As an elementary education major, I have to admit, I play with a lot of play-do. I never thought that my childish pastimes and love of tea would ever intersect, but Korea continues to surprise me. We spent about 3 days with mr. An Si Sung, a traditional onggi potter in Korea. After attempting to make tea ware out of clay with Mr An next to me, I have the utmost respect and admiration for him. He is truly an artist. We spent our first day absorbed in our own clay workings. There were many tricks, such as the creative use of tooth picks and the use of water to keep the clay together. After spending 6 hours working with clay, it was hard to focus on our evening meal due to the fact that we were fascinated by the dinner ware our meal was served on. Every meal we ate was served on plates hand crafted by Mr. An. whether it was a tea pot or a coffee mug, Mr An made it all. Also, I have to mention the food that Mr An’s wife served us was some of the most delicious food I have had here in Korea. I wish we could have spent a few extra days there studying with her! This portion of the trip was extremely enjoyable and I am so glad we get to return!
On our second day with Mr. An, he taught us how to use the pottery wheel. I was most surprised at the amount of work that goes into preparing the clay as well as how difficult it is to make pottery. Luckily Mr. An had some clay ready for us, but before we could out clay to wheel we had to throw and shape it. Mr An makes it look easy, but creating a flat her of onggi clay requires some serious skill and elbow grease. After we (and by we I mean mostly Mr. An) finally got our clay nice and flat, we started working in the wheel. This wheel was spun by a swing of the leg but don’t let the lack of electricity fool you, it was still pretty hard work. I think we gave him a few laughs at our attempts to mimic his every move. Not only did we have to focus on spinning the wheel at a constant pace, but we also had to focus on how we molded and shaped the clay. And, when a piece is fired in the kiln, it shrinks about 15%! Everything we made, we had to make sure was slightly bigger than intended so it would come out the right size. I will never look at a pot the same way again. It is amazing the amount of work that goes into the creation of onggi pottery. I would be amiss in writing this if I failed to mention that kindness and hospitality shown to us during this portion of the trip. Not only were we fed spectacular food (and lots of it) and giving tea after every meal, but Mr. An and his wife were so warm and welcoming and some of the nicest people I have met. Mr. An was constantly taking us out, giving us tours of the town and local markets, and even took us to JeonJu, a nearby town with a lot of unique and interesting shops and museums. One of my favorite parts of this trip was when Mr. An took us to his friend’s house who is also a potter. After giving us each a beautiful cup as a gift we were invited to sit and drink makgeolli with the three families that we had grown so close to. With a wonderful view of the mountains and the kids playing soccer in front of the house, it was just the picturesque bonding of cultures. Neither of us spoke each other’s language particularly well, but that didn’t stop us from communicating. We may have been tired and in need of a shower, but in the end, our love of tea (and tea ware) was what brought us together, and in the end, that is one of my favorite parts of tea culture; its ability to bring together people from all nations and background to enjoy a simple cup of tea. As you may be able to tell, I enjoyed our time spent with Mr. An and his friends and family very much. There is just something about watching someone take a lump of clay and be able to transform it into a work of art in minutes. Literally, at one point we glanced away for a second and when we looked back, Mr. An was taking a tea bowl off of the pottery wheel. While I enjoyed the fast pace and urban wonder of Seoul, I enjoyed the simplicity and relaxed atmosphere of Mr. An’s home.
I learned a lot during our stay with him, but one of the greatest lessons I learned had nothing to do with how to shape clay or spin a wheel. When browsing through some of his wares seeing what we would like to purchase, a couple fellow travelers and I found ourselves fixed upon the mugs we were served coffee in every morning. When we asked Mr. An if they were for sale, he said no, but after a few minutes of confused conversation, he plucked a mug from the table, wrapped it, and presented it as a gift. He took something that he used on a daily basis, not just a product for selling, but a part of his daily life, and just gave it to us. I was amazed. Mr. An taught me dozens of tricks when it came to pottery, and each facet of it was fascinating. But the humility and generocity he displayed was something that I will never forget. I know, this post has been sentimental, but isn’t that what tea is all about? Bringing people together to not only appreciate this delicious drink placed in front of us, but to appreciate the people we share it with as well? So, to sum everything up, Mr. An’s pottery was amazing and he was a wonderful teacher, but this part of the trip definatley taught me that the man behind the wheel is just as important as what he is making. Signing off with a greater appreciation for each piece of teaware I encounter and a promise to commit more time to my play-do addiction.
– Elizabeth White