A Modern Ceramist


With an upbringing in South Korea, Canada and America, Yoon-Young Hur embraces the multitudes of cultural and spatial contexts. Unabashedly curious from a young age, Yoon-Young began her career as an architect, where she was pushed “to think beyond the singular,” so that all her decisions encompass the larger context of life. Today, she applies this same philosophy to her ceramics. With a highly researched and nuanced practice, Yoon-Young spends months or sometimes years collecting material, while immersing herself in Korean culture, both ancient and contemporary. And yet, to encounter her work is to be in the presence of raw form and textural beauty. For Yoon-Young, it’s a process of trust, a moment when all her research and consideration meets the present moment. Having just finished a residency in Italy, Yoon-Young currently splits her time between New York and Seoul and has exhibited in the US, UK, Italy, South Korea and France. 

Aliyah: Your work is so highly researched and considered, have you always been interested in the context of things? 

Yoon-Young: When I studied and worked as an architect, the discipline taught me to think beyond the singular, because all our actions will inevitably influence wider culture, so your decisions need to encompass the larger context of life. I’m still learning how to use this approach in ceramics because it’s easy to become very singular in one’s own practice. However, for me, I’m always thinking about building relationships beyond a particular sculpture or piece.

A: Your practice strikes me as a dichotomy, because on the one hand you are known for your research-based series, and yet there is such an openness that comes through your pieces. How do you balance the two? 

YY: I think the research part comes from my own natural curiosity. It doesn’t always necessarily translate into all my work (not right away at least). But it’s important to nourish and educate myself with diverse contexts and narratives. I try to follow all my impulses even if they appear to be disparate at first, because the very act of following my curiosities leads me to an unknown place. And those unfamiliar places push me to make those unique relationships. Working on a specific collection or exhibition helps me to balance the open-ended experiments and research with a focused set of works. 

A: Does the actual process of creation also provide a point of openness for you? 

YY: Definitely. A big reason why I fell in love with ceramics is not only because of the pure materiality of it—but also the surprises that come from letting go of my control through the process of firing and glazing. There’s a nice play and balance between the malleability and time where the morphing process feels natural and in tune with the body. Although some artists may want to control each element from start to finish, I am comfortable with the unknown aspects of my process and what those surprises may bring. 

A: It’s almost like an emptying out when you begin to actually work with the material. 

YY: Yes, exactly. I often want the material to speak for itself or form itself. And sometimes I just try to be a translator or a recorder of the moment. 

A: Do you feel any pressure to represent South Korea in North America? How does the label Korean-American artist sit with you? 

YY: I'm comfortable being associated with that title because it’s been through ceramics that being Korean—and my Korean heritage—has become such a strong source of inspiration and awakening for my work and identity. It anchors my practice in a meaningful way where I get to reconnect and rediscover my own heritage. I left Korea when I was 12 and lived in Canada in my teens and the US into my 20s and 30s with just short visits to South Korea from time to time. Although I am technically not “American” in a legal sense, I do carry with me some parts of the “American identities” (which in itself is a whole other conversation to have). It’s only been recently where I have been able to spend more extensive time in South Korea with my family and reconnect with my roots. And while I don’t want anyone to think I’m representing Korea literally—because I’m not—it’s become more about my own unique reading and interpretation of the Korean heritage.

A: It’s almost like a returning. I think for so many immigrants, including myself, we have gone through this or are going through this, where for a time you dissociate yourself with your birthplace to forge a new identity, and then somehow or another, you find your way back. 

YY: Yes, it’s definitely a returning. I have roots there and that’s so valuable. I try to go as often as I can to Korea now to immerse myself in the environment, but with an active eye. What I’ve found so interesting, is that Korean culture is supposed to be familiar to me, and to some extent it is, but I’m finding newness in the familiarity by going in search of it and consciously building that relationship with it. I would also say that it’s taken time for me to understand that I don’t have to restrict and force myself into a singular identity. My work allows me the space to work through these issues. My relationship to these places, whether it’s Korea or North America or even my time in Italy, can be a personal and ever evolving one, and that allows me the most freedom. 

A: That rootedness paired with a sense of fluidity is so interesting to me. You had said in another interview that ceramics “can act as a portal to another space and time.” And yet, that portal is through your lens. 

YY: I look to ancient pottery and sculpture for inspiration, from ritual vessels to decorative head sculptures in ancient temples. Artifacts from the past fascinate me because it can take one to another space and time. But the reading of the past is not absolute. New narratives can be imagined through the act of making and applying one’s own lens. That is what I mean by fluidity—the creative act to rethink what came before us and rebuild our own unique relationships with them for the future. To me being rooted is not stagnant but rather alive and open for growth and change. 

A: Do you think that’s why more and more people are gravitating to more natural or raw forms in design and art? 

YY: For me, rawness implies honesty and intimacy. This comes from a sense of vulnerability, because an object is in its most pure and rudimentary state. The rawness also allows more closeness between the viewer and the maker, so it creates a more personal relationship. It’s not about adding something to someone’s life, but instead inviting a pause so that they can build upon the dialogue that I’ve begun. The rawness and simplicity creates room for reflections and all possibilities, not just my own. 








Words Edited - Aliyah Craig
Creative - Lune
Object Photography - Natasha V
Portrait Photography - Sharon Radisch