Earlier this year I interviewed Byung Sik Moon, a successful artist who runs Moon Do Bang, a pottery located in Pangyo, South Korea. I came to admire more of Moon’s work and deeply appreciate what he makes. He is a prolific and dedicated ceramic artist who loves throwing on a pottery wheel and sharing his work with people.
It is surprising and impressive that he throws almost 1000–2000 pots every month by himself and that he is not afraid to work even harder to achieve aesthetic development.
“I am pleased to hear that people like and enjoy my work,” he says. “I think customers are the audience. I love to work on a wheel and throw pots, but if I didn’t have an audience, what does it mean? The audience reacts to the work; if they say ‘I love your pots, they are pretty!’ this makes me so happy, but if someone says, ‘These are not great and nothing to look at,’ this challenges me to do a better job and work harder.”
Beginning of Moon Do Bang
Moon started making pots when he was in high school, 22 years ago. When he was learning how to throw on the wheel, he was way behind in the class. Instead of being frustrated, he continued to work and came in every single day, often staying late after all of the classes were over, and threw lots and lots of pots.
“With all the effort, I became really good at throwing and no one was better than me in the class,” he recounts. “To be a good thrower, I think diligence is necessary. I also met a wonderful teacher in college and I enjoyed throwing on the wheel even more. I was so focused and happy, I even felt that I didn’t want to go to the restroom because I didn’t want to waste any of my time. I was so happy and motivated at that time,” Moon says.
He fell in love, and hasn’t stopped working with clay since. He eventually started to make pots to sell. After he graduated from college when he was 26, he decided to start his own business, Moon Do Bang (http://moondobang.com), which in English means Moon’s pottery shop.
When he started Moon Do Bang, his work wasn’t porcelain like it is now. At first, he only made what he liked to make, and while Moon Do Bang is now well known for white porcelain work, he preferred iron-inlaid surfaces or painted celadon. Some people commented that his work looked like traditional Japanese potters. Moon wanted to make something fun and unique because he wanted his work to be different from any other pots in the market. However, he explained, his work was not high quality and no one was interested in buying it.
Moon was so frustrated and anxious that he couldn’t sleep at night. He started to travel to different cities in South Korea to participate in fairs and festivals, taking part in as many as he could. At these events, he researched the market to find good pots to touch and feel. He found this to be a better way to learn about customers’ needs and preferences. “My work has changed since then,” he explains. “At first, I was only focused on producing pots I liked to make, but now I make pots for the user. I make and use them to feel and think about what good utilitarian pots are. Of course, I don’t think I understand the customers 100%. I think I need to work harder to understand them better.”
Wisdom and Beauty From the Past
During his early years, Moon didn’t pay attention to traditional Korean pottery, thinking that it was just too old and boring. One day, he realized that he was not making quality pots and that his pots didn’t reflect his Korean culture. He slowly and humbly found old books about traditional Korean potters and he felt how foolish he was to ignore them. He now has great resources and ideas from the Korean historical potters he researched. “I was surprised with the designs and thoughts that I discovered with old references,” he explains. “I try to focus on making neat and clean porcelain pots like earlier potters rather than focusing on technical skills and unique designs,” Moon says. His thrown works are often mistaken as mold-made work because they are so clean and perfect. However, Moon believes that there is definitely a big difference between a pot that is pressed into a mold using a ram press or one that is slip cast and one that’s thrown by hand. He sees that outlines and shapes are richer and more delicate on hand-thrown pottery. In order to achieve his precise aesthetic, he throws all of the pots by himself.
One of his mugs has a little sculpture on the handle of a haetae, a mythical creature. Haetae were used in architecture during the early Joseon dynasty as a symbol of justice and power, as well as the prevention of natural disasters and spiritual evils. In 2009, it was chosen to be the official symbol of Seoul, the capital city of South Korea.
Another of Moon’s forms, the flower-shaped bowl, is influenced by a historical Korean potter. This bowl is thrown on a wheel and then shaped on a bisqued hump mold by paddling. He found his inspiration from a Koryo-dynasty pot, which was thrown and reshaped on a carved plaster mold to create the advanced design. Due to the way Moon reshapes them, it takes three to four times longer (and more effort) than creating one of the other designs.
Moon’s production studio is in Yeuju, which has been one of the major towns in Korean ceramics for the last four centuries because it is a source for fine-grade porcelain. His father is a farmer and he first set up a studio at a small space on the farm. He took out all the farming machines and tools and created a very small studio space. He was alone when he started the business but now he works with family members, who are in charge of helping with many different aspects of the making process, with the exception of throwing. Moon says, “Several years ago, I hurt my back pretty bad and I asked a potter friend to throw pots for me. Surprisingly, people didn’t look at these pots—it was as if they knew that I didn’t make them. Since then, I throw everything.”
Moon is a hard worker; his schedule used to consist of working more than 15 hours a day, from early in the morning to late at night. He now has a family, so he works about 10 hours a day.
He produces 1000–3000 pots every month with an assistant’s help. In addition to thrown pots, Moon Do Bang also produces customized slab-built and slip-cast plates, which are mostly made by assistants at a casting factory in Yeoju.
“I throw everything but I do not think it is hard work, because I like to do it. I really enjoy working on the wheel but I recently started to make square and octagonal-shaped plates, which are not thrown on a wheel, to make additions for diverse table settings. When I have only thrown pots in a table setting, it seems too simple because everything is round. Thrown work is more popular to sell but I try to develop my designs for consumers to create various table settings.”
Keeping Good Relationships with Customers
Moon Do Bang has a gallery shop with nicely built wooden shelves that hold delicate porcelain work. The space is well designed and has a high-end, museum-like atmosphere. As his gallery shows, display is an important part of his business. When Moon participates in craft and art fairs, he puts a lot of effort into making better displays and a quality booth; to him, creating a good display is just as important as making good pots. He mainly goes to fairs to promote his business and interact with customers. He doesn’t go to fairs as often as he once did, but still participates whenever he has a chance. Art fairs usually run between 5 and 6 days in length, and while some artists use the time to sell their work, for Moon, it is an opportunity to make a good first impression of Moon Do Bang to new customers.
“I always try to build a nice display because if you make a difference with displays, it will catch customers’ eyes and they will remember your business. When I opened the gallery, I thought about this a lot and invested a lot of money to create a good setting,” Moon says.
Moon seems to keep special relationships with his customers, many of whom are regulars. “When I started my business, I sold my work at many fairs. I met many good people who were interested in my work and gave me encouragement. They are still my regular customers. I have their addresses and I try to keep in touch with them. I grew up on a farm and I love to share things with people. I buy vegetables like sweet potatoes and corn from my father’s farm every year and send them to customers as a thank you. I like to keep in touch with people who have helped me and encouraged me to become the artist and business person I am now. They are my good customers and beyond the relationship of seller and buyer, we are friends and family.”
the author Gunyoung Kim received her MFA in Ceramics from The Ohio State University and currently resides in Columbus, Ohio. Kim was the long-term ceramic artist-in-residence at Lawrence Art Center in Lawrence, Kansas, and has also completed a short-term artist residency at the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts in Helena, Montana. To learn more, check out www.gunyoungkim.com.
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A Quick Look at Moon Do Bang
Wheel-thrown Porcelain with Moon Byeong Sik Credit: Adam Field