Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thoughts on the Korean concept of Han

NCECA brought some very powerful and cathartic emotions to the surface of my life. I went down to Philly expecting to see some folks from year's past, eat some great food, see some pots, and maybe, just maybe, sleep a little. Things seldom work out the way I initially envision them.

Within ten minutes of arriving at the Convention Center, we found our way into the hall of merchants. It took even less time to pick out the frame of the biggest man in my world of mud... Lee Burningham. Wrapped in his arms it is hard not to feel like an undersized stuffed toy.

A few minutes later we found one of Lee's former students, TJ. I haven't seen TJ in probably three years, but for a moment, no time had passed. Our eyes met from one end of the hall to the other, and all the movement around us came to a halt. Both of us more than capable of having enough tears to fill the room, but knowing the fear that passes near death and steals those tears away. Looking into his eyes he was so surprised to see me alive, walking... and at the same time, I could see in his eyes the anger and pain knowing what I had lived through. Han.

Wikipedia describes the Korean concept of han as a "feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one's guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined." Yeah, han. Probably the only way to describe it.

TJ and I met when he was a sophomore at Box Elder High School in Brigham City Utah. I knew then as I have learned countless times since, that he stands apart. I remember the first conference we really spent time together at: Indianapolis. Nancy joined me on my first foray back to NCECA after my divorce. For all I know, he might have been with us when Lee took his students to NCECA in Columbus, but I have no memory of that. At that time, my heart was rent. Not much of any substance came from that conference.

Indianapolis was different though. Both TJ and his fellow student Corey sat around Nancy and I listening to stories from the studio. We had such high hopes and aspirations for the studio. Our hands held the jewels of our latest glaze tests. Both Nancy and I had visions of great firings to come, sell out shows and workshops lined up months in advance. Seated across from us, TJ and Corey wanted it too.

I think that was what really amazed me. TJ has always had a peculiar intensity to his demeanor. Despite his furry visage, there is inevitably an air of vulnerability about him. Here we were, describing building our studio (with the help of Lee!) and the trials of bad firings etc... and these high school/soon to be college students wanted in.

Fast forward more than a few years... back to this year's NCECA in Philly. Walking back from an obscure Chinese noodle shop in Chinatown we talked about all the things un-related to clay. The family stuff. The expectations, goals, aspirations, dreams. And then we talked about all the things that have gone wrong.

TJ is off to Germany soon. He spent the better part of a year in China over two years ago. Someday soon he'll find an MFA program, settle down and pull together a fantastic exhibition. I look forward to being able to show up to see the fruits of his labors. Inherent in all of our talks together this trip was the common thread that someday, my body would be healed and my life in clay would re-boot. He has all the faith in the world that I can heal, repair, be fixed... made well so that I can be hip deep in the work that he has admired for so long. And here I was ready to throw in the towel.

"There is no literal English translation. It's a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there's hope." President Bartlett, West Wing tv series.

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