Today thunder peals through the Hudson Valley and the heat of the day hangs overhead like a thick, heavy cloud. In early Summer, the garden blooms and bursts in bright colors of iris’ feathery flowers from every corner and nook. Spikes in heat are a reminder that the depths of Summer have yet to come, while the occasional rain shower refreshes the body and mind like a welcome gift to abate the swelter of an early Summer’s day.
Earlier this week I had received a gift of from my dear friend in Seoul, South Korea, and as the heat lingers, I choose to enjoy these by the open door of my garden studio. Packages of tea and a piece of ceramic ware come as a delightful respite and reminder of friendship’s power to assuage feelings of loneliness amidst a period of separation and isolation.
From paper of pink and white emerges a marbled and splashed surface of glazed ceramic. What is revealed is a fine piece of 분청사기 buncheong-jagi made by Korean potter 신용균 (申容均) Shin Yong-Gyun.
While I have come to amass a small collection of this ceramicist’s work, I’ve not yet seen anything like this. Its form is similar to that of a teapot, save for the absence of a lid. Rather, it is a ewer, or, more specifically, a 숙우 sookwoo, a vessel to cool water before it is poured to brew tea.
Unlike the austere white wares I’ve come to associate with the artist, the glaze of the tiny vessel is brushed onto the ceramic body in exuberant splashes and scrapes of white and blush pink, revealing the grey, iron-rich clay beneath their undulating veneer in a style known as 귀얄 guiyal.
Turning it in my hand,
inspecting its foot,
I imagine my friend’s presence, her keen love for buncheong pottery, and her ability to affect my aesthetic with hers. I am reminded of when we first met and how she explained the qualities of Korean tea. The emphasis of naturalness and ease, both in the appearance of objects, but also in the manner one makes tea. Over the many years since then, I’ve come to realize that these qualities arise only with practice and sitting with life as it reveals itself through time.
The sound of the kettle boiling breaks my focused gaze and ceramic daydreaming. I set the tiny sookwoo down upon the broad expanse of wood beside my open studio door and begin to assemble wares to brew tea.
A joint of bamboo cut and cleaved to form a scoop for tea. A thin branch from a fruit tree to help push the tea leaves from scoop to pot.
A cup and wooden cup stand.
A flat black rock found in my garden to act as a lid rest.
Objects are wetted and warmed and the heat of the morning grows.
First the small sookwoo,
Tiny curled leaves of tea are pulled from a neatly sealed pouch and placed onto the upturned curve of the bamboo scoop.
Dark, blue-green buds of the year’s first harvested 우전차 woojeoncha (lit. “pre-rain tea”) picked in April before 곡우 Gogu (“Grain Rain”, April 20-21) shine like lacquer and curl like old, soft leather. Their scent when dry is sweet like guava or ripening loquat.
I lift and tilt the scoop downward towards the open mouth of the empty teapot, using the thin branch as a guide to move the tiny leaves along.
Resting within the dark hollow of the warmed vessel, the aroma of the tea rises and reveals notes both sweet and savory.
Water resting in the sookwoo is warm enough now to pour onto the delicate leaves.
As they submerge and saturate, they tumble and twirl in spirals and swirls until they float upon the bubbly surface, then sink.
The lid is placed atop the pot and, for a minute or two, I wait for the tea to steep. I wait and a thunder cloud covers the sun.
From sookwoo to pot and now from pot to sookwoo, I pour the tea. New fragrances emerge from the flared opening of the serving vessel. Sweet still, yet with hints of young grass and flowers.
Poured into the cup, the color of the tea is revealed against the matte grey and white background of the buncheong glaze. Vibrant golden green. A hue I’ve come to recognize from fresh Korean teas.
I lift and enjoy the aroma. Sweet. Delicate. Complex but not overpowering. I sip from the cup. Beautiful. Satisfying. Layered. Flavors from the air, from the rain, from the soil and stone that I’ve only found within the rocky and wooded slopes of 지리산 Jirisan decades ago when I visited the farms where these teas are grown and hand-processed. A sweet reminder of my life’s wanderings and the friends I’ve made along the way.
So small is the pot that only three cups are produced and easily savored. I return the kettle to a gentle boil and pour more water into the sookwoo to wait until it has cooled enough to brew the delicate tea buds. Once ready, I pour from sookwoo to pot again.
Leaves tumble and settle and begin to look as if they were alive again with varying colors of emerald and mossy green.
I place the lid back slowly upon the open teapot, admiring the leaves as they continue to unfurl.
Again, I pause and wait for the tea to steep. A cardinal booms his high-pitched call from atop a pine tree in the garden, its scarlet coat contrasting against the deep green of the conifer needles. Wind pushes through the pines. The sky grows darker and the heat rises more.
I lift and pour the tea from the pot into the empty sookwoo.
A second round of tea fills the small cup. The color is brighter, deeper. The aroma is thicker, more pronounced. The flavor is more pointed, greater clarity and bold. The finish lingers longer. Hints of limestone, mallow, clean river rock, the sweet taste of a forest right before a rain.
I stop and admire the leaves at this stage. The crackles and patterns and brushstrokes on the cup. The absence of glaze where potter’s finger gripped the clay. Spots where iron burst and pushed through the white and blue and grey of the fired slip.
Wind begins to grow outside my studio’s door. Whispering through flowering catnip.
Tossing umbels of tightly-grouped Spiraea blossoms against their bright green bases.
Inside, action and inaction meld. Practice is made of pauses, of stops and starts.
Water warms and is poured again from sookwoo to pot.
Leaves rise with the tide of liquid. Foam of oils and air collect and gather around exposed edges and against the round of the teapot’s mouth.
Light enters into this tiny vignetted world, eliminating leaves, sparkling against convex bubbles and the rough edges of exposed clay.
Lid placed back atop this shining world and the tea is left to steep once again.
Rain begins to patter outside upon the concrete flat, upon the leaves of bushes, between rocks in the garden as I wait for the tea to brew.
Moisture caught underneath teapot lid slowly evaporates in the growing humidity of the approaching storm. The heat of the day throbs less intensely now as rain drops’ cadence quickens, pushing cool air into my studio space, wafting fragrances of flowers, wet earth, moss on rocks, brewing tea.
The iron bell hanging in the garden gongs a low sonorous tone and I pour the steeped tea out from pot to sookwoo once more.
From sookwoo to cup.
The heat of early Summer fades and refreshing air wafts as water pools and rain crashes and thunder softly booms. I am reminded that today is 단오 Dano (lit. “the first fifth”, 端午 Duānwǔ in Mandarin), a day filled with 양/陽 yang/yáng energy, a day of ancestor worship, a day when members of the 조선/朝鮮 Joseon royal court would present the king with a book of Dano poetry (단오첩, 端午帖 Danocheop). In turn, the king would present his courtiers with special Dano fans made by artisans, which were in turn tributes from the provinces.
A fan given by a king to his courtiers as the yang energy rises. A sookwoo to cool water as a gift from a dear friend. Rain showers to allay the warmth of early Summer. Fresh tea to occupy my mind. As the rain breaks the heat of the day, a reminder of friendship breaks the feelings of loneliness.
Dear Beloved Blog Readers,
If you are interested in learning more about buncheong-jagi, I’ve included a link to a fantastic book Korean Buncheong Ceramics from Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art by Soyoung Lee and Jeon Seung-chang, published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2012).
Similarly, if you’d like to learn more about the history and traditions surrounding Dano, I’ve linked an insightful article from Korea.net.