Sunday, May 16, 2021

When healing begins

The view from Cho Mi-sook's studio is of rice paddies and if you can really squint you'll see the white crane perched alone in the middle. She is an expert natural dyer originally from Seoul but now living in Yangpyeong, east of the city. As soon as my dentist's aide said that I would have a week from my temporary crowns to my permanent ones, I rushed to get on the first train to Seoul. She told me which train to take from there to get closer to her, and then took me out to a beautiful dinner. I feel like I am repeating myself but I was so relieved to be in a car with a woman that I trusted, and to be truly cared for.
This was our first meeting, even though we had talked since my quarantine on the phone and had "seen" each other on zoom a couple of times for the dye symposium. But we felt like kindred spirits and though I had barely slept a wink the previous night I was so happy to make this connection in person, finally. This is her very alive indigo vat (the tired one was inside). I've come to notice that the Korean women artists that have the ability to site and build their own studios always have the most lovely views from their workspace. I wish I could say the same of mine back home but that's not the case.
She showed me how she teaches students jogakbo using hanji because it's too much work at first to have them stitch all of their pieces together. The important thing is for them to learn the theory behind it before moving to needle and thread and fabric.
She demonstrated how old bojagi were used, and had straps (and a certain number of straps) based on the type of wrapping cloth, by wrapping her phone in it and "gifting" it to me. She said, if you got this as a gift, you could never throw away the wrapper. You'd use it again. And the proceeded to wrap something else, to show how the bojagi is able to wrap many different shapes of things.
Because we didn't have a lot of time in her studio before we had to drive to the next place, she quickly showed me some of her collection.
This bit is a patchwork for the damaged piece on the other side, to show how important it was for women to mend and repair repeatedly to keep using these cloths.
She talked about how one piece is always laid above the next like steps all the way from one side of the cloth to the other, and how tiny pieces like this are always stitched in so that they have friends and don't get lost at the ends to fall away. There is so much meaning and care in these that are very easy to overlook if you don't know what you're looking at.
This one is for a wedding, as you can see the birds.
After she gave me a bunch of crayons to take for a rubbing project I had, she rushed us out to drive in the dark on winding mountain roads. We were on our way to Hongcheon in Gangwon-do, the next province to the east of Gyeonggi-do (where Seoul is), to meet Jang Su-ju at her indigo farm. She had come out with a lantern which looked to me like lightning as she raised and lowered it. We passed it and then I said, I think that was where we were supposed to pull over! We laughed as Mi-sook had already done this before on her last trip to visit the indigo farm.
As predicted, we stayed up late, until 2am talking and having tea and fruit and snacks on a warm floor in a tiny cottage (if you could even call it that), before crawling into sleeping bags. I couldn't sleep because of the unexpected snoring (understandable for a farmer—it's such hard work!) but was glad to be safe and encased in indigo-dyed clothes. When opening the door to the field in the morning, the sight was so calming.
That's where we slept! Mi-sook took the loft area that was so small you couldn't sit up. The rest of us were on the floor of the room, off of which was a tiny tiny kitchen and bathroom. It was redone so the interior was all wood.
Su-ju treated us to a huge breakfast spread of samgyetang (boiled chicken soup, stuffed with sweet rice and other very healthy things like ginseng and a Korean date, daechu). The pizza was the first thing she heated and up and it smelled so good but when we sat down to eat all I wanted was everything else, especially the asparagus that grows in the front field, by the next door farmer.
There I am, making a phone call, so glad to get away from everything.
Su-ju runs Kindigo, an indigo studio in Seoul. Of course she can't farm in the city so she grows her indigo plants out here. She also grows natural loofah and in general is also a very experienced natural dyer. But just as Mi-sook concentrates a lot on safflower dye, Su-ju decided to focus on natural indigo (she hates the pre-reduced stuff, all the chemicals. Her indigo is safe enough not to use gloves). Both are not easy but produce glorious color.
She gave me the loveliest gifts, including dyed loofah bits and indigo-dyed underwear! Her work was to cover all of these seedlings with soil as the people helping didn't do that when they first planted. So it's extra work for her but she never complains. She works SO HARD.
I did a little as well and hopefully will remember to buy one of these scooping tools, open on both sides so you dig up soil from the back and then push it to the front to dump.
Because of the cold, these seedlings already started to flower. Su-ju explained that when plants feel like their lives are in danger (in this case, from frost), they do everything they can to spread their DNA before they die. She said this is like babies having babies. When Mi-sook helped with dirt spreading in the morning, I picked flowers off of the seedlings. Su-ju said this explains why pregnancy rates are high during war, because women in fear of their lives (in this case, from rape and pillage and so on) tend to conceive at higher rates than when all's well. I don't know the source of the info but it sounded fascinating. Also, there was proof in the flowers!
The two were diligent in the morning when all I wanted to do was sleep, since I had two consecutive nights without it.
Mi-sook is inside the trellis that Su-ju raised herself to provide support for the loofah planted on the sides. She figured there was so much space inside that she wanted to put down another row of indigo. But her husband got sick that day and couldn't make it out to the farm as planned, so she hoed an entire row herself, laying down vinyl the whole length of the field.
She's showing me her indigo that I believe is fermenting. Eventually this former greenhouse space will be converted to studio and dyeing space so she can hold workshops out here. She told me to nap in the morning, and then we had a snack (pizza! and tiramisu from a visitor who wanted to pick up seedlings), and then we had lunch.
Seafood noodles (haemul kalguksu) at a local place, yum, though I feel like I spoiled my lunch by having so many snacks immediately beforehand.
This is what Su-ju did on her own while I took another nap in the afternoon. Short naps! But extremely necessary. After one more set of visitors who needed seedlings, we got into her vehicle again to head to the bus station so I could ride to Seoul. I finally got to see old family friends that I wasn't able to see earlier on because they had a Covid cases at their church, and they tried to feed me more beef than a family of four would eat. I can't believe how much meat people keep trying to feed me. They also drove me all the way across town to my hotel, and were shocked by how quiet the center of the city was on a Saturday night because of pandemic.
The next two nights I just flopped into bed to recover. I was glad to be able to see a friend from my first Fulbright cohort for a long lunch and tea, commiserating about how hard it is to do this kind of research as a woman and how hard it is to be rejected from the academic community. Then I had lots of family time, including this giant lunch with my aunt and uncle of agujjim (spicy braised monkfish or angler, a chewy fish with lots of meat). Plus a less spicy soup with more of the same agu.
And this delicious rice mixed with minari and seaweed and sesame seeds.
This is minari! And no, I haven't watched the movie yet.
Other treats in my family's neighborhood (well, one part of the family, there's lots all over): sweet rice cake filled with red bean paste.
And veggie kimbap from the local place that uses lots of ingredients and not a lot of rice. I love this one because there is so much kkaenip, my favorite green leaves in Korean food (in the perilla family, related to mint).
One entire breakfast when I wanted to stay in all morning at the hotel was more rice cakes of different types, fruit, and tea.
Also had a very good dinner out with two dear old associates from the old days. You can see the kkaenip in non-rolled-up form here.
The rubbing project I wanted to do was at my ancestral grave site, where this particular side of my family goes back 200 years or so.
Two of my aunts were kind enough to take the time to drive me all the way out there and explain some of the gravestones, who was who, before we dug up weeds for a few hours. I was able to see my uncle's, grandparents', great-grandparents', and great-great-grandparents' sites and dig weeds at each one.
The project I am involved in is called Jeong, and is a fundraiser in response to the Atlanta murders and generally violence against Asians, Asian Americans, and Asian/Asian-American women. I'm sorry I didn't announce it earlier but I am truly drowning in a mix of research, keeping up with regular life survival, what feels like endless requests from all parts of the world for my time, and being a person not in her home or home country. I hope to make a decent edition but regardless, it's a good cause. I was doing rubbings of the women usually forgotten in Korea. Lately I've been crying more than usual, and once was while here for the first time since my uncle passed away in 2017. I haven't been here since 2008 and my family has created the large stone structure here for more people to be interred (their ashes) together. The inscription is for my uncle and the rest of the spaces will be taken first come, first serve. Now I know where my parents want to go.


In a few hours, I'm going where I have wanted to go for a good long while: Jeju Island.

If only I found these people sooner in Jeonju!

It sounds ridiculous but I didn't actually make it to the National Intangible Heritage Center until April 28, over halfway in my grant period (it's even more ridiculous given my host institution is the Center for Intangible Culture Studies). It's in Jeonju, not far from the hanok village, where I've been a zillion times, and not far from where I'm getting my dental work. It's huge and used to be a forest science site so some of the original trees remain though mostly it's a giant complex of different buildings. I've only been to one.
The site I visited houses the studios of the best and brightest up-and-coming ICP (intangible cultural property) bearers. They have trained for at least five years under national ICPH (H is for "holder" and the shorthand is to say they are national treasures but that term is usually used for objects/places). Of those trainees, the most promising are chosen for a yearlong residency (I may have this length of period wrong) where they are given studio space, housing, and a stipend to continue their work. The intros I got were very sweeping, no names or business cards, so forgive that lack. This is the studio of a potter.
She married into a well-known family of onggi makers, where American Adam Field studied years ago. I had a feeling when she started to talk about this that she would know him. He and I connected over a decade ago talking about our respective experiences learning traditional crafts in Korea.
Because I've been so steeped in toolmakers for the last five years, this kind of thing makes me go insane. This is the studio of the wood furniture maker (somokjang).
He has tons of tools, naturally, and was so helpful later on when helping guide me with knife sharpening.
So much wood! I haven't asked him yet where he was coming from because it must have been a lot of work to bring everything here. Most of the people here are not from Jeonju so they will spend the week in the studio here and then weekends back home or doing other kinds of research/work in other areas.
Since I've spent so many years trying to replicate Korean knives (while knowing almost nothing about knives in general), this also made me kind of crazy. This is the studio of Kim Dae-seong, the son of the national ICPH of fan making. He's actually from Jeonju, born and bred, and has been extremely helpful.
When we first met, I asked him about drawing maps onto fans and he said well you can draw/paint whatever you want on blank ones. But I meant one particular fan I had seen in the maps division of the Library of Congress back in D.C., and happened to have my computer on me so I could show him. He had never seen something like that before, plus the map happened to be of Jeolla province, so he immediately asked if I could share the pics.
I sent them to him plus a link to the object listing online, whose picture does it no justice. It's always so gratifying to meet likeminded people who get excited about the same obscure things that you do. I loved this detail of his hand-painted decoration. Usually I think the decorations are burned into the bamboo.
This person is I believe descended from the national treasure of metal clasp making or generally the metal pieces needed to finish furniture and metal craft more generally (duseokjang). His hometown is Tongyeong and I immediately recognized the picture of his father because I had seen it so often in Tongyeong when I was studying.
His grandfather also came from this tradition. I have no idea how this works, if the wood worker brings you the piece and you finish it with the metal joinery or what. There are too many things in the world to learn and no matter how hard I try, I will remain ignorant of most of what is out there.
This is some of the work of Kim So-yeon, who works in nubi or traditional hand quilting. There was a mix of traditional and then what looked like experimental pieces, and a mix of hand and machine work.
I would love to have a piece like this to nestle into.
None of my pictures do the work justice, so you have to take my word for the tiny tiny delicate stitches.
This little piece in her window reminded me of one of my artists' books student's work, always fun to make connections between the work of young people around the world. 
The whole reason I went back a few weeks later was because I asked my bamboo screen teacher for a favor and he suggested finding a fan maker in Jeonju to get a smith to make me bamboo knives. I remembered Mr. Kim who made fans and asked him for help, and he offered immediately to take me to a local smith who has just been named a Jeolla-do ICPH. I went a bit overboard and ordered four knives, two big and two small, out of my general panic of never having enough Korean knives. That was kind of a big mistake because he charged a LOT of money, raising his prices after getting this designation but otherwise having no good reason to do so. His work is middling but he was the closest person to do the job. I have regrets and my bank account has been taking a real beating lately, but what's done is done.
Back in the studio, Mr. Kim quickly clarified a LOT of questions I had that no one else had been able to answer. One was about the small bamboo knife that the hanji bal maker had and couldn't explain to me where to find another. Turns out that all bamboo workers just grind and sharpen FILES to use as knives. Aha!! I knew that pattern was familiar, as well as the slope rising to the middle of the tool, duh. Not only that, but he showed me where and what type to buy online. I am finally coming to this realization that the keys that I'm now looking for are not solely held by old grumpy men (or creepy ones), but by makers of MY generation: those who have made a commitment to the work for years, have made sacrifices to continue the work, have studied with the older ICPH, and yet know how to operate in the current climate. Meaning basic stuff like, being able to source their tools online!!
The wood furniture maker across the hallway came over to help after we got the four knives and had to sharpen the smaller ones. These are the larger ones, based on an old knife we brought to the smith, alongside high speed steel from Japan. Which is extremely easy to order online and common to work with. The only reason I paid for these Korean ones was to try and bring back a 'taste of Korea' instead of only showing Japanese knives to Americans (which would only confuse them further, as they so often conflate Korea with Japan).
So what I have are two sets of these. I sent pictures to my teacher in Tongyeong, who was so upset because he said I got ripped off. He said the large knife is probably too unwieldy for me to use and the small knife is 1. too long and 2. not wide enough in the back. I've already cut myself on the small one, which Mr. Kim took pains to show me how to sharpen.
I mean, this took days. I spent one night there trying to work against a 1000 grit water stone and made a mess as this is really not my forte. I was so tired the next day from dental work and travel recovery that I didn't go back, which is I think when he just sharpened the other one for me entirely.
The first night we worked with the stone upright but I asked why, as I usually work on the wider flat face of the stone (sending a note to the house gods back home: where is my water stone? It disappeared in my move. Please have it reappear when I return).
This was the final step, drawing the blade on both sides against canvas the same number of times. I know Mr. Kim felt kind of badly about the smith doing such a crappy job for too much money, so maybe this is why he spent so much time making sure they were sharpened well. But they are so much sharper than the very dull knives my teacher in Tongyeong had me use. There's pros and cons to that, which all involve slicing your hands open. Either way, it can happen, though I do know that a dull knife opens you up to more injury.
The wood furniture maker did a whole explanation of sharpening and burrs, which has been explained to me before, but I feel like certain things will never penetrate my brain. I have a weird mental/physical block when it comes to knife work that maybe is like how I am about reading Korean. I know I can do it, but I don't want to. Which is not helpful because I need to work with knives and enjoy those results, just as I need to read Korean and write and speak and get a lot out of that. I think it's old immature behavior: I don't like the parts that I'm not good at, where I have to work harder than the things that come to me naturally.
Mr. Kim finally moved onto the 2000 grit stone and I was so grateful that he was going to take it all the way to the end without having me attempt again as it would just set us behind and we are both very busy folks.
This was the final stone at 3000, which was really only for a quick polish and not necessary for this type of knife. Now that I have these subpar, heavy knives, I am going to eventually make another trip to Tongyeong to visit my teacher and see how well/poorly they work on actual bamboo. Otherwise, he said at least I can put them in shows that display Korean tools. That's not very satisfying to me, but I made the mistake of not turning around when the blacksmith quoted such a high prices (I misunderstood at first, and Mr. Kim tried to lower the price but was refused), and for going in such a rush that I didn't take any measurements that I took along with me to demand at least the blade length and thickness. I'm doing a ton of learning from mistakes here. But am so glad to finally be connecting with people my age and younger in the field. It's like I'm waking from a coma in the nick of time.