Timeless traditions meld with hints of modernity in the hands of John Kim.
A Korean-American artist heavily inspired by traditional moon jars and buncheong ware, Kim’s basement studio in Flowery Branch is a sanctum for artistic exploration.
Korean moon jars, so called because of their “evocative form,” are a distinctive type of porcelain dating back to the end of the Joseon Dynasty, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and are made by joining two hemispherical halves. During the firing process, the vessel’s glaze tends to unintentionally acquire a soft, peach hue, adding to its charm.
“The idea is wabi-sabi — not perfect,” Kim said.
Korean buncheong ware emerged earlier, near the end of the 14th century, growing out of the Goryeo period’s aristocratic stoneware, inlaid celadon. Regional potters “reveled in the newfound freedom to shape and decorate the adaptable stoneware with unprecedented wit, imagination, and insight.”
Amidst the Japanese invasions of Korean at the end of the 16th century, buncheong was adopted by Japanese tea connoisseurs and inspired generations of Japanese potters, according to the Met, until the 20th century, when Korean artist “rediscovered their heritage, intrigued by the medium’s visibly handmade aesthetic.”
“I’d like to bring it into the modern era,” Kim said. “It’s not necessarily very market-friendly or (something that) people want, but I like to try to revive some of those interesting traditions that resonate with me personally.”
Born in Seoul, Kim moved with his parents to Los Angeles at age 2, his father’s career as a scientist bringing the family to the States. Korean vessels like buncheong and moon jars were within Kim’s visual vocabulary as a child, but working with them as art forms was a later exploration.
With buncheong vessels, he uses a sense of place to incorporate “modern twists” like the California poppy motifs etched into the surface and glazed with 24 karat gold luster.
“In terms of historical significance, it’s very treasured. So how do I capture that feel and explore that, but do it differently?” Kim said. “I really love the forms (of Korean vessels). I love the fact that they have a long history and tradition. It’s not something that the average person knows a lot about, and I would like for more people to know about it. In that sense, that’s one of the reasons why I explore those more traditional forms.”
Educated at the Oregon College of Art and Craft and the Rhode Island School of Design, Kim’s artistic repertoire stretches far beyond the potter’s wheel. An industrial designer by trade, he’s done work for furniture, lighting and home decor companies like Bombay Co., Movado, Nessen and Brown Jordan. He’s also an avid gardener.
“It’s been lifelong,” Kim said of his artistic journey, recalling the time his mother told him to form an animal out of Play-Doh.
“I made it and she was shocked because I actually did it looking like the animal. I was probably 4 or 5,” he said. “She sensed right away that I had this artistic inclination.”
But it was 2019 before he leaned into that inclination with his full weight.
“I had been designing for other people for most of my design career, and I hadn’t really represented myself or put myself out there saying, ‘This is John Kim,’” Kim said. “There is a level of insecurity, because obviously design is designing for someone else, and even though it’s a creative process and there’s a little bit of vulnerability there, you’re (still) designing for other people — whereas this is me, so I have to be willing to deal with that vulnerability with stuff that I designed. I think I was just ready, emotionally ready, to put myself out there.”
From there, Kim began selling his ceramics behind the moniker Ki Charm Design. In addition to Korean traditions, Kim offers functional wares — coffee mugs, wine tumblers, whiskey sippers and cereal and noodle bowls — and wall sculptures, some of which will be on display at the Atlanta Home Show March 17-19 at the Cobb Galleria Centre.
Since moving to Georgia with his wife, Kate, last May, Kim has connected with a few Korean-American artists “here and there,” but none who do similar work.
“It’s absolutely my own explorations,” he said. “The modern elements are what I put into it — how do I add my part in it? You could always do slavish reproductions if you want. There are people out there that like to do, ‘This is the form, I’m going to stay true to it and do it exactly the way it was,’ almost like antiques. But for me personally, the joy is finding inspiration in something that existed but then trying to put my spin on it.”
According to Kim, throwing clay imparts its share of lessons that can be applied both on and off the wheel.
“It’s a physical thing — you’re actually pushing against clay and there’s these kinds of forces at play in terms of gravity and water. Push the limits of the clay to doing things that maybe are different from your original intent and letting those accidents happen,” he said. “I like to explore a lot of different things and educate myself continually and grow. That’s kind of my thing: Make sure that you don’t stay stagnant.”To connect with Kim and his work, visit kcharmdesign.com or follow @k_charm_design on Instagram.