Translating tradition Into contemporary art

It's amazing what can happen when you're interested and receptive while visiting another country and exploring its culture.

As some of you know, I have had wonderful experiences visiting South Korea. During my first trip, in Seoul I met artist and teacher Misik Kim, who is Regional Representative for SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates). Our conversations resulted in co-curating an exhibition that is now traveling in Northern California.

Korean Voices in Fiber: Translating Tradition into Contemporary Art is at the Sacramento Fine Arts Center in Carmichael until June 25. Last Saturday, our reception included Korean food and drink as well as a bojagi demonstration by Youngmin Lee, a Korean textile artist and teacher who lives in the Bay Area. People were fascinated as they watched her sew tiny stitches and hold up beautiful pieces of Korean textile art.

Youngmin Lee demonstrating bojagi at Sacramento Fine Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Sangho Lee.

Youngmin Lee demonstrating bojagi at Sacramento Fine Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Sangho Lee.

The Korean Peninsula has been engaged in a wide variety of fiber arts--everything from weaving to basketry--since ancient times. People grew the plants from which they extracted the fibers and dyes with which to create fabric and paper. They fashioned them into clothing as well as many household, decorative, and ritual items. Museums in Seoul and other parts of the country display such historical objects.

Shoes and baskets made from hanji (Korean handmade paper). Jong le Nara Paper Art Museum, Seoul.

Shoes and baskets made from hanji (Korean handmade paper). Jong le Nara Paper Art Museum, Seoul.

Because few people in America are acquainted with Korea's rich cultural and artistic history, this fiber art show highlights examples of some of its traditions through contemporary interpretations. There are 25 artists represented. Many are award winners whose work has been exhibited internationally. Some are also respected designers and professors in textile arts departments at Korean universities.

The materials they employed in creating their artwork range from such natural Korean fibers as silk (oksa, nobang, saekdong dan), ramie (mosi), hemp (sambe), cotton (myeon), and paper (hanji) to metallics and synthetics. The techniques embrace the traditional practices of patchwork piecing (jogakbo), hand stitching, weaving, and embroidery along with the modern practices of machine sewing, laser cutting, and digital textile printing. 

Korean textiles at Gwangjang Market, Seoul.

Korean textiles at Gwangjang Market, Seoul.

With growing interest in DIY projects, recycling and repurposing, and sustainability, the once domestic craft of bojagi (Korean wrapping cloth) is a great illustration of economy and resourcefulness. Korean women have long made good use of every last scrap left over from constructing clothes, bedding, and other household items. It was also an outlet in which they could express their aesthetic sensibility. Bojagi has become a unique fiber art form that has expanded worldwide into fashion and design, architecture, and beyond. Like quilts that have moved off beds and are now hung on walls, bojagi are also recognized as more than practical home goods. They, too, are on the walls or suspended from ceilings at art shows and museums.

"The Aesthetics of Line--Moon Jar" (2017), by Young Won Kwon. Photo courtesy of the artist.

"The Aesthetics of Line--Moon Jar" (2017), by Young Won Kwon. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Korean fiber artists were tasked with finding inspiration in their cultural heritage. How they illuminate the theme of the show varies greatly. The traditional source for artist Young Won Kwon's entry above is the moon jar, a type of Korean porcelain made during the late 17th through 18th centuries of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The shape as well as the milky color of the glaze remind one of a full moon.

White porcelain moon jar. Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, National Treasure of the Republic of Korea, no. 309. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

White porcelain moon jar. Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, National Treasure of the Republic of Korea, no. 309. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Ye Ryung Cho chose a different kind of pottery, used since ancient times to store water, bean paste, rice, alcoholic beverages, etc. While these are jars that constantly get filled up and emptied, the "container" she created is for holding light.

Traditional Korean storage jar. Photo provided by artist.

Traditional Korean storage jar. Photo provided by artist.

"Beyond" (2017), by Ye Ryung Cho. Tyvek ®, silk yarn, acrylic paint. Photo courtesy of artist.

"Beyond" (2017), by Ye Ryung Cho. Tyvek ®, silk yarn, acrylic paint.
Photo courtesy of artist.

Unbeknownst to one another, three artists chose the same traditional source, folk paintings (minhwa) of chaekkado or chaekgeori ("books and things"), which evoke a Confucian scholar's study. While in the West, books are placed side by side on horizontal shelves, in Korea, they were traditionally stacked vertically, along with paper, ink, brush, ink stone, archaic bronze vessels, porcelain, fruits, and flowering plants.

Chaekkado or Chaekgeori. Photo taken from a book, courtesy of Inyul Heo.

Chaekkado or Chaekgeori. Photo taken from a book, courtesy of Inyul Heo.

Each artist interpreted the chaekgeori in her own way through weaving, joomchi, or printing on silk.

Chaekgeori (2015), by Jungsik Kim. Hanji (handmade Korean paper); joomchi (ancient Korean paper-making technique), hand stitching.

Chaekgeori (2015), by Jungsik Kim. Hanji (handmade Korean paper); joomchi (ancient Korean paper-making technique), hand stitching.

Chaekkado (2017), by Inyul Heo. Wool, copper plate; tapestry weaving, cloissone enamel. Photo courtesy of artist.

Chaekkado (2017), by Inyul Heo. Wool, copper plate; tapestry weaving, cloissone enamel. Photo courtesy of artist.

Chaekkado (2017), by Hae Hong Chang. Oksa (Korean silk); lenticular printing, ssam sol stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

Chaekkado (2017), by Hae Hong Chang. Oksa (Korean silk); lenticular printing, ssam sol stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

Eun Hee Lee found her inspiration in gwi jumeoni, a traditional accessory. Such pouches--rounded for women, squared off for men--were needed because traditional Korean clothing (hanbok) had no pockets.

Two kinds of jumeoni (men/women). Source: http://glimja.deviantart.com/art/Jumeoni-461692626

Two kinds of jumeoni (men/women). Source: http://glimja.deviantart.com/art/Jumeoni-461692626

Gwi Jumeoni (2017), by Eun Hee Lee. Hand-dyed cotton; free-motion machine quilting, raw edge appliqué. Photo courtesy of artist.

Gwi Jumeoni (2017), by Eun Hee Lee. Hand-dyed cotton; free-motion machine quilting, raw edge appliqué. Photo courtesy of artist.

Some of the artists worked with Korea's national colors (red, blue, white, black, yellow), which appear in flags, kites, Buddhist temples, etc. Yoon Kyung Kim is one of them.

"Meditation" (2015), Yoon Kyung Kim. Hand-dyed Korean cotton; machine pieced, kantha stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

"Meditation" (2015), Yoon Kyung Kim. Hand-dyed Korean cotton; machine pieced, kantha stitching. Photo courtesy of artist.

Others employed neutral colors. For example, Yun Suk Jung deconstructed two jeogori (jackets) and durumagi (long coat) more than 100 years old and created an entirely new bojagi, “Over Time—Remember.”

Antique jeogori, which Yun Suk Jung deconstructed toward creating bojagi.

Antique jeogori, which Yun Suk Jung deconstructed toward creating bojagi.

Yun Sunk Jung creating bojagi with tiny stitches.

Yun Sunk Jung creating bojagi with tiny stitches.

Young Soon Hur took her inspiration from the image of a two-crane badge. It's part of the system of insignia of rank for civil and military officials that was adopted in 1454 by the court of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) from China's Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Square badges of embroidered birds and animals on silk were worn on the front (hyung) and back (bae) of official costumes. Young Soon Hur digitally printed the image repeated in her piece.

Badge (Hyungbae) of the Upper Civil Rank with Two Cranes. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Badge (Hyungbae) of the Upper Civil Rank with Two Cranes. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.  Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

Detail of "Cell 2017-26" (2017), by Young Soon Hur. Felt, metal; digital textile printing, transfer printing. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Detail of "Cell 2017-26" (2017), by Young Soon Hur. Felt, metal; digital textile printing, transfer printing. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Of course, there's more. If you've ever responded to a call for entry theme, you know how many different results can emerge. To me, this demonstrates the endless imagination of artists, the limitless possibilities of what we can create when given even a simple idea. And this is true the world over. While following traditional parameters, each person comes up with an individual interpretation.

Since I've provided only a glimpse of Korean Voices in Fiber: Translating Tradition into Contemporary Art, I hope that, if you're within driving distance of any of the venues lined up till the end of 2017, you'll visit the exhibit to view the rest. 

In the Sacramento area: June 6-25, Sacramento Fine Arts Center (SFAC), Carmichael, http://www.sacfinearts.org/, simultaneous with "Focus on Fiber," 6th annual national show.

In the Santa Rosa area: July 28-September 3, Sebastopol Center for the Arts (SEBARTS), Sebastopol, http://sebarts.org/index.php/visual-arts/upcoming-exhibitions/, simultaneous with "Fiber Art VIII," International Biennial Fiber Arts Exhibition.

On the Sonoma-Mendocino coast: October 6-November 18, Gualala Arts Center (GAC), Gualala, Global Harmony Series, http://gualalaarts.org/.

I'm grateful for all the support I have received from co-curator Misik Kim, liaison Youngmin Lee, and translator Heejae Iacovino as well as Carol Wittich (SFAC), Catherine Devriese (SEBARTS), and David Susalla (GAC) for their enthusiastic willingness to host the traveling exhibit .

For one viewer's impression and more images of the exhibit, see Jenny Lyon's post: http://quiltskipper.com/2017/06/korean-voices-in-fiber-at-the-sacramento-fine-arts-center/

Questions and Comments
Have you transformed something traditional into a contemporary artwork? What inspired you? How did you translate tradition into modernity?

What cultural expressions in other countries have influenced you to create your own artwork?