There is something very mystical about closed-form containers. Perhaps it is the excitement of wondering what it holds inside. As a child, I was fascinated with anything with lids and had to open everything in gift shops. It was only natural that I started to make lidded forms. I make various forms and sizes from wheel-thrown lidded trinket jars to huge boxes. I like the rigidity of each angled corner and the flat surface that becomes the canvas I decorate.
My first boxes were simple shapes with six equal squares that I decorated with different surface treatments. Now, I make more elaborate boxes with different styles of feet and lids. My inspiration for each shape and surface design comes from my cultural background. I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. My main goal with these boxes is to explore varying relationships between East and West. I constantly try to mix and match the fragments, such as old Korean motifs, repeated patterns from the walls of the palaces in Seoul, or trims from the roof tiles of old Buddhist temples—mixing them with modern lines and simple patterns of the West.
Start with a firm leather-hard slab and cut six pieces using premade templates (1). Getting the right dryness of a hard slab is tricky. If it is not firm enough, it won’t retain its shape while you build with it and will lose its rigid corners. If it is too dry, the joints won’t adhere well and they could crack later in the firing. The thickness of the slab varies depending on the size of the boxes. My smaller boxes are 4 mm (smaller than ¼ inch), and scale up to 7 mm to 8 mm (5/16 inch) on the larger boxes. The thicker the clay is, the better it will retain its shape without bending or warping.
Bevel a 45° angle on all the edges that will be joined, except the bottom piece. Keep the cuttings. Join the parts starting with the bottom and two sides. Use the cuttings to fill in and secure the joints (2). Join the other two sides the same way (3). Do not finish the top yet, so you can flip the piece over and coil the legs, then smooth out the joints. Finally, make any adjustments to the top piece and join it to the box (4). Wrapped the form in plastic overnight.
Next, determine where the bottom of the lid will begin on the box then use a hole puncher to cut half circles on several sides. I usually cut three and make sure no two holes line up with each other. With a knife, cut a straight line around the box to meet up with the tops of the half circles to create the rest of the lid (5). Coil the inside of the lid to secure the attachments and smooth out the cut area (6).
Usually, I work on several pieces at a time, cutting a bunch of them using pre-cut templates. Then, I wrap each box separately in plastic, making a few pieces at a time. During the process, slow drying is the key to avoid getting a contorted shape later.
Paper and Vinyl Stencils
I make stencils patterns, shapes, and letter fonts to add to my surfaces in different phases of each piece. The stencils are designed in either Photoshop or the Sketchbook app and cut by an electronic cutting machine. When working with greenware, I use packaging paper that is lightly waxed on one side. Moist clay readily sticks to this paper, and it is strong enough to hold up to underglaze and terra sigillata in resist processes. It’s also reusable up to a point if necessary. Then for bisqueware, I use self-adhesive vinyl paper.
To begin the surface decoration process, add a pre-cut paper stencil to the leather-hard surface (7), then use a wet sponge to adhere it. Apply underglaze or terra sigillata over the pattern so that the cut-out spaces are completely covered (8).
Hangul as Pattern
With Korean being my native language, I use Hangul (the Korean written alphabet) a lot in my work. The writing system was created in the mid-15th century to increase literacy. Until this time, the Korean language was written in an adaptation of classical Chinese that consisted of thousands of characters, which were not accessible to the working class. Hangul was invented deliberately and did not derive from any other existing script; it is one of the newest writing systems in the world. Perhaps because of these reasons, I find that Hangul has a visual appealing simplicity to it. It looks like charming shapes rather than letters.
I don’t remember when I started these graffiti-like doodles with Hangul. I often write this way to friends and family either as birthday cards or cute notes, so my work with Hangul is continuously evolving by playing further with the typography of its letters. Many of my latest pieces consist of my own typeface-like designs with rigid patterns using stencils.
Before adding the Hangul pattern, brush wax on the surface to prepare for later inlaying (9). When the wax surface has dried, I carve the typographic design (10). Next, brush on a coat of underglaze in a complementary color (11). After it has dried, wipe the excess underglaze off the surface with a damp, wrung-out sponge, leaving the underglaze in the carved design (12).
Iron-Rich Clay and Tape Resist
I use a lot of tape on my pieces that reveal bare clay underneath. I purposely chose a clay body with high-iron content. The usual boring unglazed clay area will change to different variants of red, brown, or copper after firing. I use variations of buff or crank clay that are widely available in the UK.
After the piece is bisque fired, lightly sand the surface, then clean it off with a damp sponge. Apply underglaze transfers (commercially made images that can be added to either greenware or bisque ware) and vinyl resist tape (13). Next, coat the interior with a glaze. After it is completely dried, brush 2–4 different glazes on the outside surface (14). Each section that is divided by resistant tape gets brushed with a different colored glaze. I only apply a clear glaze over the underglaze transfers and I do not brush glaze over the areas with terra sigillata.
Drying, Glazing, and Firing
Due to my heavy surface decoration throughout the process, each piece requires about a 5–7 day drying period, before bisque firing. A slow drying period helps prevent it from warping while drying and firing.
Following the bisque firing, I brush on several different colored glazes to the outside of a box, depending on how many sections I created with the tape. With the brush-on glazes, sometimes I re-apply the glaze and fire it again if a few parts were too thinly applied. But generally I’m pleased with the varied brush-stroked areas that create an aged and weathered appearance. The final glaze is fired to 82273°F (1245°C).
Miae Kim recently moved to the UK and works in a communal studio in central London. She was a studio potter in Los Angeles and studied ceramics at Glendale College. Her works are available through several galleries in the UK, the US, and Japan, as well as on her website. To see more, visit www.miaekimceramics.com and follow her on Instagram @miae_kim_ceramics.