Monday, December 15, 2014

First ever International Hanji Seminar this Friday!

I already mentioned after my Jeju trip that the hanji seminar in Seoul was free and open to the public, but wanted to remind you that it's happening this Friday! The guest list is impressive, with speakers coming from China, Japan, Korea, Germany, France, Italy, UK, and US. It will be a long, full day, and I'm excited about some new colleagues that happen to be in country who will be able to visit as well. It's always fun to get paper geeks into a room together. See you soon!

Wet cold happy

I walked up the hill to take a peek at the Gana Art Center, which I had visited the last time I was here. I've done this in several places, just checking to see what remains, and how my memory compares to the present. This is a beautiful and quiet but very steep neighborhood with some of my fondest and also difficult memories. I met Jin Youngsun, professor emeritus of Korea University, who taught Korean art history and fresco making at Duke on a Fulbright grant just this past year. We had a delicious lunch, with local food, and then went to her amazing studio. I thought it would be rude to photograph, but someday in the future I'll return. She said to come back and make art! She is set up not only for fresco work but for encaustic.

She also had an amazing catalog from a Seoul show in 1990 that exhibited work by famous western artists (basically, all from the canon) who were mailed big sheets of hanji from my hanji teacher's mill to make new art. Why didn't I know about this before?! I had met people last time who said things like, "We need to mail hanji to famous people so they can help spread the use and knowledge of hanji." Hello, it already happened! But I guess it wasn't enough.
The other gift she had for me was introducing me to one of the disciples of Mr. Lee, whom I had met at his Nakwon shop last week. Mr. Do Young-sik trained for 18 years under Mr. Lee and now has his own business in Insadong. He also happened to be the BEST person to ask to help me saw off the excess wood on my latest basket. Perfect tools, perfect precision. Thank goodness I brought my woven pieces: when Prof. Jin first explained that I wanted to see the step-by-step process before I leave next week, Mr. Do he said I couldn't learn that quickly.
[Paste mixed with just the right amount of water.] After I pulled out my jiseung work, he changed his mind!
Measuring and slicing the backing paper for the first paste up.
The hanji (at front) has been dampened and brushed flat onto the table surface. He's pasting up the backing sheet with a wide brush.
He insisted at many steps that I come closer and watch (sans camera) so we've missed the part where he puts the pasted paper on a rod and lifts it and folds it to make it easier to transport. Now he's placing it onto the damp hanji.
And it has to be just so! After that, it's brushed flat and flush, then flipped over to add paste to the edges so that it sticks to the drying board.
Again, there was a lot of exhortation about coming close as if I've never carried a damp sheet over to a drying board with a brush in hand. Lots of details about where the brush goes and which fingers go where and what never to do. He moves very, very quickly.
So I missed shooting my favorite part where he opens an edge slightly and blows air in to prevent the hanji from sticking to the board. The only parts glued to the board are the edges. I have to go back another day to see more. But I do love watching experts work.
I didn't have pictures of today's pretty meal and snowy view, but here's the freshly chopped octopus squirming on the plate from a family friend dinner last week (I don't eat this kind of thing, gives me the squirmies).
This was one of the bigger platters. So many other things on the table that night, plus lots of stories and blowing off steam. Tonight after dinner eating fruit with my aunt, I realized that I'm leaving next week and that this is my last full week. How did that happen?! Hoping for more of the same as today: happy encounters, skilled work, delicious food, warm family time, and hopefully an early bedtime.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Yesterday my cousin drove me to the lacquer shop so I could pick up my pieces. I decided to give this one to my family, for all they've done taking care of me.
I'm not entirely happy with the job but it's my own fault for not doing a layer of rice paste first to make sure the lid was perfectly formed. But it will be an excellent teaching example and I fully intend to make another teapot when I get back home. Check back in three years! Ha.
It's been a hard week due to unexpected events not worth sharing until I know more. I'm crawling out of the initial shock and dealing with what a slow-moving cold and back pain, both coming from overwork and lack of sleep. Trying not to dwell on the negatives because there is still so much to do before I go.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Irregular life

Mr. Min on the top of a work table as he slices backed fabric for a Korean mounting at Nakwon Pyogu (a mounting shop, though they do more than just scroll mounting. I'm a little in the dark in this field but I know the work involves a huge range, from books to screens to paintings to scrolls to framing and beyond).
Mr. Kim, with whom I spoke for a bit before leaving the fifth floor work space to return downstairs. He knew so much about hanji! I was impressed. Then again, they use a ton of paper in their work. I got a lecture about what "the old days" or "long ago" really means (it has to mean more than 50 years ago, not just 10).

This is Mr. Lee, who owns the business and had trained many successors (I visited one shop after this that belonged to a former employee) and his son, a lacquer artist who makes gorgeous paintings. They were very generous with me, considering I didn't really have a clear purpose. I had been told to learn how to mount, but knew this was not the right venue, so I did a regular interview instead. The elder Lee gave me all kinds of presents when I left, of printed stationery (he has a small woodblock near his right elbow and is enjoying hand printing these days), a catalog, and a book bound Korean-style for poetry.
The second shop I visited, Mukhodang Pyogu. Again, so much I don't know.
Though, after visiting so many conservation studios, this is a very familiar sight. In fact, Mr. Lee asked why the conservator who referred me didn't just show me herself, as painting conservators know all of this.
After over a week in the sun (and getting damp in between drying), the duck is transformed into its new outfit of gammul (persimmon "water", aka dye even though it's not really a dye). It was so fun to watch it change, though I didn't document that very well. Last night, I just finished the piece it's on, which has so many errors, but I don't care because now I know better how to do it right. The mistakes are my best teachers.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Regular life

[At E-Mart, they have an area where you can take broken-down boxes used for shipping goods for sale and re-make them to carry your purchases home rather than paying extra for plastic bags. The orange rolls of packing tape are emblazoned with the store logo and scissors are chained to each station. It's such a smart system! Though they have to monitor the area for people who just steal boxes to take home.]

I have two an a half weeks left, which is no time at all. I had my first weekend where I didn't work and instead did only family business. Some of that included visiting another cousin's house and seeing her kids, or going to the sauna, or celebrating my uncle's birthday, or having lunch with more family after going to church (at least this church has a lot of music. The sermon is the worst because I can't understand all of the vocab, so even if they wanted to convert me, it's a lost cause). We drove by the national library on the way home and I saw a big sign for a book art show, but when I looked it up just now, it closed on Sunday! SO SAD. I wish exhibits here were longer than one or two weeks.
[Speaking of book art, this is the inside of a nonsense riddle book that my 8-year-old relative made in school. Above it is a coaster she made with pasted paper. I think she may be more advanced than a lot of us who make books "for a living."]

I mentioned attending the jesa for my aunt's late mother last week. It's an ancestral rite that happens the night before the day that an ancestor died, traditionally at midnight, but now pushed back a little because it's hard on everyone to stay up that late and then eat all the food. I didn't take pictures because that's rude but I felt grateful to have been included, even though I'm not a blood relation (this is my aunt by marriage). It was so nice to see another big extended Korean family that was not my own, and to see a different ancestral ritual. I'm used to the chudoshik in my Protestant Korean family.

The idea is similar: family comes together to remember the deceased, and it takes at least all day or longer to prepare the food. The jesa is more elaborate because of all the motions you go through to ensure that the spirits of the dead are satisfied: you leave the doors of the home open so they can enter, and you offer food and drink to the spirits one or two or a few people at a time (children of the deceased, siblings, grandchildren, etc.). Utensils are placed in or near food for the spirits to consume and a piece of everything is taken at the end before the rest is served to everyone. There is a prayer of sorts written on paper that is later set on fire (so dramatic! And beautiful in the metal bowl as it flames into ashes). Lots of knee-bent prostration throughout, and pretty much all five senses in play, whether drinking the liquor, the noise of chopsticks banged inside a bowl to summon the spirits, the incense, and the up and down as you bring your hands together and then to the floor. All the lights turned off at one point while the entire family faces away from the offering table, set in front of a folding screen.

It was touching to witness and especially to see how the remaining family paid their respects individually. Thankfully, my cousin whispered explanations to me the whole time (and made sure I was down when I needed to be and facing the right direction, that kind of thing). Traditionally, only the men do this, but most families now include everyone, though the women always prepared the food. Which, in this case, was delicious! There were enough ritual platters to offer at least twenty different dishes including fruit and rice cake. The eldest son's home is in charge of this ritual for all of the ancestors, which repeats so many times in a given year (because everyone has parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.) that women did not want to marry a first-born male. The responsibility and burden is no small matter.
[This is a brief shot of the buffet where we celebrated my uncle's birthday. There are way more stations and we all overate, because who doesn't overeat at a buffet? The birthday cake was yum, as most baked goods are here: not as sweet as back home. Apparently, the Korean versions of American junk food are also less sweet / salty / fatty, which I've noticed in cookies, yogurt, juice, etc. That's a nice treat, though the Korean palate is unfortunately shifting to the dangerously bad for you extremes that America has so aggressively exported.]

I lost a bunch of sleep and have suffered on and off from strange symptoms like chest cramps (or is it tightness? Hard to explain, but highly disconcerting) over things that I can't detail here. Suffice it to say, I felt betrayed and hurt, and disappointed by my own mistakes—in several interactions with different people. I have to hope that I wise up each time, though I don't have much hope for men keeping their hands to themselves. I saw my cardiologist cousin for lunch today as well as my sister's filmmaker friend and retold my troubles to them. Usually, I get angry in the retelling, but today it was actually good to tell the stories and laugh and laugh with these two men, separately. Their responses helped model the way I could go forward, with a lighter touch. If anything, this trip has made it abundantly clear that I have to re-frame the entire way that I value and see myself in the world—a task I had been avoiding, but which must happen. Which reminds me that I've been tasked with learning how to frame the Korean way. Literally! This might not happen, but it would be grand if I could at least learn the basics.

The good news is that I can stay in Seoul until the hanji seminar next week! So, no more trips out of town until we visit a paper mill I've wanted to see for years and pick up more screens and frames for hanji making back home. I won't have to coordinate that travel, so it will be easy to simply ride with the group. I do love to sleep on these buses, but will instead or catch up with friends and colleagues—people are coming from France, the UK, Japan, the US, China ... I've also overloaded my plate with another article to write, at least three apps to submit in the next two weeks, and all those books from Japan to ship once they arrive. I'm still weaving a piece that I am determined to finish before I leave! There are so many other details that are slipping through my fingers (I decided not to write everything down, just like I take less pictures than I used to), but what sticks is still more than enough to fill my days and nights.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Reunion by brush

Three years worth of work in one exhibit.
 My favorite piece in the show.
After I rushed away from the lacquer family studio, I met Jeong-In Cha at our calligraphy teacher's first solo exhibit in Insadong in Seoul. I met her in 2008 and she was incredibly helpful and generous from my very first week in the country, a wonderful book artist, designer, artist, mother, and friend. It turned out that this one-week show was up just in time for me to catch it after my trip to Jeju.
The work was wonderful, and the show almost completely sold out! I would have bought something but there's only so much I can take home at once. I settled for buying his new book, the first book that I know of that quotes my own (but in translation).
Mr. Shim signs Jeong-In's book. For mine, he wrote out what he had made in my favorite piece. I felt sad because I couldn't read anything, as it was in classical Chinese and older texts.
But it was so wonderful to be able to see everyone again, including one of the other students from class and her husband. She had given me a book she had written about Korean design in 2009 and it was hard to see her in worse health than last time, now in a wheelchair. But again, this trip has been about seeing everyone age, seeing struggle. We all had dinner together afterwards, and then Mr. Shim and Jeong-In and I went to a lovely traditional tea house afterwards in the neighborhood for sweet and bitter teas, all wonderful. She told me about how Korean books were bound with five sewing stations (I knew this) but that they changed to four during the Japanese occupation (I didn't know this but it is no surprise at all). We talked about an old book that first explained the new language of Korea and where copies might be, and places where I could buy old Korean books—for a friend, for my alma mater, for myself.
[Mr. Shim in a suit, his wife watching me as I talk about how embarrassed I am about not being able to sign in Korean. Mr. Shim said, "I taught you! I taught you!" as I told them I didn't even remember how to hold the brush.] At dinner, we even got the same tiny white tablets that I didn't understand during my last visit (scroll to the middle to see them dry, and then wet: they are wet tissues to cleanse your hands before eating!). It truly felt like no time had passed at all. But of course it had. I had a book published, Mr. Shim had a book published, everyone is five years older, and no one is taking calligraphy lessons anymore. But the heart of the people: no change. It's nice to know for sure that some of the people I met then are very good eggs, and will always be so.

Lacquer family

As soon as I returned from Jeju, I knew I had limited time to find someone to lacquer my hanji teapot. My teacher had gone through all of these steps years ago at my hanji teacher's mill when I studied with him, but everything has changed and this time, it was not included with my study. I had a lead from a Fulbright colleague, Carla Stansifer, who had studied Korean lacquer work on her fellowship and created a documentary. I wanted someone local, and this particular studio is right in Hongdae, the neighborhood of the famous art school, Hongik University, and of Korean hipness in food, shopping, etc.
I had also asked someone who works for the national museum but the price was a little high, so when I called this studio and was told to bring my piece, I decided I'd like to visit. Besides, Carla said it was a family studio.
This is where their students set their pieces. "Dry" is misleading because that's not how lacquer works. This is the basement area. The first floor is the gallery, the second and third where the family works.
A lot of the colored pieces require a couple of years for the proper color to emerge, so all of this has to be taken into account when taking orders or preparing work for the future.
I wanted to shoot the dirty places where the hands open and close the room (this is one of the upstairs ones) but the mother had closed it too quickly. I'm still using my very old camera, as you can tell. I was in a rush, too, because I had an other appointment right after this. Also, I had had wine at lunch (delicious!) so I was still feeling that.
The daughter at work. I was shocked that this entire family does lacquer work: the father, Jong-kwan Choi, the mother, the daughter, and the son. AND they have an apprentice (translated as disciple, but I am not as fond of that term) who looks like she's in her 20s!
I wondered aloud how they found such young people to do the work but was in too much of a rush to find out. Plus, everyone was hard at work, doing precision work that should not be interrupted.
Nested bowls! Not paper, but also lovely and I think part of Buddhist culture.
Even the walls of the gallery were fabric coated in lacquer, and the color changes over time. You walk in and smell it and know for sure this are a lacquer place.
All my gallery shots were awful because of lighting, rushing, and wine. Even the floors are lacquered! More about this studio here:

Hugs and fruit juice

I'm going to try and play catch up now. My back went out last night after an ancestral ceremony for my aunt's mother (more about that later), so I cancelled my lunch date and am staying home. Of course, I've already done stupid things like vacuum and clean the bathroom, but I did, for the first time in a long time, go to bed before 11pm.
This is Asi Tea Room, a new lovely little cafe in Jeju (I think near Jeoji but really I have no idea where things are because I was driven around the entire time). Swan Kim runs it, and she is a teddy bear artist who had a studio/gallery space made first and then was asked to take over a cafe so she's doing that in the next building over. Both small freestanding spaces and both so lovely.
I asked her if it's hard to dust this place. She said she doesn't mind and that it's the yardwork that really kills her. She makes all of these teddy bears by hand! I especially love the ones (not pictured here) that have buttons as joints so the arms and legs move freely. I wanted one but they weren't all priced so I took the one that had a tag, the second one back with the sweater—turns out her mother knitted the sweater! You can barely see, but the button on the sweater is also in the shape of a teddy bear. I had noticed on my last trip to Korea that for some reason, there are multiple teddy bear museums. I think more have opened since then.
I have no background in this so I can't explain the phenomenon, but what I loved about this space was that it was clearly set up with a lot of love and care, and that it showcases precious things made by hand.
Plus I loved meeting Ms. Kim (and had no idea what her name was until we exchanged name cards at the end ... I only knew her as the woman from Asi Gallery, and this is normal, to not know names of people). She was so generous and warm and funny. I'll backtrack (for my sake) so I can keep track of what happened:

1. Deplane from Japan late at night
2. Two nights in Seoul
3. Fly to Jeju and took cab to see artist friend Boram Hong and her new baby
4. One night in Jeju City
5. Errands and cake with Boram before driving east to Gallery Nori for an opening
6. Luggage into Yang SoonJa's car and going back west to a gathering of people who love Jeju and meet 4x a year—they've done this for 20 years! Meeting, shabu-shabu dinner, drinks, drive to Jeoji, weave, first of two nights in Jeoji
7. Too rainy to walk the volcanic formations (so sad! I had looked forward to this for months), so rest before church, where we had lunch. Stop by Mongsengee's storeroom to get food for dinner
8. Stop by Asi because it was open, and we were just in time: she was cooling freshly baked cookies! We had rooibos tea and warm cookies and stayed for a while before
9. Visit Kim Kyung, who taught me joomchi, and is now 91, bedridden, and senile. She didn't recognize me at all and kept repeating herself: "Show people that you can throw hanji into water! It's amazing!"
[Still at Asi—she collects all kinds of things from land and sea alike]
10. Visit Jeju Museum of Contemporary Art and walk home to prep for dinner
11. Dinner with Ms. Lee (who also brought delicious persimmons and ginger ale syrup she made herself for tea), with a visit later by SoonJa's niece and her husband—they brought raw fish just caught from nearby that she ordered—and tea with all plus SoonJa's older sister, who lives next door. The fish was delicious!
[Driftwood at Asi]

12. Pack and load car, stop by Asi to take pictures only to see Ms. Kim again! So we stayed for milk tea and cookies and pictures and bears. I heard very sad details about how SoonJa lost her former space at an old schoolhouse and how hard it is for her to keep her business going. In general on this island, I heard a lot of heartbreaking things.
13. Go to Mongsengee's retail location across from a park. Not a place that gets foot traffic, and formerly a grocery store. You can see that persimmon-dyed goods have replaced refrigerated items.
The clothes are SoonJa's signature but too hard to sell to randoms, so she plans to turn this space into just souvenir-type things and move the clothes to another location.
When she showed me one of these dolls at home, I knew I had to have one. The hair, clothes, skin, underwear, everything: dyed with gammul (the Korean word for persimmon dye, or kakishibu as most people know—the Japanese term). I got the skinny little dark one near the left side.
She also insisted on dyeing my second hanji duck and some hanji cords, which was terribly generous.
Straining the dyestuff: hers is green because she adds no extra dye to make the color appear right away, as apparently is the case for many other versions of persimmon dye.

[That wood sign reads Mong - Saeng - ee—as I understood it the last time, it's a nickname for a certain kind of horse native to the island. Small but very strong, well-suited to Soonja's business.] Left to dry slightly in the stormy weather: high, high winds, storm advisory (I was getting emergency alert texts that day on my Korean phone telling boat people to stay grounded). My flight was in the early evening, and I got to ride a shuttle bus to the airport. I felt guilty for riding for free in a bus that carried only myself and the driver, but I worked, unplying the dyed cords before they dried completely and stuck together.

Got home late and hungry and cold as temperatures had dropped in Seoul to real winter weather. I didn't get to shoot the countryside or sunny weather but you can see my Jeju pictures here. I feel like I witnessed a lot of pain for a lot of women. Growing older is hard, yes, but losing your life's work or losing your way is painful at any time in life. It wasn't the visit that I had expected, but it was so true to the different phases of life (30s, 60s, 90s). And the steady thing was how generous people still were, even amidst their own hardship.