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[ZOOM KOREA] Examining human nature through clay

June 18,2018
Artist Jiana Kim, who is renowned for experimenting and using clay in her paintings, works with translucent plaster boards in her studio located in Garak-dong, Songpa District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Early artworks of Jiana Kim, combining LED and chinaware. “Lake of Moonlight,” left, “City-Road,” right. [PARK SANG-MOON]
From left to right: “White inside White- 1706,” “Red inside Red- 1803,” “Black inside Black- 1707,” “Blue inside Yellow” [PARK SANG-MOON]
Soil is the basis of all living things. As a smooth and warm organic matter, this universal element becomes firm and hardened when it meets fire. Because of its flexible properties, soil is a popular medium used by many artists, especially in the form of clay. One of these artists is Jiana Kim, who was captivated by the many forms that clay can take.

As a perfectionist who always strived to become the best in whatever she did, Kim was accepted to a university in the United States and left Korea in 1991. She was first introduced to clay while studying product design at Parsons School of Design, and was attracted to its infinite possibilities. To this day, clay is an essential material in her artwork, and Kim has received spotlight for many of her artistic experiments.

Her journey with clay has mainly been inspired by her mentor Marek Cecula, a famed Polish ceramic artist and designer who was the head of ceramics at Parsons School of Design for 21 years. Cecula helped train Kim into the artist that she is today. For example, Cecula mentored her on how an artist should act and behave while meeting others. Along with supervising her communication skills, he also greatly shaped her passion and confidence in her artwork. Even after she graduated from Parsons, there were still traces of her mentor left behind. One example is her workplace located in Songpa District, southern Seoul, where Kim devotes her time designing and experimenting with her pieces. Her workplace is clean and organized so that she can easily focus on her work and be productive. She says this resembles Cecula’s personality and workplace as well.

Along with her mentor, her life in New York as an undergraduate hugely influenced her artistic background. Although she was extremely busy with her studies and overwhelmed with work, Kim enjoyed every single moment of it. She would create and design household products, such as cups, kitchen utensils, bathtubs and wash basins, and then deliver them to Soho House, a private members’ club in New York. She was so busy that she considered sleeping a waste of time and devoted her time to improving her art. Because of these efforts, she began to gain recognition, and quickly gained praise for her distinct artworks. After living a busy life in New York for 10 years, Kim returned to Korea in 2005.

Those familiar with her work are aware that the artist often creates her pieces on the theme of relationships. Rather than focusing on the relationship between two people, she looks at the interaction between a person and the basic forms of an object. In New York, a lot of her work centered on the theme of the interaction between people and nature. This shifted to the relationship between light and technology when she returned home in 2005.

Clay, fire, wind, light and water are crucial elements in Kim’s work. She even refers to these five elements as the DNA that constructs and develops her art. Kim produced her early artworks after returning to Korea using sensors and LEDs.

Currently, she is working on porcelain paintings that begin as drawings on a plaster board using paint brushes soaked in water-diluted ceramic clay. Although it may be hard to see the unique porcelain fragments as forms of art, they change into beautiful art pieces when enlarged. These shattered fragments, when reflected in light, give off a translucent glow, emphasizing the importance of the relationship between an object and its natural surroundings.

Experimenting with clay, especially with shattered ceramic pieces, is an extremely tedious and arduous task that requires lots of focus and patience. Kim brainstorms the desired outcome of her porcelain paintings before picking up any tools. After that, the artist can start using her hands. Before directly working on the plaster boards, the artist needs to breaks off the huge chunk of hardened clay with a hammer and then submerge the clay into water. After the clay softens, the next step is to add pigment and create dazzling colors. Kim uses a sieve to separate the larger pieces of clay. This process is repeated three to four times. The whole process of preparing the clay takes up a great deal of time.

As soon as the clay is ready to be used and transformed into a work of art, a very slim clay sheet needs to be made. This clay sheet, as thin as two pieces of paper, will be put into a kiln at an extremely high temperature of 1230 to 1240 degrees Celsius (2246 to 2264 degrees Fahrenheit). After burning the clay sheet, translucent porcelain fragments are created. After collecting the porcelain pieces which vary in size and shape, they are ground up by hand. These fragments are sieved, washed in water and then dried once more.

It is not until this complex process is over that the paint can be made. Like the other processes, creating the paint takes at least two months. The first painted image that is finally created after the arduous processes of preparing the clay and paint is then transferred to a plaster board for completion. This long, tiresome method is what makes Kim’s works stand out as works of devotion and diligence.

Simply put, the production method for the artist’s work cannot be easily copied. Not only does it take lots of time but also it requires lots of energy and patience to proceed to the next stage. Without being truly dedicated to the job, its impossible to repeat the process over and over again.

For Kim, clay holds a special meaning. Even though she uses clay on a daily basis, she is still fascinated by its smooth texture and warmth. Breathing life into clay is a meaningful task for Kim, no matter how challenging it may be.

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