Hyeyung and I met when we were teenagers as violinists at a very intense summer music experience. I was almost about to go to college and she was a year younger. She and another friend were the clearest examples to me of Korean diaspora kids who had a really different way from me of approaching themselves in the world. Hyeyung was proud to be Korean, which I had never seen that in someone my age. Up until then, I had felt ashamed and misunderstood, but meeting her right before Oberlin helped with a long, slow awakening (which is still in progress). Here she is stripping and scraping milkweed from Michigan.
Hyeyung went into a professional music career while I veered into art but our paths crossed in unexpected ways in Nebraska when I was on a residency and she and her husband/string quartet cellist were living in Lincoln. After her quartet dissolved, we talked for years about collaborating. I've always been hesitant because my view of my collaboration ability is that it sucks. Since she is such an important and beloved friend, I did not want to do anything that would blow that up. But we have sorted out a path towards collaboration that feels right for both of us. She earned a New Music USA grant to have a weeklong residency with me in the studio. While I'd never say I understand the process of composing music, I have a decent sense of being a musician. So we focused on various papermaking steps so she could feel my process in her body. Here's days and days of work for just a quarter pound of milkweed bast, cleaned of its outer protective and waterproof layer (remember I had already scraped a bunch in Michigan, and it's all combined here).
Hyeyung's idea emerged from a letter she read in Epistolary Korea
, edited by the late JaHyun Kim Haboush. In 1795, a grieving mother wrote a letter to her dead 10-month-old daughter that would have been read aloud at the funeral and then buried with the baby. Hyeyung herself is a mother and found both the writing (it is written in classical Chinese, the language of scholars and men in charge, rather than Korean script more often used by women) and content extremely compelling. In the letter addressed to her child, the mother creates an incredible narrative of why it was better that her daughter died as an infant, so that the mother would never know the deep loss of losing an older child, while spinning her dreams of how this baby would have grown into a beautiful, well-mannered girl with smooth hair that she would carefully brush while wearing the proper clothes and so on. It's so very Korean mom. To give Hyeyung a sense of different fibers, I soaked Florida mulberry for her to scrape after we finished the milkweed.
The letter went hand-in-hand with ideas Hyeyung has been exploring around Korean women and what it means to be part of that population, especially when your stories have not been told. The most obvious to us are our mothers and their generation. Our mothers do not speak often about their past. I know that my own avoids mention because it was bad. She was born at the end of the Korean War and experienced deep parental loss, abandonment, and poverty. She was too often cold and hungry and taunted by others for that. There is so much more that only comes out in dribs and drabs at the most random weird times. I only found out this summer that her name is not her given name and that her mom said, "Let's change your name because your given name is too sad." So it resonated with me when Hyeyung asked, can we ever give voice to Korean women in generations past, with respect and honor, without putting words in their mouth? I think music is a fantastic way to do that. Because I could see that she was so fastidious, I had Hyeyung do an extra step that I never make anyone do: after scraping the outer bark layers, we separated the black bark (flakes on the left) from the green/white bits (on the right).
Maybe Hyeyung is fastidious by nature, but what I observed was an example of a theory I've had for years: that discipline learned as a musician translated to other fields. I always say that my training in violin, where I had to be alone for many hours trying to solve problems, or with a teacher for many hours watching them and trying to replicate every last movement down to the finger knuckle, prepared me for this papermaking life. The intensity of focus that I brought to my music lessons I brought to my papermaking teachers. And I saw it in Hyeyung, how she saw details that most students never see or notice, how she was fully present as she tried to piece together the myriad of physical movements and observations to replicate my labor. She also approached it without the judgy baggage a lot of people have, because she has an entire lifetime of proof that if you pay attention and practice consistently, you learn and get better. It was so satisfying to see. She is in a whole other universe of musical ability than me, so it would make sense that she saw things in the paper studio and in my work that had been invisible to me for years. This is one day's batch of scraping, in between lots of other activities.
Being together also meant sharing a home, cooking, meals, cleanup, pots and pots of tea, and even the furnace gas leak. Often people try to get back to the stage of living in dorms with college friends, when they were so accessible, because it is such a luxury to be able to be close and share lives together. This was the first time I've been so comfortable with a house guest, mostly because we've known each other for so long, and partly because she's a mom so I know she can handle certain things that I normally would never allow a guest to do. But also because we are a good match. I love the contours of her mind and how she thinks so deeply and earnestly about what she cares about, how she is always open to learning more and discovering things that change old patterns or ideas, and how purposeful she is in everything she does and the worlds she creates professionally, personally, and for her family. She spent at least three days I think beating this wad of milkweed bast. Most students would get upset that this was going on so long but she kept wanting to get back to the studio to beat.
This was one of four giant prints by He Sanqing (Chinese, born 1988), made in 2016, called Neither Mountain nor Water
. We visited the art museum two days in a row and I absolutely loved this contemporary print show in the rotating section of the Chinese galleries. I walked Hyeyung through the sweep I like to take to get to the Korean gallery each time that I visit. Since it was the first residency I was hosting, I also wanted to make sure we had a good balance of non-studio time that would be generative or rejuvenating. Which is why I scheduled a massage for us early in the week! Korean women rarely got to do this kind of thing so I insisted we take that time for ourselves.
I usually don't visit the video room but we happened upon this Patty Chang video. I haven't seen her name/work in years and it made me think about how our art history educations revolve around when we were born, who taught us, and who was big at the time that we were learning about art (I know, this is the case for ALL education!). Patty Chang (b. 1972) was huge when I came up. The tag read, "American artist Patty Chang's 1998 Melons (At a Loss)
shows the artist mutating and eating a melon as a surrogate breast while discussing the death of her aunt, a performance that both is absurd and subverts expectations of exoticized female bodies." When I met Hyeyung, I still wanted to be a performer even though I knew I was on a lower tier music-wise. I needed time to figure out that this wasn't going to be my thing, and also visions of what might be my thing, before I could give it up. I haven't performed since 2008, right before I left for my first research trip in Korea. Seeing Hyeyung at the airport with her violin case made me not at all miss flying with my violin! She shared insane stories about her husband being thrown off the plane with his cello even when he had bought a second seat for it. A great reminder of how well we both understand the travel that goes hand in hand with work. She's an very seasoned and skillful traveler.
Our second visit to the museum was with Sooa, the Korean art curator, and it was like having art history on demand. We could ask all the little questions we had and get brilliant answers on the spot. Sooa had also read the book that inspired Hyeyung and we discussed the various letters that struck us. It was so eye-opening to hear about the funeral tiles that were a prized object in the collection that she pushed to repatriate and return to the Korean family to which it belonged. The stories are so very human, how these things get lost. We talked about tomb excavations, and an upcoming exhibit that gave Hyeyung the kernel of the idea that we will use as a jumping off point.
I really wanted to connect Michelle to Hyeyung because of how the former is working on degrees in both studio art and music composition. We had a couple of studio days together and Michelle helped me with dessert one night and hosted Hyeyung for a meal when I was doing something else. She remains the most wonderful student I've been able to interact with over the course of years.
This is the first time I've ever gotten Michigan milkweed to paper form so quickly! Since it was such a small batch, we did small sheets rather than full-on hanji formation.
Early in the week, Hyeyung said that she wanted to not only learn about what I do in the studio but be helpful to me. That made it so much easier to let her do work that I would normally do. This is another key aspect in working with her: she has excellent boundaries and communication skills. And she really just rolled with all of the unexpected things that came up, which made it so much less stressful for me.
Because of the stupid gas leak and other scheduling issues, we were only able to board and then she had to fly away the next day so she didn't get to peel away the final sheets to take them home. But now that the hard part comes, collaborating while separated and back in our regular lives, it means that I can write longhand and enclose paper. I had hoped to do that sooner, but had to work in Columbus a few days after her departure, and then got sick. I've been home nursing myself and variously unhappy about being ill while happy to have a good excuse not to work. Still slowly processing this precious shared time and looking forward to how it will eventually manifest, while always grateful to Hyeyung for her friendship and vision.
New Music USA 2022 Creator Development Fund grant recipients
Modern Impressions—Light and Water in Chinese Prints
Sooa Im McCormick