceramics, Japan had a deeper tradition which was kept intact postwar. The Japanese were keeping their ceramics tradition alive. Ceramics wasn’t seen only as a way to create high art, but also as a way to create pieces of the everyday such as teacups, household furniture, and the like. Yi could feel how ceramics culture in Japan was infused into daily life.

Yi began focusing on crafting tableware. Displeased with seeing Koreans eating out of plastic containers, she set out to learn and apply a new set of techniques to revitalize Korean food culture. During her time in Kyoto, she was able to secure two solo exhibitions in Kyoto at Gallery Maronie in 1984 and Gallery Beni in 1985. Gaining recognition as a ceramic artist in Japan wasn’t easy, as there was already an abundance of ceramicists. Although ceramic artists were welcome to study in Japan regardless of national or ethnic background, the fact that Yi was a Korean artist in Japan makes this accomplishment even more noteworthy.

Upon returning to Korea in 1987, Yi worked as a curator for two years at the National Museum of Modern Art. Looking to apply what she had learned in Japan to Korean ceramics, Yi opened her first studio, Arak Art Space, in Anyang, Gyeongi-do in 1990. She was the sole employee of the studio. Yi’s peers criticized her – why bother making tableware when it wouldn’t bring her any critical acclaim? Making plates was work beneath any Korean ceramic artist, especially one that got the opportunity to study abroad. Demand was very low for her products in the beginning, but since Yi had already debuted in Japan and was well known in the Korean arts scene, people began to catch onto her work after various exhibitions.

The demand for Yi’s works grew steadily. Today Yido has three branches. Yido Pottery Yeoju, the largest branch, is where pieces are crafted. Yeoju is located about one hour from Seoul and is known as a town for ceramicists due to the quality of the soil in the area used to make pottery. The other two branches, Yido Pottery Flagship Store in Jongno and Yido Pottery Gangnam have four main features: Yido Shop sells the works of both Yi and other ceramic artists; Yido Academy provides the opportunity to create pottery using hand building and wheel-throwing techniques; Yido Culinary Center offers classes in cooking, table setting, and food styling; lastly, Yido Hands sells non-ceramic handcrafted items such as wood trays, brassware and, tabletop ware such as vases and glasses. The flagship store also features an exhibition space where artists, including non-ceramicists, display their work.

In addition to being featured at various exhibitions throughout Korea and Japan, Yido’s pieces are used by Michelin-starred chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Yido’s tableware can be seen in his Shanghai restaurant, Chi-Q, and will be used in his restaurant in Paris as well. Most recently Yido had the honor of being displayed at World Expo 2015 in Milan at the Korean Pavilion to represent Korean food culture.

Won feels a great sense of pride about her mother being a first generation professional artist and for the impact that she has had on food culture in South Korea through ceramics. Won embraces the opportunity to continue the legacy of Yido and to help spread Korean ceramics.

Yi and Won will be attending the 5th Gala of KoreanAmericanStory, where Yido’s pieces will be given to the Traiblazer Award recipients. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of Yido’s pieces in the US soon. More information can be found at www.yidopottery.com and www.yido.kr.

Mark (재훈) Byon is a second generation Korean American who loves all things related to language, visual culture, and media. He likes to spark conversations and currently resides in Seoul.