Jin-Gyu learned the ancient art of onggi pot-making from his parents. Today, he is the youngest of about 20 people left in the world who are skilled enough to properly recreate traditional Korean onggi, a process which requires intense physical labor and adherence to traditional guidelines. The pots are used to hold kimchi, soy bean paste, red pepper paste, and other foods that require air to ferment, which the clay — made from Korean rain water, plants, and mountain soil — provides.
First, he prepares the brown, iron-rich clay. In order to mix the heavy, stiff blocks of clay and reduce the air bubbles, Jin-Gyu pounds it on the ground, throws it, rolls it, hits it with a mallet, and squishes it with his feet while working up quite a sweat. “It does take a toll on your body,” he says between labored breaths. “It’s crazy exhausting.”
He then shapes a base layer, and starts the process of pulling and stretching the clay to make large coils. He brings the base and coils over to a pottery wheel that he turns with his foot (essential in the traditional making of the pot) and begins flattening the base, and working to form the sides.
Next, he uses tools called surae and dogye (which look like a paddle and a large round stamp) to flatten the sides and create a uniform thickness. He continues to spin the wheel to mold the pot into his desired shape, create the neck and mouth, and carve in designs.
The pot is glazed, left to dry for 20 days, and then fired in a kiln, which is heated with a continuous bonfire for five days until it reaches a temperature of 1,250 degrees. The large kiln can hold up to 500 onggi pots at once, which take 15 days to fully dry.
“I have to continue on the tradition of the onggi, and teach the future generations so that Korean onggi can be preserved and passed down,” says Jin-Gyu. “It’s my destiny, it’s a calling.”