Nancy Kwon is a ceramicist, but she is also a historian, utilizing a tapestry of traditional stories and techniques in each of her creations. She crafts with subtle purpose, making vessels that are certainly built for function but always posses her signature style. The feel of the pieces is nearly as important as their appearance — the contrasts between ultra-slick glaze and relentlessly smoothed raw ceramic remind one of the place where the waves hit the land. The Totokaelo-exclusive tea brewer and matching cups she produced this season seem to have been forged out of lava with outstanding grace. More than just objects, her pieces are like small dioramas representing something far greater than themselves (and possibly even ourselves). On the first legitimately frigid morning of the winter, we found ourselves quickly warming in her Long Island City studio.
When you are conceptualizing a new piece, what is the first step in your creative process?
It starts with research—I’ll get interested in a topic or a particular form and begin collecting related images, information, and material for reference. Then I continue by sketching with clay, some preliminary mock-ups to visualize ideas. I’m horrible at keeping a sketchbook — I have a lot of loose pieces of paper and notes on my phone with fragmented ideas and doodles. I also like to set a bunch of reminders on my phone alerting me to explore new ideas, written in an erratic shorthand only I can really understand. I set them to random dates in the future so they pop up and hopefully I’ll follow through and develop these ideas. My next goal is to keep a consolidated sketchbook.
You have said that you're inspired by the ceramics used in tea ceremonies, which are often as important as the tea itself. What has your personal experience with these ceremonies been like? Do you envision your vessels being used in these types of environments while you’re making them?
Growing up in a Korean household, I associated tea ceremonies with family gatherings and weddings. I didn’t develop any meaningful interest in them until after beginning my ceramic practice. After I began working with clay, I studied the material and its history and naturally began to discover the meaning behind teaware and different forms of tea brewers across continents and overlapping similarities and differences. I love how a tea bowl can be both this utilitarian functional vessel and also a precious ritualistic object that is used in a performative way.
I’m really drawn to objects that are unselfconsciously beautiful, I think that’s why I love primitive tools like ancient grinding stones. I love details like the rings around the lip and/or body of Japanese wood-fired pieces which are meant as a structural component. During the firing process, the vessels will twist as they are in the kiln. The rings keep the form stronger during this transformation. I love how these details emerged from a place of practicality and have now become the aesthetic appeal of these vessels.
You also seem to find inspiration in other historical uses of ceramics, such as those you find painted on the walls of structures in ancient Egypt, Rome, or Greece. Have you traveled to study these forms or practices?
I haven’t had the opportunity to travel solely for enriching my ceramic practice. That’s something I’d like to explore in the new year. I mostly travel to wherever I have family, to Korea and Germany. While there I seek out places of inspiration and study the ceramics community of that place. Next time I’m in Korea, I plan to visit the studio of master onggi artisan Lee Hyun Bae.
On the topic of ancient Egypt, though, one of my favorite mentions of ceramics is in the Papyrus Lansing, which is a four-thousand-year-old Egyptian document. It was written as a way to encourage people to choose the path to becoming a scribe while denouncing all other trades. I love the description of the potter: “The maker of pots is smeared with soil, like one whose relations have died. His hands, his feet are full of clay, he is like one who lives in the bog.” I love this document, it's really beautiful and hilarious writing. Working with clay gives you this creature-like feeling, handling soupy lumpy dirt, pounding it and carefully forming it. People have been doing this for thousands of years and the process overall is pretty much the same. I really do feel like I’m living in a bog sometimes.
With such a focus on tradition and history, do you also concern yourself with the idea of innovation within your medium?
My grandmother on my dad’s side was of a generation where the ritualistic practices of Korea were still a part of daily life. She kept an altar for our ancestors and would continue the traditions of performing jesa, or Korean ancestral rites. After my grandma passed, these traditions haven't really continued in my family — of course, there are certain practices that have become dated because of their labor-intensiveness, such as the intricate offering displays. I’m now working on a series of pedestal pieces and incense containers, all meant for ancestral rites — but redesigned for a simpler interpretation of the ceremony. It's important for me to understand the history behind the various forms I make, but also find ways for them to make sense for use today. I’d like to avoid making extraneous fluff.
Seeing as how the majority of your work is meant to be used by humans, how much do you think about the human body while conceptualizing these vessels? Are they meant to mirror our shapes in some way, or instead act as an opposite to best fit our movements?
I studied film in college, and much of that training still influences the way I create my work. Props were always a big part of my storytelling, and the way people use objects and the transformation objects can go through while the story progresses. It’s important for me to visualize how certain vessels sit and move in the hands of a person, the movement of the wrist when using a tea brewer, or a pitcher, or a ginger grater. My goal is comfort of use as well a shape that is both distinctive and classic.
You were born in LA, spent your summers in Seoul, and now live and work in New York. It goes without saying that none of these cities are particularly relaxing, yet you manage to make work that embodies serenity and harmony. Is making ceramics an act of escape for you? Do you ever hope your pieces act as portals for those who buy them?
I do! I try to commit to making work that is composed of simple shapes and surfaces. I like to think that the sparseness of my style will bring a sense of serenity and conjure a positive experience for the individual in possession of my pieces. Working with clay can be both calming and incredibly stressful, so I can’t say I use it as a way to relax. There is a lot of trial and error. But what is relaxing is the satisfaction of physically being able to see the progress of my labor throughout the years, and the comfort in the knowledge developed through those years. I also think about how I’d like to present myself to the world as an artist — I don’t like theorizing about my work, I like to make things that are what they appear to be. I think I’d like to become some kind of an agnostic monk artist worker.
Do you have a favorite piece you’ve made? Why?
My favorite is the coil-built Moon Jar (currently at Totokaelo). It’s the largest piece I’ve made so far, and while making it I had to wheel it around on a cart and carefully cradle it when I was carving the piece. It felt like I was handling a precious giant delicate egg.