When Sang-Sool Shim first appeared in the New Zealand Herald nearly 30 years ago, the Korean martial arts instructor was pictured making a gravity-defying flying leap much to the amazement of a group of disbelieving Taekwon-do students.

Today, he's more likely to keep his feet firmly on the ground especially at his Henderson Valley home which is a base for an altogether different kind of art. Along with fellow artist and wife Keum Sun Lee, Shim is a well-known master ceramicist.

Their home and garden are filled with the delicate products of two decades' worth of work including exhibitions and awards here, and in Korea, Croatia and Austria. Now they're the Premier Award winners at New Zealand's Portage Ceramic Awards – our most prestigious pottery prize.

The self-taught artists won the award for a large vessel called In the Beautiful Dream which Shim built and altered on a potter's wheel before Lee added free-hand carvings on the surface and inlaid them with vibrant colours.

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Sang-Sool Shim (left) and Keum Sun Lee work together to craft beautiful ceramics. Photo / File
Sang-Sool Shim (left) and Keum Sun Lee work together to craft beautiful ceramics. Photo / File

Los Angeles judge Bari Ziperstein saw the finalists' work – around 60 pieces – immediately after arriving in Auckland and says the flowers on In the Beautiful Dream haunted her at night in her jet-lagged haze.

While the couple have entered the Portage awards before, twice winning a people's choice award, this is the first time they've taken home the premier award. Both say it's a dream come true.

"To be selected for the finalists' exhibition is enough but of course we hoped, everybody hopes," Lee says.

It's a long way from the life she and Shim originally pursued. When they met nearly 20 years ago, she'd been working for the Korean government and he'd taught martial arts to members of Brunei's royal family as well as NZ youth through the Arohanui Trust.

Korean black belt master Shim Sang Sool in action at a Tae Kwon Do workshop on Waiheke Island in 1992. Photo / File
Korean black belt master Shim Sang Sool in action at a Tae Kwon Do workshop on Waiheke Island in 1992. Photo / File

Knowing he wanted to become a potter, Shim spent time studying in Korea before the couple decided to return to New Zealand where he could pursue his art independently.

"We used to do a lot together," recalls Shim, "but one day Keum Sun says, ' you go fishing by yourself, I'll stay home' which was strange but I went. When I get home, someone has been drawing on the pot I was making!"

That was the start of a working partnership, which has involved experimenting with a huge range of forms but always trying to incorporate 10th-century and 15-century techniques of Korean pottery while adding colours to provide a contemporary look to their creations.

Their next work is likely to be a large-scale exhibition which incorporates strong environmental themes. Called Too Late, Shim says it's a hard-hitting installation which asks whether we still have time to clean up our oceans and take better care of the planet.

• Other Portage Ceramic award winners were Jim Cooper (Dunedin), Andrea du Chatenier (Whanganui) and Rick Rudd (Whanganui) who received merit awards. Five honourable mentions were awarded to Brendan Adams, Jinho Jeong, Peter Lange, John Roy and Susan St Lawrence. The 2018 Portage Ceramic Awards winners and finalist works will be on display at Te Uru – Waitakere's Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi until February 10, 2019.