Artist Yun Nam: Connecting to North Carolina’s clay

In art professor Yun Nam’s studio, ceramic tea bowls stack on every surface. In the throwing room, bowls crowd the shelves. Outside amid toasty kilns, bowls sit on ware carts, nested into tiny towers.

Each is a part of Nam’s journey.

For years, he purchased his clay from commercial dealers and never considered the origin of the clay, only the finished product. But a lifetime of producing work solely for the visual result had left the acclaimed Korean-born ceramist feeling disconnected with the nature of his process.

“I didn’t know everything,” Nam said. “As artists, we look for the visual. How big is a piece; how well is it glazed? I decided to look beyond the visual and tangible, connect the past, present and future of the material.”

He stopped working and started studying. He learned of a long-held tradition of using mica clay, some of which could be found in Kings Mountain, west of Charlotte. Pyrophyllite minerals could be found in the soil of nearby Hillsborough.

He would use materials from both cities to make his own clays and bring them to his teaching. Other local clays could be purchased from the clay factory at STARworks Studio in Star, N.C.

“Using clay from North Carolina, that is bonding for me,” Nam said. “And it’s important that I show my students how to work with it.”

His research provided the clay with which his students would craft. A connection to the state where he’d taught for about 16 years and raised his children was providing the inspiration he needed to create again.

“What do I need to teach? How to make a good handle or candleholders? Yes, but I also like them to learn a beautiful lesson through the clay, to think beyond visible and establish a connection to the environment that is part of their history.”

A good pot is about good materials, honest process and where it’s made, he said. “In searching for the invisible, I see so much more.”

He’s made hundreds of tea bowls, experimenting with heat, glaze and composition, balancing and neutralizing elements to bring different visual effects. From each finished work, he drinks a cup of Matcha, a bright- green tea.

“People wonder why I am throwing so many bowls and testing so many glazes, but it is a wonderful journey about finding,” he said.

[Editor’s note: This story appeared in the May 25, 2011 University Gazette.]