Watch: Studio Visit with Risa Nishimori

A Conversation with Jaye Kim

Introduction & Interview by Matthew Im

Photographs by Marcus Im

Jaye and I (and a few more friends) met in the afternoon of a crisp, winter morning. With sun in the sky and an unusually high temperature, we started with greetings, walked around the workshop, and had a long conversation about the importance of community, home, and finding centeredness through art.

We explored honesty and passion as she guided us through her journey; she found her voice, not by having a goal, but through “try and try again”. I was shown a story that started with a return, a coming home of sorts, where the artist, Jaye, didn’t just come back to art. She lived it, connecting her life experiences to the clay, imbuing her works of art with moments that left impressions. Her sculptures culminate into massive pieces, exaggerating moments of the everyday into memories that can be experienced just by touching them.

Matthew Im: I looked at your Instagram a lot - and your pieces are very powerful. And very unstructured. I love that. It’s very refreshing. So, how did you get to this point? What drove you to ceramics?

Jaye Kim: I went to art school. I've always been into art and drawings or paintings. About 7-8 years ago - now ceramics are really hot - but that’s when it was just getting popular, so my friends and I started taking ceramics classes, and I've been doing it ever since.

MI: Where did you go to art school?

JK: SVA (School of Visual Arts). But I didn’t study fine arts. I wanted to, but my parents didn’t want to support me in art school. They said I needed to study computer design, which would help me find jobs. And I got a job at an animation studio.

After a while, I kinda forgot about making my own things. I was just focused on doing things for my job. I always sat behind my computer.

I missed doing things that were tangible. So, I wanted to get back to making things.

MI: How did you balance a career and getting back into practicing art? I struggle at times with finding time between the two myself… just so i dont starve.

JK: I mean, that’s super important!

MI: So, then how did you know what you wanted to make?

JK: I remember one of our first classes was learning how to make plates. It was really basic. Everybody was making cups and mugs - and no disrespect to anybody - but I wanted to make something different.

So, I made mushrooms. And other vegetables.

Then, the funniest thing is that we had this shared shelf, where we would leave things to eventually get fired. The hilarious part was the next week, I went to go to my pieces and I started seeing other vegetables. There was this whole broccoli! I don’t think I made it, but it was funny seeing that happen.

MI: Would you say food is a source of inspiration? I saw you also made a pizza at one point.

JK: Not really, it’s more that it’s a familiar object. Something that’s relatable to explore.

MI: What about textures? How come so many of your pieces feature varying textures?

JK: Well, I definitely love how the texture is organic. In general, I’m not really drawn to throwing. (I wasn’t very good at it, so I was like... forget this.)

But also in my professional life, I found that I had to follow a set of rules all the time. Everything had to be perfect. So in my creative work, this was a different way to explore.

MI: Okay, so you had lots of food and organic textures. I’m not convinced. What about all your cabbages?!

JK: Well, the cabbages are actually just something I kept exploring after those first mushrooms I made in class.

Cabbages are so familiar to me, and they reminded me of my mom. It reminds me of how she would make so many kimchis, and I feel connected to those aspects of my Korean-ness. It was natural.

But eventually I stopped making food-related things in general. my professional life, I found that I had to follow a set of rules all the time... So in my creative work, this was a different way to explore.

MI: That’s funny because your cabbages also reminded me of my grandma and mom, who I remember watching make kimchi when I was growing up. And now, I find myself making kimchi too. I won't necessarily follow the same rules, but I’ll try to experiment and see what works. It’s fun, the organic process.

JK: That’s like ceramics. You’re always curious about the piece, and you work on it but you never know exactly how it’ll come out until the very end.

Sometimes it’s also super painful. The glaze might not turn out the way I was imagining, and that's really frustrating.

For example, if you’re a painter, you paint something green and you know it’ll come out green. But glaze, it reacts differently than expected. Even if I test it first, it’ll look different once it’s on a bigger piece.

So yea, it’s the same as kimchi.

MI: Would you say you enjoy the unpredictability?

JK: Yes and no. Sometimes, I really wish it was more predictable. But I think that might come with more experience.

Bigger pieces crack and there are sometimes other sorts of problems that come up. I think the rate of a successful piece is only like 60%. It can feel a bit like gambling.

MI: That’s the thrill of it. Do you ever get something that’s better than you expected?

JK: Yes, sometimes there are happy accidents. I’m like… ooo!

MI: Speaking of accidents, I noticed you recently had a video of you destroying something. What was going on there?

JK: Ha! Yea, that one’s called “The Study of Cleaning”.

You might think it’s art, but for most potters, this is just part of what we do. We need more space. So it’s just part of something that we need to do.

That piece had a crack in it, and I couldn't glue it back together again. And the other piece had some glaze that wound up dripping into something that felt a bit hazardous. So they had to go.

You have to be honest in your work. You don't have time to do anything else.

MI: What do you see yourself working towards?

JK: Well… I recently came back to the cabbages and I kind of want to try them again. I want to try them in different colors and sizes.

It’s almost like a self-portrait of sorts. I’m from Korea, that’s a part of me. I think it will continue to develop.

MI: What about Sincerely, Tommy? What does the store mean to you and your work?

JK: I’ve been living in Bed-Stuy for 6 years now. And one time I was walking by Sincerely, Tommy and I was like, “Whoa, look at this beautiful store.” I would take walks with my baby to the store, and I went in and met the owner.

We wound up talking and she eventually said she’d want to feature some of my work. I was really excited.

I really love that the store exists in Bed-Stuy. That was really important. I think Bed-Stuy is amazing, and there’s a really great community around the Sincerely, Tommy store. There needs to be more art in the community, so as I got to know the owner and the store more, I saw they’re really working to get the community involved.

MI: Bed-Stuy can feel pretty communal. I felt it when I visited Sincerely, Tommy too.

JK: They put on this mother’s event, where they gathered moms. It was a really beautiful event the way they brought together mothers for the event. I think that’s super cool.

MI: It sounds like Bed-Stuy is “home” for you. So how did you wind up exploring more about yourself?

JK: It was a super slow process. Super super slow. I was so career focused - and I'm not dissing careers, they’re really important. I think some people have the benefit of having their career aligned with their passions, but for me I had to study computer design.

I’m super grateful for it. But at some point I had to find a way to rediscover myself through making. It’s all part of the process. I would say it’s continually evolving and I'm lucky to continue.

MI: It’s not about getting somewhere, it’s really just about going?

JK: Yea, I would say so.

MI: Like an “organic process”?

JK: Ha yea, totally. You love the word “organic”. But yes, exactly.

Like for my huge mugs... when I was going through motherhood, I would make myself tea or coffee, and then I’d get distracted with taking care of the baby or cleaning diapers, and by the time I would get back to the mug, it’d be cold and disgusting. I just wanted to incorporate the idea of simply having hot tea.

And so these mugs are shared with other moms and we share the stories about raising children. I'm actually starting to take photos of these pieces with other mothers in the community.

MI: Do you think you would have made these mugs if you didn’t have your son?

JK: No, I don’t think so. That time really affected me.

I started noticing that time is so precious. Not just in terms of watching your kids grow so fast, but also I just didn't have any time for myself. It’s like 24 hours isn’t enough - and I had to really think about how to do my practice.

Now I don’t have time to watch any sort of Game of Thrones recaps. Or things like that.

MI: Would you say you’re turning a new leaf?

JK: Absolutely. Motherhood really changed my perspective and it made me only want to work on things I cared for.

You have to be honest in your work. You don't have time to do anything else.

MI: That’s really great advice and a good reminder for all makers. I think I speak for everyone when I say thank you for sharing with us, and I can't wait to see more of these pieces.

JK: Thank you!

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