Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The last few days

Because of pandemic, many elevator panel buttons and door handles are covered with plastic as a kind of "virus, slide off!" protection. That helps reveal just how impatient Korean nature is, given how the plastic is so damaged and worn at the door closing buttons. We all KNOW Koreans are like this but this is visual evidence.
Somehow, after a LOT of fretting, I managed to get one large suitcase, two smaller ones (they are held together with an orange cover for the large one, like how you cover two people with a donkey costume and they pretend to be one four-legged creature), my backpack, and a long (and heavy and awkward) package of long hanji, an umbrella, and 8 pieces of wood for a hanji bal teul (frame) wrapped in a blanket from Jeonju to Seoul. It was very hard to do and of the course the cab drivers on both ends scolded me for having so much luggage. But the Jeonju post offices don't have packing services like in Seoul, so I had to drag it all here! The tallest pieces of wood come up to my chest. 
At least I wasn't the only one traveling like this on the bus. Except this is actually a musical instrument, which is what the taxi drivers assumed I was carrying.
One of my first meals in Seoul was lunch with Minsun, who I think I have only ever seen at the Met, where she works in NYC. I didn't want a lot of beef as people keep feeding me red meat even when I protest, so I asked for seafood, not knowing it was going to be this much. This doesn't even show all of the veggies that go into the shabu-shabu. It was so nice to have a long leisurely lunch together as usually she has to rush back to work during her lunch hour.
I hadn't gotten this off of my old phone but it's from way back when I visited the indigo farm and Cho Misook picked me up from the train station first and fed me at a delicious Southeast Asian place.
This time, I wanted to have a day dyeing with her without other distractions, and miraculously my schedule finally allowed for it (this play date is months later than when we originally conceived it). The purple comes from gromwell roots, not something I've ever dyed with before.
She has two indigo vats and we worked with her indoor one as the temperature is easier to control. It was so fun to be able to teach each other about what we knew, as the info is really valuable to each other (she is at the start of a 5-year project that includes dyeing hanji). Things I took for granted when it comes to understanding how handmade paper and natural dyeing intersect are not common knowledge even for really skilled dyers.
She is an expert safflower dyer so this was a big treat. She had already washed out much of the yellow in this precious dye and we could get to pink pretty quickly. She gets deep reds from this dye and her goal is to let people know that you can get brilliant colors from natural dye, not only browns and other subdued tones.
She treated me to a delicious and enormous late lunch, which meant I could skip dinner with no repercussions.
Outside the restaurant, we ate from this tree. Our rough translation was banyan but I'm not convinced.
And back near her studio we sat under this giant gingko tree (of course there was a wood platform to do so right next to it, that's where I'm sitting to shoot, and a wood bench at the trunk that you can see peeking out from the left side). It's hard to see but this tree has had cement work done where they fill holes/rot with cement to help prevent more rot or decay.
Koreans are very serious about taking care of their trees. This is a metal post supporting one giant branch that goes out horizontally.
I had also forgotten to take these not good quality pics from my old phone from Jeonju, where I saw a mama duck and two of her kids. While it would have been nice to make more friends and connections in Jeonju, it was also easier to take off because I was alone most of the time.
Back in Seoul, I asked my cousins about these cops, as they are dressed in white and drive fancy BMW bikes. He said they also wear tall boots even in the hot summer and are a special unit that often guard the president's entourage. We later saw them pull over another guy on a motorcycle.
In my clumsy attempts to do less in my final days in Seoul, I took a morning to visit the National Museum of Korea. I haven't been in years and thought it would be a nice treat. See the bamboo roots pushing out of the bottom of the planter?
SO many planters, to create a lovely cool walkway to the main building.
Using online timed reservations, of course, during pandemic.
The inside was the same as I remembered, except for the robots.
I won't do a comprehensive sweep of what I did but mostly stayed on the first floor to do the history of Korea from the emergence of humans there. I love how you can see netting impressed into these shards of pottery.
Chinese knife-shaped coins! After years of struggling to find and order good knives, this makes so much sense.
Duck vessels abound!
I like to see how tools evolved over time,
and how we have both versions of these even today.
A tiny book! I haven't prioritized explaining any of this but the way the history was laid out in also a pretty political way was fascinating. Also, very interesting to note that after we get into more printing technology, a majority of the artifacts became books. Which, in this setting, are extremely boring as objects (I say this as a book artist) after seeing so many other artifacts. I had a meeting with Ki Chan Lee of Ki Lee, a fashion brand that is trying to use less harmful materials—including hanji—and he had great insights as a young Korean man raised here but educated at Middlebury in Vermont. One was that we don't have a lot of really excellent models of different types of Korean art/artifacts, so even visually, we're working from a small amount of not the best stuff. Why? Colonization, war, imperialism, etc. The easy answer: it was all burned or stolen. The best stuff is in Japan but it's not like the people who own it there are willing to either give it back or let us know they have it! I won't get into those politics and didn't intend to end on that note, but it's a good reminder that not only do the victors write history, they get the prizes.

Flying back home next week! Just learned that I have a major leak in my house and there is nothing I can do right now to deal with it! Except probably try to reach my home insurance folks. We are entering monsoon season here, which means that when it rains, it pours.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Wrapping up

In my first week with Mr. Shin, we climbed into one of the loft areas to look at hanji that would be good for jiseung. While that high up, he pointed down to note that he had made colored paper, too. It's not natural dye but he said one summer when he didn't have a ton of work, he made this paper. There is still a ton, and all good fiber (he only ever uses premium paper mulberry bark from Korea). They're not solid colors but has longer fibers that are dyed different colors. I ordered a bunch on my last day, of course. To have colored hanji options from him?! No brainer.
While counting out some of his very precious taeji (freshwater algae hanji), I tried to shoot him doing the special move for counting paper (you grab from the bottom and then fan them all open), but my stupid phone had stopped responding the way it usually did and I had given up dragging my regular camera around, so I never quite got it documented the way I wanted.
This was so fun: on one rainy Friday, Kim Dae-seong brought his wife (standing), and his mother and national ICPH father (of fan making), Kim Dong-sik, to visit Mr. Shin! I felt like I was watching an incredible confluence of national ICPH as they discussed what type/weight/size hanji Mr. Kim would need for his fans (you can barely see it but he has a white fan sticking out of his left pocket in the lower left).
In this case, I was a cheeseball and asked for them before the Kim family left to return to Jeonju, to take off their masks briefly for a national ICPH pic. How could I not?
Kim Dong-sik, Shin Hyun-se, Kim Dae-seong
Mr. Shin showed me this bark scraping knife. VERY different from what I've been using!!
But then he said, you don't need something like that at all, and pulled out the knife that he has had forever that he said is the best bark scraping knife. It's totally worn down from so much use and sharpening.
I think either later that day or the next, Mr. Shin's longtime mechanic/builder/guy who builds a bunch of his equipment came by to fix the hog in the vat. It was VERY noisy and I really wished I had earplugs. A couple times I just ran away from all the loud hammering. But it was great to see in person that relationship: everyone needs a make-it, fix-it person.
This is hard to see but at the very top center of the bal (screen), you can see how the splints are pulling apart and the cloth is sticking up a bit. The bal is super strangely made where if you fold it in half at the center line, it's totally not square. But if you measure both ends of the bal, it's exactly the same size. This made it really hard for me to align all of the sheets freehand, but a really good way to practice, since you have to be able to account for any bal discrepancies.
I really wonder about how this road that cuts right near the mill is going to affect them once it's done and open to traffic.
This was my walk back on one of the humid cloudy almost rainy days.
And the view from the bridge. The papermill would be right near where the mountain's left side reaches down.
My hosts were only a 10 minute (or less) walk away and this was the view from their home.
They grow tons and tons of plants to eat and also flowers for pleasure. I've never had so many fresh blueberries in my life, or picked them directly from the tree!

I was almost in tears after I left the mill on Saturday. We (Mr. Shin, his wife, and his employee) all were lingering at the end of the workday because we all know the farewell was imminent. This really was one of the most meaningful times of my life. Too many lessons to count and recount. I hope I can make some of the changes that would honor what I've learned.
On Sunday, my hosts generously drove me all the way to Tongyeong so that I could stay one night in the wonderful guest house where I stayed previously, and see my yeomjang (bamboo blind) teacher. His daughter and son-in-law were at the studio helping him and so was his wife, so it was really nice to see his family together. He still had a lot of splint pulling to do so he sent me next door to hang out with Bak Kyoung-hee.
I was so amazed to see the transformation of her studio since the last time I met her, less than two months ago. It looks gorgeous!
It was great to see her nubi work, which she clarified should not be called quilting, and hang out with her and her husband. When my teacher was done, he showed me the knives he had made for me and packed them up in his usual fastidious way before we picked up his wife to have dinner. After I went to check the bus schedule at the terminal, I headed back to the guest house to rest. The owner there was so kind and happy to see me again, and took incredible care of me to the end (she even had her husband drive me to the bus terminal the next day).
I had been craving her breakfast sandwiches, so I was excited to get one last meal with her before riding the bus to Jinju, where I met Dr. Lee for a final farewell. I arrived too early for lunch so we walked through a bamboo grove along the river after we went to visit a show.
It was a craft exhibit open for entry from any Jinju resident, and it was okay. It was fun to see botanical pressure printing combined with Korean clothing styles. After lunch and tea, he took me back to the bus terminal to catch the next bus to Jeonju.
I have a couple nights here before I leave for good, which means TONS of packing, shipping, and logistics. I took a break to have lunch and tea in a part of town near Mr. Yoo because I needed to pick up my new hanji bal and bal teul. The frame is SO MUCH LONGER than I remember the last one, which is going to be a huge bear because how am I going to get it home? Tomorrow I'll be asking my host a ton of questions about what to do about things too difficult to transport myself to Seoul, and how to dismantle my home for the last few months: do I take the pot home or leave it? Who gets the extra umbrellas? The bedding, ugh!
I think this is my eleventh salad here, which is always my treat near school. It rained a LOT and I was grateful that another professor in the office helped me ship a big box home today. Tomorrow I'll need to buy a new big suitcase to get everything to Seoul, and then back home.
But really all of this was an excuse to delay lecture prep! I know this is impossible to see and most of it is in Korean, but if you want to tune in to my zoom lecture in just about 25 hours, feel free to use this link (if it doesn't work, I'm sorry!). It will be Tuesday night 9pm Eastern Time aka 10am Korean time on Wed morning. I'll speak in Korean, but as with all of my talks there will be a ton of pictures and videos (and some English words sprinkled throughout).

Two weeks left, always bittersweet.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Shin Hyun-se in the land of abundance

Jae-gyun was not joking when he said it wasn't so much construction workers that kept the motels full right now but the temporary farm workers during onion season. These orange bags are all FULL of onions that were pulled from the field.
The days when I shot the pics from the car, it was (to me) unbearably hot and sunny. Meanwhile, women probably twice my age are outside all day pulling and bagging onions. I'm whining while being driven around in an air-conditioned car.
It was amazing to see throughout the day, since I got two trips into the small town of Sinban that day, the progress of the harvest. Whenever I see people out working like this, I think, my life is SO EASY. Also, I don't appreciate enough how hard people work for the food I eat.
At my host's home, they have tons of these beautiful blueberries growing from trees that live in bags (rather than pots). She said her eyes feel not great if she skips a day eating these. Her husband had picked a ton and packaged it all to ship to their grandbaby, only to find that perishables aren't being shipped during pandemic (something about things taking longer to mail).
They had very kindly taken me to that lovely mountain town and when we were leaving a cafe where we had bought cookies made with medicinal herbs (it was my only chance to get more treats for Mr. Shin), my host Mi-sook had noticed these herbs that grow like weeds along the path. Her husband warned her not to take any but she went back into the cafe and the owner was kind enough to emerge with a paper cup and a spade to send her home with one. She knew exactly where she wanted to plant it at home and said you can't buy it so this was a big treat.
For their health, she and her husband grow a bunch of their own food and chose a life in the country instead of the city hustle.
It's incredible to see what they've done with the property they bought, how they had to move things around (the former owners had cows), what they've done besides put in lots and lots of beds (solar panels!).
Yesterday I finally confessed to my teacher that I needed to take a break because I was in so much pain. I had been crawling from the floor where I'm sleeping the few feet to the bathroom, so that was a sign that I had been overdoing it (aside from all the pain starting on Day 1). His wife was kind enough to invite me to visit the market with her, where she insisted on buying me a hair clip (even though I had one in my hair) and a frozen bottle of water for my back.
She got a few other things, including fried long peppers and octopus for all of us back in the studio. She drives and Mr. Shin doesn't, because he drinks. If only all drinkers knew to refrain from the wheel!
Back at the mill (on the very right on the other side fo the road), construction for the road that will cut right past the mill and over the stream continues. The walls will come down and hopefully the additional traffic won't make the air pollution and dust near the mill terrible but for sure it's going to get worse. Directly across the road is an area where they are drying garlic.
Lots and lots of garlic! Meanwhile, what's happening inside?
I feel like a spoiled brat because every time I'm ready to destroy my post and dump it back into the vat, I go over to teacher and say, it's time to dissolve the material (this is a bad translation but you get it). He gets up from sitting on the concrete floor cutting out the clean parts of printed hanji to recycle, and gets the electric mixer working, adds polyacrylamide (it's too warm to use hwangchokgyu; the goo turns to water at this temperature), mixes some more. At the beginning and end he also mixes by hand with a giant bamboo pole. There is a lot of bamboo in the studio and it comes from the area; even as you walk out there is a big patch across the stream (the new road is being built over it). All I have to do is rinse my screen and bring it to him right as he moves the bal teul back over the vat, so he can square up the screen.
Then I start over again. This is the new hairclip that Mr. Shin's wife bought for me at the market. Hilariously she could tell I don't have a lot of hair so that it would all go up into that clip. Brenda gave me the shirt by Yang Soonja and I got the pants from Mongsengee in Jeju.
On the floor is the first batch of fiber that I worked with for my first five and a half days or so. I'll have no paper to show for this study but have easily pulled hundreds and hundreds of sheets. Likely more big sheets than I've pulled in my entire life, which explains why Jae-gyun took me to the pharmacy yesterday after work to get cold packs to stick onto my back and two types of drugs that the pharmacist insist that I take (one is Naproxen and the other is obviously what I'm having issues with because there is a lady with low back and shoulder pain). He also stopped to get ice packs from his mom to give to me, which I am leaving in Mr. Shin's freezer in case they ever have another weakling come and injure themselves. I had tried to explain to him the theory of using frozen peas to ice your body but totally failed.
Mr. Shin and his wife sit on the floor in the back part of the studio most of the day cutting printed parts of offcuts to recycle. He's using a sickle to soak the trimmed bits in water as she dumps more cut pieces into the tub.
Here are the blades of his 30-year-old beater. He said he only needs to replace the bearings and the motor once in a while, but said I have to get the blades ground to make it work well. While I was unable to pull sheets, I took tons of measurements. His wife was smart to tell me to refrain from vat work all day. Even though I was very unhappy about doing that, it was the right choice, and I was thankful for her taking me to market. On the way, we saw women waiting at the bus stop, and she pulled over to offer them a ride if they were also going to market. Life here is really different from almost every place I've been back home.
Jae-gyun drove me around SO much. Every lunchtime, he would drive us to lunch, usually to Sinban, and he would almost always be too fast for me to stop him from paying for lunch, and for the first week he also did an extra trip back and forth so that we could have dinner as well. He has impeccable manners and every time he drops me off at the end of the work day, he puts on the emergency brake and gets out of his car to bow to me to say goodbye. It's extremely weird for me to be in a "higher" position and have someone speak up to me and do all the things I usually do for others but he refuses to not be this polite. Today was actually our farewell as he will get a Covid vaccine tomorrow, which means he gets that day and the following day off. Normally, he only gets Sundays off, works all public holidays except for Chuseok in the fall and new year's in the winter. He's on his fourth year of working that intensely and I can't fathom the stamina.
The woman who picks all of the bark works ceaselessly all day doing that or drying paper. After every bunch, she walks over a small tub to add to the big stash near the beater. Yesterday or today she got some treatment at the hospital so she took a bit of time off but very little before she was right back at work.
I had noticed a couple days ago that it felt like someone was peeing down my leg. The vinyl guard for the couching table (brilliant! I never noticed it in my 2008 photos/videos of Mr. Shin but now I think, duh!) had fallen off and I didn't want to bother anyone so I found a hammer and put it back in...incorrectly. It was too far from the corner of the couching table, which kept dripping down the side of my right leg as I stood at the vat. Mr. Shin moved it over for me yesterday.
He had Jae-gyun wrap up a little early at the vat so that they could go up the hill to harvest burdock burrs. This one is right outside where the garlic is drying and I had thought early on, Why don't they pull that weed? It's not a weed, but their scrubbers to clean the bamboo screens!
Mr. Shin's wife told me that this is burdock native to Korea, and that you harvest right before the flowers bloom. It's too early for these.
But just in time here. This was yesterday's harvest and I did not envy the men for going outside in that heat. Fortunately today it finally started to cool as the clouds rolled in to prepare for rain. After lots of icing and less vat time (I try to walk away before I feel the strain, though of course today my shoulder started to go, which hadn't been an issue up until now!), I'm slowly getting back to work.

The most rewarding part of this week is getting to know Mr. Shin's wife (no, I haven't asked for her name yet but I will before I leave! My dad recently told me that in the past, Koreans didn't even give their daughters names. Sheesh). BIG source of info, and laughs, very helpful when your teacher is extremely silent. Now that I am more conscious of Korea being a high-context culture, this relationship is really important: I showed her pictures of what I was doing back home and how I've never been able to source good parting threads. So last night, she told my teacher. This morning, he said, do you want to pull threads? I had almost no idea what he was saying (the dialect is SO STRONG. He probably thinks I'm very stupid because I rarely can understand what he says. I mean, I get the gist, but definitely miss the details).
I loved this dance they had of, should we do it here?
Or here? [She said this was a bad idea]
No, here!
Starting out was NOT comfortable for her and again I was humbled by her willingness to sacrifice for me by sitting on construction materials to start taking apart this netting.
After a while I insisted she stop and sit down on the wooden steps of this gazebo so I could finish pulling threads two by two while she organized the bunch.
We technically pulled out all the warp threads here, so I also have the weft threads to combine to take home! They don't last forever but it's so much better than what I have been doing!

What else? Today is the final day of the Jeong fundraiser. I'll be making new hanji artwork for the deluxe portfolio. Please pitch in if you can! Also, the new AAPI craft directory has gone public and has launched as part of an exhibit at the Center for Craft. I was surprised to see my image so prominently featured, another sign of the rarity of being centered and visible. While I feel truly out of the loop, I hope when I get back home that I'll feel more connected to what conversations come next. Here are some more exhibition shots.

I got a surprising but welcome call today from Kim Dae-seong, about connecting directly with my teacher for hanji to make his fans. He will visit tomorrow! It will be great to see him and to have another witness to my training (more about his father, the national ICPH for fan making, here and here—both links in English). It's hard to believe my good fortune, though I've worked hard for these pieces to fall into place.