November Artist-in-Residence: Jong-Pil Pyun’s Journey to a Life of Glass

In a way, you could say that Jong-Pil (JP) Pyun’s journey into glass was a happy accident. He was in the right place at the right time—time and time again—a series of events that paved the way to a life of artistry in glass.

JP examines his work

JP examines his work

JP knew he had a flair for the creative, and decided to go to college for art. His school in Korea, Hanyang University, did not have a glass program, but rather introduced students to a variety of mediums from ceramics and woodworking to textiles and jewelry. When JP took an elective with Young Woo Nam, a stained glass artist, he found it incredibly fascinating.

“She was so passionate about modern glass, and as I was listening, I became really interested in the material,” said JP. “I had never seen glassmaking before, and thought it would be really cool to discover.”

JP’s instructor was a well-respected stained glass artist in Korea, completing more than 200 installations in Korean churches. He talked with her after the class was over, and told her of his interest in learning more. The following semester, she gave him what would be his first big break: the business card for the president of Sungjin Glass Inc. in Korea. JP visited the company and had his first introduction to hot glass.

“I watched them blow a bubble and shape the glass, and a couple minutes later it was formed into a vessel,” he said. “I was so impressed and so fascinated with this material, and I thought, ‘I really want to do this!’”

JP began a co-op there, where he spent time working in the factory, moving finished hot glass work to the furnace. Although they were producing more industrial work than art glass, it was still exciting for JP to watch and learn from the masters.

“Every day, I could have my own time after working at the factory, and one of the masters taught me how to gather,” he said. “I was trained as a craftsman, so I didn’t even touch the glass before I had about a week of practice holding the pipe right. It was a step-by-step education.”

Then Ki-Ra Kim came to teach a private workshop at the factory. She had just returned to Korea after finishing her degree at Rhode Island School of Design, and was teaching classes at a university in Korea.

Inside Apple by Ki-Ra Kim

Inside Apple by Ki-Ra Kim

“Professor Kim told me I was a lucky guy to find one of the hidden factories in Korea,” said JP. “I was in the right place at the right time.”

After meeting Professor Kim, JP began learning about Western modern glass. Ki-Ra Kim was instrumental in introducing the studio movement to Korea, and as such, taught her students about great artists like Chihuly and Lipofsky, JP said. But it was a lecture where Professor Kim showed some of the work of artist Michael Taylor that set in motion the next phase of JP’s venture into glass.

JP had never before seen any cold working, Taylor’s specialty, and inquired about him after class. Professor Kim told JP that he was an instructor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and finally, JP knew he had decided on a school to attend for his graduate work. JP soon became a TA for Taylor’s class, and even attended a Glass Art Society conference with him, where he learned about a glue for glass called Hxtal that Taylor pioneered, and JP uses in his work today.

JP with a Styrofoam model during his residency at The Studio

JP with a Styrofoam model during his residency at The Studio

It was during this time as a grad student in America that JP discovered the inspiration for his artwork.

“I was very confused about my identity,” JP said. “When you come to a different culture, even though you study the country, you still go through a period of culture shock.”

JP had brought a Korean book with him when he came to the U.S., so he started looking through it. He discovered Korean geometry, and the spiral forms that characterize it began to inspire him. JP saw the two-dimensional forms on the page, and wanted to know what they would look like in 3-D. It took him three months to first sculpt a model out of Styrofoam and then laminate, and finally grind and polish the glass pieces.

Composition of Energy in a Dynamic Whirlpool II Jong-Pil Pyun

Composition of Energy in a Dynamic Whirlpool II Jong-Pil Pyun

“I was always thinking about this finished work in my mind, but when you finally pull off the protection tape from the skin of the glass and see the reflections it creates, it is so amazing.”

This spiral concept continues to play throughout JP’s work. He is fascinated by the fact that this pattern is found over and over in nature—in galaxies, hurricanes, flowers, and in people. In oriental philosophy, the human being is the center of the universe, JP explains. This spiral form can be found on your fingerprint, and on the top of the head.

“It made perfect sense to me,” JP said. “I wanted to talk about the dynamics and the energy of the form.”

Good fortune continued to follow JP during grad school, and he started working with master flameworker Milon Townsend at his studio, learning from him, and helping him finish his products quickly. JP even helped him with his first book, Advanced Flameworking.

After graduating from RIT, JP moved back to Korea to take a job at Namseoul University, where he is now the chair of the Department of Environmental Art and Design. Several years ago, JP received a grant to take 19 students to the U.S., and one of the top activities on his list was a class at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass. JP had taken several classes at The Studio during his time at RIT—including one with Bill Gudenrath—and it had made a big impression on him, as he hoped it would on his students. They chose from a range of classes from kiln-forming to flameworking.

JP came back to The Studio last month for his artist-in-residency during his sabbatical year. He continued to work on his beautiful sculpted creations, and even tried his hand at casting, a technique he had not yet explored.

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“It’s been challenging,” JP said, “but this is the perfect place for glass artists. You have everything here.”

For JP, glass is still as fascinating today as when he first discovered it during his undergraduate work in Korea.

“You can use it at the hot stage and the cold stage. You can do all different kinds of things with it, and that’s a big advantage,” JP said. “It’s a creative outlet. You can imagine anything with this mysterious material, and I’m still discovering.”

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