Growing up in South Korea, Sophia Kim would walk by a long row of birch trees on her way to school that still sticks with her today. “I was mesmerized by them: they seemed to talk to me,” says the now Vancouver-based ceramics artist, sitting in a Main Street studio full of neat stacks of bowls, cups, and vases in various stages of completion. “I was always surrounded by trees, so somehow around trees I feel comfortable and soothed.”
It comes as little surprise, then, that Kim’s line, called Rusty Birch Design, should so artfully evoke the bark of those trees she used to walk by. Etched and marked, washed in a matte white slip over rich-red clay, the vessels have the burnished texture of birchbark—contemporary designs that have that nature-focused, new-rustic feel everyone’s trying to capture in their décor right now.
Kim says she didn’t set out to create designs based on bark; rather, they seem to have come to her instinctively. When she first came to Vancouver over a decade ago, she was a painter who often looked to the nearby forests for subject matter. But she’d never delved into three-dimensional work until she entered the then Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. There, in a foundation year that required students try out different forms, she decided to opt for a ceramics course—and was soon hooked. In the ensuing years, she’s travelled back to South Korea to study the form, and she works at the wheel whenever she can. It was when she was experimenting with scratching different surfaces about a year ago that a friend pointed out to her that her textures were starting to look a lot like tree bark—something Kim herself hadn’t noticed. Now her Main Street studio is filled with branches, bark samples, and painted details of trees as inspiration for her ceramics.
Kim also likes to integrate a hint of rust, helped by that reddish clay. “There’s an old barn there with rusty patches,” she says, pointing out her window toward the Southeast False Creek site and the development around the old Olympic Village. “I like old and rusty—something that looks like there’s a story and history to it.
“Bark, too, has history,” she points out, holding up a cup that she’s carefully given scars and weathering. “I can see the rain or the wind and they just endure, and it’s like the bark is speaking to me.”
Some of Kim’s forms draw from functional Asian pottery: there are mini teacups, sake bottles, and rice bowls. Her little espresso cups and heftier mugs have also been popular; most unusual of all might be the version of the latter with a crooked half handle that suggests a tiny branch. Kim is meticulous about the tactility of her creations, and worked hard to make the little elbow fit snugly around the user’s thumb.
She’s also delving into larger creations, with big, cylindrical birchlike vases that would look stunning on the mantel of a contemporary home, pitchers and sizable bowls that could sit out gorgeously on a harvest tabletop or granite counter, and uneven, weathered-bark-like platters. Some of the smaller bowls come with a hint of green glaze pooled in the centre—Kim’s expression of moss. Just like in nature, they’re all one of a kind.
Prices range from about $12 for a small cup up to $200 or so for a statement vase; in the mid-range are mugs at $35 and pitchers around $70 to $90.
Demand for the pieces is growing, with Kim currently featured in a preview exhibit for the Circle Craft Christmas Market at the Circle Craft Gallery on Granville Island till the end of the month, then selling at the giant fair itself, on November 11 to 16 at Vancouver Convention Centre West. (See her work at the Sophia Clay Art website.) This past spring, she sold out a display of her pieces at the Vancouver Art Gallery Gift Shop, and her line is also being sold at Heather Ross Natural Eclectic (2170 Fir Street).
If the growing popularity of her work says anything, it’s that Kim isn’t the only one who loves the look of trees; they speak to a lot of her customers, too.