Shaping Elegance

Ceramicists blend the artistic with the practical in a way that few other artists can boast. You would be pretty remiss, after all, if you splashed a bunch of coffee on your original painting. But pour it in a mug, and you get to enjoy both an aesthetically pleasing object and, depending on your skill as a barista, a delicious beverage. These two extremes are especially clear in the work of Haejin Lee, whose pieces range from stoically elegant and functional tableware to complex and delicate sculptures.

Haejin grew up in a creative family in her native Korea. Her father studied at Seoul’s Hongik 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, but gravitated towards creating three-dimensional objects. Years later she earned her MFA in Ceramics from the same school as her father, and quickly proceeded to stack exhibitions and awards before moving to Vancouver, Canada, about three years ago.

Photos: Jessica Jackson
Photos: Jessica Jackson

“There’s a rhythm to the curves of each piece. When it’s right, it’s right.”

The era of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for nearly five centuries beginning in the late 1300s, is known for a particular style of porcelain work that Haejin draws inspiration from. The Joseon baekja, as that practice of porcelain making is called, favors lines and curves that are subtly graceful; each silhouette arcs gently to their conclusion in no great hurry. The pieces are utterly unpretentious, made in luminous colors that are subtle but rich. “That’s enough,” Haejin says of the minimalist aesthetic.

Her own pieces embrace a similar philosophy. Her trajectories are gradual, effortless, 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 traditional technique as well. She throws clay in the classic eastern way, somewhat different than the approach taken by 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. This is done to ensure that the entire batch will come out the same size. Haejin, however, places the full slab on the wheel, and from there she shapes 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, there stands a mug. Using a length of wire with a wooden handle she cleanly cuts it 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. A common theme in her work is faces that seem to unravel before your eyes. 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 together and expertly hide the seams, giving the illusion of one cohesive, flowing piece. Each section takes precision and foresight to construct; the delicate pieces will shrink about 15 percent while baking in the kiln, so they must make it through the process without cracking. “They seem really impulsive,” Haejin mentions. “But in order to create them there’s a lot of calculation.”

Photo: Jessica Jackson
Photo: Jessica Jackson

Unlike her tableware, Haejin keeps the 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.

The process is spiritual for Haejin, and she often likes to work late at night when her studio is at its most quiet and serene. Anyone that sees her work has to agree: there’s something transcendent about the elegant study of shape and line involving earth and heat, simple and perfect.

As seen in The Journal Issue 07 – discover the digital edition
As seen in The Journal Issue 07 – discover the digital edition

Written and photographed by Grady Mitchell

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