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George Cho's deconstructed pottery takes a new perspective on tradition

The one that catches my eye is modeled after the human body, an anthropomorphism indicating its traditional Chinese pottery influence. Like the others in George Cho's installation entitled Spectacle, the vase-like piece is deconstructed and resembles a spine, bonelike and white. Each piece is handcrafted but intentionally imperfect; though its execution is so smooth one must peer closely at the work to see the flaws.
"Some people would call it flaws, some people would say wabi sabi, the Japanese term [for acceptance of imperfection]," Cho tells me on a cold but sunny day at the Harbourfront Centre where the sun glows through the gallery windows. His work is a commentary on the role of the craftsman, an element often removed from the polish of contemporary ceramics. It features a variety of pieces each influenced by different countries and cultures, from China to Korea to Italy. And while he could have smoothed them out, he chose not to. Instead aiming to remind the viewer that a person with hands just like ours made it, and that much of the work we see in our day to day is far from the commodity we take it for.
"If you're thinking in terms of design and computer generated forms, you have to be really tight—all these angles have to be perfect and sharp," Cho says. "But how loose this is, it reminds you of this idea of an unknown craftsman. These simple bowls that are displayed in museums speak of the culture, but they don't really talk about the craftsmen that actually made them. Its because they made it without knowing that it was going to be in a museum, that it was just going to be made for daily use, their idea of making work for themselves and other people is very nonchalant. It was their way of life." 
Cho received an education in the world from an early age. His parents crisscrossed Canada from Vancouver to Toronto, while he attended boarding school in the United States somewhere in between. It was there he discovered the art of ceramics. Up until then, he had considered pursuing business, a desire of his parents, and even tried it for one year upon high school graduation. But something ignited in him the first time he truly sat down at a pottery wheel, and after a second university attempt, this time studying ecology at the University of British Columbia, he switched to study ceramics at Sheridan College, followed by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD University), where he received his BFA in ceramics. 
Now Cho is deep into an artist residency at the Harbourfront Centre where his work is currently on display until April 6. The inspiration for the series came from a two-month residency program he recently completed in Jingdezhen, China, a city of 1.5 million people located north east of Hong Kong. The trip was made possible through an Ontario Arts Council grant. The Access and Career Development grant, which is currently accepting applications, is offered to aboriginal arts professionals and arts professionals (including artists, arts administrators, community animators, curators, programmers, technicians, and arts educators) of colour at any stage in their career and of any discipline. 
"This grant provides an opportunity for [these arts professionals] to do necessary skills and career development projects that will help to move their careers to the next stage and build capacity within Aboriginal communities and communities of colour," says Bushra Junaid, the outreach and development manager at the Ontario Arts Council. She says it's designed to fill gaps in professional development while simultaneously enhancing confidence in the artist's work and abilities. It further serves as a bridge to help artists receive additional, more specific funding through the council throughout their careers. Since the program started in 2006, more than 350 arts professionals have received grants, while 500 grants have been issued.
Grants are awarded based on artistic merit, impact, and viability. Applications are assessed by a jury  based on the artistic or support material samples provided, the appropriateness of the project plans and schedule, the budget, and the impact it will have on an artist and on their practice now and over time.
Cho applied because he wanted to be closer to the tradition he felt so connected to through his work. Scientists have discovered pottery in China that dates back more than 20,000 years, work that is responsible for many of the shapes and designs we are accustomed to today. Jingdezhen specifically is where porcelain originated. It's a tradition that is an inherent part of many cultures there. While travelling throughout the region, Cho walked the streets of small towns where generations of families sat by the side of the road spinning wheels and crafting piece after piece. It is where he bought the majority of the unfired plates he later used in his installation, taking them home to Toronto to reshape and glaze them.  
"I was blown away by all the contemporary and tradition that is existing at the same time," he says. "You see all these people in these small streets working outside with their hands from seven in the morning until nine at night, and it's all family. Just the culture of ceramic tradition that is still prevalent in this city was amazing to see."
As Cho's exhibit at the Harbourfront gallery winds down, he is beginning to refine his artistic process and the narrative of his current body of work, concentrating still on that theme of appreciating where things come from while processing the lessons he learned in China. He is currently experimenting with scope and size, creating larger and alternative versions of his works. 
"When you have these handmade craftworks in your home, it gets the dialogue going about the craftsmanship and the joy of making and the joy of labour—that it's not machine made. In the factories you press this button and it pushes the clay down and makes this perfect bowl, all these machines dunk them in glazes and it goes into a kiln automatically. But if you look at it carefully," he takes apart one of the pieces before gently restacking it again, "all these plates are different, you appreciate the individuality of each piece."
Something about this resonates with me. Now, each time I look at a plate or a ceramic, I become aware of life's beauty and imperfections, some intentional and pure, and I am reminded to open my eyes and see the artistry behind everything. 

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais
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