Interview with Dōye Studio
There is an energy to objects. When you move them, when you use them, when you neglect them - how we interact with objects changes their nature. But even before an object has made it into your life and into your home, how did it come into being? Where has it been, and what history does it carry?
We spoke with Youngmi Kim from Dōye Studio on the transformational education of working with clay and how, in business or making, it’s all about trusting the process.
Tell me, where do you live now?
I live in Woodstock NY, three miles outside the center of town.
How long have you been there?
I moved to Woodstock 20 years ago.
That’s a long time. Does it feel like a forever place?
When I first moved here from NYC, I thought, “Oh...I’ll try living on this beautiful mountain side for a little while.” ...but after planting fruit trees and starting a food garden I could not think of leaving.
Especially after seeing fruit trees full of fruit (it takes six to seven years for them to produce fruit), I realized I had started a beautiful relationship with this little plot of land. So it became my home.
What kind of fruit?
I have a couple of Asian pear trees, a few apple trees, a peach tree, native persimmon trees, something called autumn olive that is native to this area. And the berries – blueberries, raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries – grapes and beautiful wild medicinal plants. And the two old Apple trees; I think they were planted for cider production back in the day. When I first tasted it, I thought, “this is not very tasty,” and I later learned that when this whole movement of cider making came these were useful for making hard ciders.
What brought you to the Hudson Valley initially?
I first came to this area when my son was going to summer camp at Frost Valley YMCA. We lived in Brooklyn at the time. And as I was visiting the Hudson Valley over time, I was enchanted by the abundant nature and the beautiful mountains. And of course the close proximity to NYC.
It reminded me of the mountainside where I grew up in South Korea. So that's how I found this area.
So with your clay work, when did that begin? What were the seeds of you working with the earth like that?
Growing up on the mountainside, dirt, clay and rocks were our favorite toys. We loved making “mud-everything!” After my family immigrated to the US, I went to Cooper Union to study painting. At Cooper, there was this large room filled with mounds of clay. This clay was used for mold making and casting bronze sculptures.
I had been in this country for about 5 years at the time and when things got a bit disorienting, I would go to this room and just sit on the floor and make things. That room was usually empty except for people gathering clay for mold making.
I remember making three beautiful, goddess-like figures. I didn't know they were goddess figures at the time. But they were forms of voluptuous women with big breasts. I just sat quietly among mounds of clay and formed whatever came about at the moment. I remember being so at peace in that room!
I kept those figures for years. And many years later, when it came time to try something new with my creative urges, I decided to try making things with clay. That's how it began.
How long ago was that?
It’s been almost 25 years! I was led to take a pottery class by strings of coincidences, and luckily I met a wonderful teacher. Sometimes all it takes is right timing and a good guiding hand to prompt you on a new creative journey. I spent the next 10 years learning everything I needed to learn about the basics of working with clay. All the different ways of making, throwing on a wheel, hand building, different ways of firing a kiln, building kilns, all about glaze making and testing, non-glazing surfaces, etc.
There is so much to learn about working with clay. I am still learning and exploring! I’ve taken many workshops, participated in ceramic residencies, traveling far and within the US. I met some wonderful ceramic artists and made some great friends while learning what I needed to learn to have my own voice working with this material called CLAY!
I now primarily work in hand-building. When I first moved to Woodstock 20 years ago, I didn't have TV. I didn't have the internet. I didn't even know how to use a computer (intentionally). I stayed very quiet and made pots. Looking back, I didn't realize how important that time was! I think that just being in that quiet space and working with clay, letting the pieces come through me was such a tremendous time of growth for me.
It taught me, “You don’t really make. You allow!”
Anytime someone makes something that really resonates with your soul, it's usually when people just allow it to happen! Like you are part of nature.
Another reason that made working with clay so engaging for me has been learning about the history of Korean ceramics and its influence in the world. This was really eye opening for me. Having studied all of art history through Western narrative in art schools, it was so engaging to learn more about Eastern art history through ceramics.
For example, Korea being a peninsula, it’s northern part is attached to China and the southern tip of the land is a 30 minute boat ride to Japan. So influences of ceramic knowledge traveled from China to Korea to Japan. Much of the world’s beloved celadon wares of Korea were the results of new firing knowledge of dedicated King’s court potters in pursuit of beauty. Another huge moment for me in learning ceramic history was when I learned about a Korean Chawan (tea bowl) made by a simple peasant potter. It was so loved by a Buddhist monk in the 15th century that it became a national treasure of Japan’s tea ceremony. This simple tea bowl, or the spirit behind it, was coveted and the Samurai Emperor at the time attempted a war on Korea, resulting in the whole village of peasant potters being captured and taken to Japan. I heard that many potters living in Japan now are the descendants of those Korean potters living with Japanese names. It was also the beginning of what we now call the wabi-sabi movement in Japan.
That's really interesting. There's a lot there. Just really fascinating to pull in this deep, familial and ancestral history into the movements you're making with your body to create something today which will then be passed into the future. Which is really beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
Hamada, a great Japanese potter who revived the studio pottery movement in the 60s along with English potter Bernard Leach, said that Japan suffers from the same problem. Potters in a tight society attempting to create loose work! All I can say is, it’s an ongoing learning process for all of us.
Dive into that learning and process piece a little bit. I think a lot of younger artists or people just at the start of their journey get really frustrated by that piece. They feel like barriers sometimes and it's so hard. I do that with my writing or my drawing where I'll feel like I've achieved all that I can, like I've learned enough. And then I come to a challenge and it feels like this big roadblock. What has it been like to come up to those times where you're stuck or need something else and you have to remember that it is still a process?
Hmmmm...I have never been stuck! -laughter- So I can’t share that sentiment with you. Because working with clay is very interesting, it's literally a process! It's a craft where you're using your hand much more than your mind, it’s like “body knowledge takes over?” So if I was writing, I think that's a whole different process...because our hand speaks more than our mind.
It’s an organic dance with material and your hand, where you can't really get stuck. -laugher- It's very interesting. I don't know how to explain it to you – working with the knowledge of materials becomes a segue where you’re able to plow through the roadblocks.
That sounds like it's a dance between you and the material.
It really is. A lot of times I don’t even start out with a drawing. I just begin a certain process or I might say to myself, I want to make a square form or circular form, or maybe a vague idea of it, but you let the material dance with you.
What would you say a day in the life of making a piece is like for you now?
In the summers, I love being outside working with plants. So I start outside and just be with plants and see what they need and tend to them. And then, I come into my studio and work on a piece.
There's always waiting time working with clay, to prevent pieces from collapsing while building. So I go back and forth between garden and studio, it really works nicely in that way. But a lot of times in spring and summer, I completely get lost in the garden. -laugher- There's a balance...I lose the balance all the time because I love them both so much.
But in the winter, I find that it's a wonderful time to investigate new ways. I sit by the fire and I can really try something, just a little slower movement, and I can [say], Oh, I'm going to try it this way or that way. I am all-in tending to the needs of clay and plants in summer, and in winter I am more in receiving mode. So it's interesting, this kind of rhythm I live in.
Is there something that you're investigating right now that you feel excited about?
I'm actually really investigating how to make beautiful, functional wares. It’s really tricky designing and making functional wares. There is a lot to consider - is it light enough for daily use, is the design serving its purpose and aesthetically pleasing to live with, is it dishwasher safe, who are you making them for, can it serve their needs? How can I translate what I think is beautiful design and make it so that it actually works for someone's everyday use? Well, I'm sort of pondering all that. And kind of loving what I’m pondering. - smile-
It all started after being away to visit South Korea and consequently finding my mom was very frail, going through phases of dementia, and deciding to be by her side for a few years. Coming back home/studio felt like starting from the beginning again. I began to think about teaching as a way to share what I have learned over the years, and making functional ware as being part of the community at large.
So I created Dōye Studio. It means ceramics in Korean. I am excited to continue to explore functional wares and teaching very much!
Oh, and let me tell you a little bit about the process of the pots online at Hudson River Exchange. The “Autumn Earth” tea cups. The process I used to make the cups is called buncheong in Korean. For each cup, I start with a small ball of clay and I pinch them out into a cup shape. Then when it's slightly dry, I draw on it using white slip (white clay since I use a dark clay body). One stroke of motion to create markings! It's almost like a sumi painting. So every piece is unique in itself. I sometimes scratch more drawing on to the white markings to create more nuance to a cup. It then gets first firing, then the piece is glazed, then it goes into second firing. And then we wait for two days for the kiln to cool to see what arrived from all that process! I always love opening the kiln to see new pots!
It's funny. You answered many of my initial questions in your stories, which is really incredible. I think some of the other questions I'm most curious about are around starting the business and what that business journey has been like alongside the actual artistry.
Yeah, the business side of it...I think that I never thought of working with clay as business in the beginning.
I always thought of it as an art form rather than business. I am still grappling with it.
Some of the young people now are so savvy with it – beautiful online presence with great photos.
I am still in kindergarten when it comes to all of that, but I am getting better. -smile-
Early on, I was introduced to a young gallerist who was starting his gallery, just representing ceramic artists and working with interior designers. Many of my friends started to work with him at that time. I was lucky to be represented that way. He did major shows like the Architectural Digest show in NYC and beautiful presentations of our work to the design world. This way of working with a gallery gave me time and space to just focus on creating. That’s how I worked for many years. And even now, I like working that way.
I now work with a wonderful couple team, design company Lawton Mull. They focus on Scandinavian antique furniture and selected artisans from around the world. Hand crafted glass, ceramic, lighting, fiber art, etc.
They are a wonderful couple/gallerists and I love working with them. And their aesthetic and their integrity as business people are exquisite. I like working this way.
A lot of times I find it hard to respond to people who email me because I don’t know if they are real people or not, there are so many layers to it...and I also tried to work with a few local stores, all in the line of presenting small functional wares locally, with not much success. Now I love being part of Hudson River Exchange. I love the creator’s focus on community and supporting local artisans.
I am also working on creating a Dōye Studio website for small functional wares and small private classes I offer here at my studio. It's very slow coming together, but it is coming soon. -smile-
I’m a fan of art history but most of my personal art history study and knowledge comes from a Western art perspective. It was exciting to find this very informative lecture that discusses the history of buncheong and expands on the history of the Korean and Japanese history and ceramic traditions Young mi mentions in the conversation.
Words + Illustrations: River Wharton
Edited by: Lila Holland & Stella Yoon