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.
These bowls aren’t discards of art gone wrong. Each pot is a part of Nam’s journey.

For years, Nam purchased his clay from commercial dealers. He 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. 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, N.C. Pyrophyllite minerals could be found in the soil of nearby Hillsborough, N.C. 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. 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 15 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,” he says. “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.”

Nam palms a piece of his work in each hand. In one bowl dynamic splotches emerge in a pattern found most often in a Petri-dish. On another bowl, the color is more flat, beige. “Some focus on how well something is made, but what is the definition of ‘how well?” A good pot is about good materials, and honest process and where it’s made. In searching for the invisible, I see so much more.”

So far, 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 says.

By Courtney Mitchell, UNC-Chapel Hill University Relations