Herschel Journal - Haejin Lee Ceramics

For issue 07 of Herschel Supply Co's The Journal I interviewed and photographed Vancouver-based, Korean-born ceramic artist Haejin Lee. You can see the full story, beautifully laid out, at Herschel's site, or read it in full, along with some photographs, below. 

Shaping Elegance

Ceramicists blend the artistic with the practical in a way that few other artists can boast. You'd be pretty pissed, after all, if you splashed a bunch of coffee on your original van Gogh. But pour it in a mug, and you get to enjoy both an artful object and, depending on your talents as a barista, a delicious beverage. These two extremes - the functional and the practical - are especially clear in the work of Haejin Lee, whose pieces range from stoically elegant homewares to staggeringly complex and delicate sculptures. 

Haejin grew up in a creative family in her native Korea. Her father studied at Hong-Ik University, one of the premiere arts academies in the country, and is a graphic designer who specializes in creating exhibition spaces. Haejin attended an arts middle school where she took foundational courses across a range of practices. Much like her father, she most enjoyed creating tactile, three-dimensional objects, and gravitated towards working in clay. Later she earned her Masters in Ceramics from his same school. After graduating she quickly proceeded to stack exhibitions and awards across the country before moving to Vancouver about three years ago. 

The era of the Joseon Dynasty, spanning roughly from the tail end of the 14th century to the opening years of the 20th, is known for a particular style of porcelain work, one particularly influential to Haejin. The Joseon baekja, as that practice of porcelain making is called, favours lines and curves that are subtly graceful, silhouettes that arc gently to their conclusion in no great hurry. The pieces are consummately unpretentious, made in luminous colours that are subtle but rich. "That's enough," Haejin says of the minimalist aesthetic. 

Her own pieces embody the same philosophy. Their trajectories are gradual, effortless, and inevitable. There's a rhythm, she says, to the curves of each piece. When it's right, it's right. 

Haejin embraces not only her country's history in her work, but its signature technique as well. She throws clay in the traditional eastern way, different than her western counterparts. Before hitting the wheel ceramicists in Europe and North America will divide a slab of clay into carefully weighed segments, each containing enough material for one mug, one bowl, one vase. That way they can ensure that the entire batch will come out the same size. Haejin, however, after wetting the clay slab and giving it a few solid smacks to soften it up, throws the whole thing onto the wheel. From there she'll shape the entire block into identical pieces one by one.  

With deft hands she directs the upper portion of the clay into whatever form she envisions. Gradually the shapes seem to rise from the clay as her hands move, and suddenly, as if summoned whole from the shapeless mass, there stands a mug, a plate, a bowl. Using a length of wire with a wooden handle she cuts it cleanly off at the base, sets it aside, and begins to shape another. With only intuition, experience, and her expert hands Haejin can decipher exactly how much material to use. At the end each piece from the block is identical. "My hands remember," she explains. 

Her sculptures are more complex, and therefore take more planning. Like liquid flung through the air and flash frozen, they feature looping curves and lassos of clay. Faces appear often in her work - but rather than showing up whole, they unravel, coming apart in rippling loops. Most begin as doodles, recorded in a notebook in a dozy, daydream state. 

From there focus takes over. She makes each ribbon-like curve on the wheel separately. Later she'll connect them and expertly hide the seams to give the illusion of one cohesive, flowing piece. Each section takes precision and foresight to construct; the pieces will shrink about fifteen percent while baking in the kiln, so they must make it through the process without cracking and, even more difficult, fit together seamlessly afterward. "They seem really impulsive," Haejin says. "But in order to create them there's a lot of calculation."

Unlike her homewares, Haejin keeps her sculptures for herself. It was a professor that first suggested she try her hand at looser forms of ceramics. In a strange way, she says, the idea was to improve her more functional work by training her eyes and hands to better read curve and shape. Clearly, it worked. 

Sitting at the wheel is spiritual for her, Haejin says, and she often likes to work late at night when her studio is at its most quiet and serene. Anyone that sees her pieces has to agree: there's something transcendent about the elegance in artwork you can touch, a study of shape and line built from earth and heat, simple and perfect.