BY NATALIE ST. MARTIN
Seattle is always on the lookout for something new, something we haven’t seen before. Contemporary interpretations of traditional fiber arts of Korea fit the bill. Gallery ArtXchange brought the art of joomchi and bojagi to Seattle’s attention last month, featuring the work of Chunghie Lee, Jiyoung Chung, and 8 other artists from the 2012 Korea Bojagi Forum and the Rhode Island School of Design.
The diverse work in this show was all displayed free hanging, not framed or behind glass, allowing the viewer to appreciate the many textural elements of all the different papers and fabrics. The work is colorful, inviting, and very human – even the most gorgeous pieces maintain a connection with their humble and everyday origins. This art is an easy bridge from past utilitarian handicrafts to contemporary art.
Joomchi is mulberry paper craft. Korean mulberry paper, called hanji, is soft and can be felted and manipulated to create many interesting forms and textures. At the show opening, Jiyoung Chung demonstrated the lengthy process of massaging, kneading, folding and squeezing wet sheets of the colorful paper together. She spoke in relational terms: the time and effort it takes to coach the fibers to bond is like a conversation to her, as she urges, negotiates and argues with the paper until it agrees to do what she wants.
Bojagi art made up the largest percentage of the show, with a room featuring beautiful works by Chunghie Lee and many of her students. Bojagi are Korean wrapping cloths historically made by hard-working housewives who had to be resourceful with limited materials. Scraps of fabric were carefully saved and then pieced together for additional use. The particular piecing technique is not familiar to me: I know a lot about American quilt making traditions, but these bojagi are pieced differently. Some of the pieces in this show are square, reminiscent of the original wrapping clothes, but reinterpreted in unique or fine materials. Others pieces are like banners or the long outer jackets of Korean hanbok called durumagi.
The 2014 Korea Bojagi Forum will be held this year on South Korea’s Jeju Island in August. It is a four day conference with workshops in persimmon dying, joomchi, and bojag making. I am sure that these age-old traditions will inspire and influence many more artists – even as they have already influenced and inspired me.