Feat of Clay

By staff March 1, 2003

On a quiet street near Lockwood Ridge Road is a mid-size bungalow in a large shady lot, much like its neighbors. But come a little closer, and you'll see the intricately carved wooden gate that leads to a small courtyard. Step indoors (take off your shoes and slip into a pair of slippers), and prepare to be dazzled.

The house belongs to master potter Ki Woon Huh, and is filled with his ethereal pieces of pottery. A cluster of hands fringes the rim of one pot; in another piece, violet ceramic tendrils seem to flutter from above a coppery base, so delicate they almost transcend their bodies of clay and float. The pots, vases and sculptures fill two front rooms that have been converted into a gallery of sorts and overflow onto shelves lining the dining room and sitting room also. This is where Huh, a two-year Sarasota resident, creates and shows his work, and teaches small groups of students his craft. His studio is one of the stops for the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota's Creators and Collectors Studio Tour (March 21 to 23), and is well worth a visit, its immaculate, minimal décor providing the perfect backdrop for his pottery.

Huh's work has an organic feel to it-the pieces are like glimpses of nature within their abstract forms. One, simply titled "lady," is a lavender ode to a woman's body: there's the smooth curve of a hip, pride implicit in the upward tilt of the abstract star-like "head." A piece called "whisper" is a glass-smooth cylinder that gently draws the eye to a dimple just above the base, a shy, seductive belly button. Interlocking tendrils scar the surface of one piece, which is crowned by a wounded, open hole. The piece is called "shameful."

To the untrained eye, the pieces look so effortlessly graceful that you'd think Huh churned them out in the grips of creative bursts of energy. But Carole Kearney, Huh's agent, explains that each is the result of painstaking hours of design.

"He never keeps anything that's not perfect," says Kearney, who, many a time, has watched horrified as Huh tossed exquisite pieces he deemed imperfect on to the floor.

Kearney met Huh when she was looking for a pottery teacher for her teenage son, Matthew, who had begun showing an aptitude for the craft at school. Kearney's son and Huh's children were classmates at Booker High, and Kearney said that the minute she walked into Huh's living room, she was ready to write him a check for any amount to take her son on. As a teacher, Kearney says Huh is quietly forceful, communicating, despite his lack of English, all that he holds dear: good design, the gradual building of knowledge upon layers of perfected techniques, practice and perfectionism.

These are lessons Huh learned during the grueling rise to the position of master potter in South Korea, which entails undergoing annual rounds of competition and becoming licensed by the government. Huh grew up in the South Korean town of Inchon, with his parents and three siblings. He and his brother, Won (a personal trainer at the downtown Sarasota YMCA), inherited their father's creative genes, but it was Huh who pursued the arts as a profession. He actually studied painting before he switched to pottery and many feel that his painterly eye is evident in the visual appeal of his pieces. Huh won his first award in 1979, nine years after graduating from high school, and from then until today, his resume is a list of numerous awards and exhibitions. He's served on several Korean art committees and as an art judge, and in 1991, had a solo exhibition here at the Ringling School of Art and Design. Connoisseurs recognize the artistry implicit in the bone-thin walls of even his largest pieces, possible because of the high temperatures at which Huh can work the clay, enabling him to create feather-light cups and saucers that he says can safely be put in the dishwasher or microwave.

Now, so much of Huh's mastery of technique has become internalized that he can focus on what he loves the most: pure creation, fueled by equal parts emotion and intellectual design. He is inspired by nature, and many of his pieces look like corals or plants. Moving to America, Huh says (speaking through his brother, who often serves as his interpreter) has freed him up to be more creative and push the boundaries of his imagination even further. America has also introduced him to a new passion: garage sales. Won Huh points to the disparate objects that his brother took a fancy to at area garage sales and brought home for inspiration-a $10 sketch that is now framed and hung in the studio, and part of a Mercedes engine, hung between two trees.

Huh made the move to America partly because he wanted to show his art to a wider audience. Although Korea has one of the noblest and most ancient traditions of pottery, Huh said he felt as though there was not enough appreciation for pottery as an art form there. Here, he teaches a wide range of students-from teens to retirees, beginners to experienced artisans-in the studio at the bottom of his garden. And while he teaches to make a living, Huh says he also wants to transfer decades of knowledge, technique and passion to a worthy successor.

"The time has come to pass it on," says Won of his brother. "To carry on the traditions." 

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