Creating Meaning Through Art. Meet Ceramic Artist Yoonjee Kwak

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
My name is Yoonjee Kwak. I am a ceramic artist. I am originally from South Korea. I have been living in Rochester for about 5 years with my husband, a glass artist, and my little cat Nilla. In 2012, I came to the US to study for my Master degree in Ceramics at Rochester Institute of Technology in. Fortunately, after graduating from RIT, I have been able to work as a resident artist at the school. I have just been selected as an artist in residence for 3 years at Penland School for Crafts. So, I will move to North Carolina in this Fall for new adventure. I make ceramic sculptures as well as functional wares. As an artist, I believe my job is to keep developing innovative ideas and creating art.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
My mother said, when I was a child, I always said, “I am going to be a super-model - Ms. Korea - or like celebrity”. But as I grew up and learned the reality of myself (LOL), my dream has changed. I then wanted to become a doctor or an artist. To become a doctor was a more acceptable career choice for my father, like it was for other parents in Korea.

How did you get started? What were some of the difficulties you faced in starting?
My mother has always been my biggest supporter. Her dream was to be an artist as well.
However, she had to give it up because of her family issues. Her father passed away right before she got into art school. To take care her family and help financial situation, she decided to get an office job in a publishing company instead of going to an art school. Although she could not go to art school, she has always created something like art.

I have been exposed to a creative, artistic environment under my mother’s influence since I was a child. I think my interest in art is inherited from her. I decided to go to an art high school and study fine art as my major. But my father always wanted me to have a stable and decent job just like other parents did. At first, he was not sincerely happy about my applying to an art school. I have tried hard to prove myself to my father and convince him. Finally, he has understood me, and has gradually come to support me in doing what I really want to do, for my future.

In moments of self-doubt, hardships or failure, how do you build yourself back up?
I am a very positive person. When I face hardships or failures, I think of them as good motivation to grow up to the next level. I believe that I can learn valuable knowledge from failure that can lead to future success. In addition, these experiences can become important sources of new knowledge that be reflected in my body of works.

What is your best advice to someone just starting out? What advice do you wish someone had said to you?
“It's never too late to be what you might have been. -George Eliot”
No matter how hard and difficult it is, if you think it’s necessary, just do it.


Lettering by Sara Connor of Wild Ivy Lettering Co.

What inspires you?
My sculptural vessels represent human beings as iconic symbols of the Korean culture. In Korea, when people talk about someone’s personality, we often use “vessel” as a metaphor of one’s spirit of tolerance. For instance, when we talk about someone who is very generous or broad-minded, we say, “His vessel is big”. The structure of the vessel that gradually widens from a narrow base symbolizes human relationships; people can have deep or shallow relationships, or have both relationships at the same time. I explore this theme through forms that are derived from minimalism, nature and geometry. I usually use hand-building techniques, because the marks left by the fabricating process is very direct and leaves evidence of my physical interactions with clay. When I work with clay, my interactive conversation with the clay is vital to the process. While I slowly build up clay coils from the bottom, my hand marks remain on the surface. It records elements of movement, time and my feelings. The attractive characteristic of coil-building is that it allows artists to observe progressive growth through the process of the work. The process is very like raising a plant from seedling to blossoming. As a plant needs water, sunshine and time to grow, my works need patience and time. The process of building up the blocks, memories of patience and time into the pieces, I can create a meaningful record of my practice.

What is your favorite part of what you do?
My favorite moment in life as an artist is when people touch and use my pieces. I always want to develop my concepts and visual language through a variety of sizes and styles of work, such as big sculptures and small utilitarian pieces. Since graduating from grad school, I have started to make works that are approachable and tactile. I believe that intimate relationship and memories are created when people touch and use my pieces. It feels like I become a part of their lives and indirectly share the same memories through my works.

What do you find most challenging?
For me the biggest challenge is creating new works which develop my own language and strengthen my voice as a maker. Unpredictable results of kiln firing have always been a challenge ago ceramic artists. However, kiln “accidents” can also yield the some of the most attractive features in ceramic art.

Name some local creatives that you really admire.
It is hard to pick specific people. But I do really love and admire Rochester! I must say that I consider Rochester as my second home town. I have met lots of people and had good memories in Rochester. My marriage has begun in this city as well. This city has helped me and supported me to be able to develop myself as a better person and good ceramic artist (who has a big vessel).