‘I was 18 when I learned ceramics,’ says 26-year-old Jun Rhee tenatively, fidgeting with the fringes of his black hoodie on a drizzly day outside Ouseburn’s Kiln, a café and ceramics workshop. He was a college student in South Korea – and like many people that age, was on the cusp of becoming an adult and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. ‘I read a lot of books because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,’ he recalls, the rain pattering down on an umbrella overhead.
One book he came across was on the subject of ceramics. ‘When I finished the book and closed the cover,’ he says, ‘I felt that would be my job.’
The book was pessimistic about the future of ceramics: ‘It said the craft was going to die because of machines,’ Jun says, automation edging out master craftsmen from a long-standing career. But rather than be down about the future of ceramics, he decided to do something about it. ‘We have to revitalise the craft, because craft pottery is the ultimate beauty.’ Jun, for whom English is a second language, begins to mime an action: he upturns his arm, the inside of the wrist to the sky, and places a cupped hand over his veins. He lifts his hand up and down. ‘My blood was boiling.’
For the next seven years, Jun devoted himself to ceramics, throwing up to 200 pots a day, learning from colleagues and mentors in his native South Korea. The way that South Koreans throw pottery is massively different to the approach here, he explains: ‘The Korean philosophy about craft pottery is that you should make it without thinking. Just follow the hand. It could take a day, 10 hours or 10 years – your eye and your brain don’t matter. Your hand remembers the shape of the pot. Without thinking, you just sit down and go.’
That said, standards are far more exacting in South Korea. ‘They believe the only thing to survive forever is ceramics, so they want everything to be perfect: the height, the width, the shape, the weight.’ According to Jun, up to 70 percent of each firing could get thrown away, broken because it is seen to have minute imperfections.
Jun travelled to Ireland as part of a conscious decision to see the world. ‘I wanted to meet other people – especially ceramic artists – in other countries.’ There, he learned English. In his pocket, he had little more than a handful of tools, and very little money. ‘I thought I can travel without any money because I have my hands,’ he says. ‘They’re my worth, they can help me earn.’
It was while he was in Ireland that Jun came across the Instagram account of Richard Cullen of 1265°North, a Newcastle ceramic and design studio that had been supported by the Crafts Council. Richard had been throwing pots for just short of six years, and had started to make a name for himself by providing a range of plates to Dave Coulson’s Jesmond restaurant, Peace and Loaf.
‘He’s been very good to us and supported us since day one,’ Richard explains. ‘I gave him some plates and they went into his restaurant in Jesmond.’
From the exposure in Peace and Loaf, Richard and 1265°North became suppliers for a number of big firms, including Continental Chef Supplies, a major catering supply and distribution company, and a Michelin-starred restaurant in Grasmere, The Forest Side. ‘We went down all these avenues, and it became increasingly tricky to keep up with demand, make new designs and increase consistency at the same time,’ says Richard. As well as juggling business, Richard was planning a move to the Ouseburn to a disused building that would later become Kiln.
Jun sent Richard a message on Instagram. Richard was apprehensive. ‘Very few people get in touch with you via Instagram messages,’ he says. ‘Then I looked at Jun’s Instagram profile and the work he produced was incredible. There were these bowls nesting inside of each other perfectly.’
The two ceramicists struck up a conversation online, and Richard made a bold decision: he bought Jun a flight from Ireland to Newcastle, and the two spent some time together, brainstorming ideas for what to do with the empty building in the Ouseburn. ‘It was an abandoned room, the windows bricked up, and 30 or 40 years-worth of grease on the walls,’ explains Richard.
As the team cleaned up the premises and decided to combine a café with a ceramics workshop, the two struck up a professional and personal friendship. ‘It became increasingly obvious that Jun had talent,’ says Richard, ‘so me and my girlfriend spent six months getting him a visa to come from South Korea to be a resident here and work.’ The tussling with the Home Office was going on at the same time as Richard and his girlfriend were applying for premises licences and taking the building through the planning process.
Now, Jun is firmly ensconced at Kiln, producing the glazed crockery used in the café as well as fulfilling orders for Richard’s supply business. He’s also brought some of the South Korean ethos – and some tools that can’t be found elsewhere – to Newcastle.
‘Jun brought over flexible steel tools that couldn’t be found in the UK, explains Rosie Power, a local technician who has previously undertaken a university degree in contemporary craft in Cornwall and worked as a boat restorer for the North East Maritime Trust before realising that her passion in life was ceramics. She’s part of the team, learning more about the craft with Richard and Jun at their kiln, a large box about three foot by three foot square, stowed for the morning firing with around 100 plates, bowls and teapots.
The traditional kiln has some sops to modernity: Richard is trying to automate some technical aspects of the firing by coding a Raspberry Pi computer, connected to devices that open the valves, to produce more dependable and programmable heat. ‘We were struggling to get consistency from the kiln because we were turning up each burner manually, and it opened up the opportunity for human error.’ But ultimately, the equipment is much the same as it has been used for centuries, firing items to 1,000 degrees to fix them in a shape, dipping them in liquid glaze, then firing up to 1,265 degrees to set the glaze into a hard outer shell.
It’s the same process that Jun came across as a driftless teenager and fell in love with eight years ago, and which makes his blood stir with passion today, even on the dampest of North East days. Seeing the flames reflect off the side walls of the open kiln, it’s possible to see the same flames reflected in his eyes – a passion to keep a waning craft alive, and to complement longstanding skill with the latest technology.
Kiln, 4 Hume Street, Newcastle NE6 1LN