Friday, August 5, 2011

Traditional paper morphs into versatile artwork

Well this summer break has given me precious time to spend with my family who are scattered across the globe. It's also given me time to reflect and do some research on all aspects of Hanji.  I came across this interesting article from the Korea Times newspaper as it talks about a new Korean film 'Hanji' based around a Korean Hanji Artist. It may be of some interest to you as well.

A variety of colorful “hanji” paper hangs on racks at the Heejai Hanji located in Sanbon, Gyeonggi Province.
/ Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul

By Chung Ah-young

Appearing as a guest in a recent TV show to support director Im Kwon-taek’s current film, “Hanji,” actress Ye Ji-won showed off her “hanji” (traditional Korean paper) craftwork. In the movie, Ye plays a hanji artist who breathes new life into the tradition and she said the role inspired her to learn the actual process of making hanji.

After Im’s 101st film was released, the craft of traditional paper-making and other handicrafts are receiving fresh attention not only because of the master director’s inspiring touch but also for the timeless beauty and practicality such artwork imbues. The paper is now being rediscovered by fulfilling present-day needs.

Hanji is made of mulberry trees known as “dak” which are native to Korea. Hanji is a versatile, durable and resilient material that can be oiled or lacquered and made waterproof. As it is breathable, it is said that the paper can be preserved for some 1,000 years.

In ancient times, use of hanji was limited to making lanterns, window paper, fans and baskets as the paper was very rare and expensive. But nowadays the artistry of hanji extends from simple plates, sewing boxes and lamps to cabinet and tables as paper-making techniques develop and more hanji has been made available at lower prices compared to the past.

Hur Hee-jai, 55, hanji artist and president of her namesake workshop “Heejai Hanji” located in Sanbon, Gyeonggi Province, began creating artwork using hanji some 25 years ago.

“When I started making hanji crafts some 25 years ago, there were few artists alongside myself. So I had to struggle to find techniques and develop designs and patterns alone. Now many people are making hanji and also many of my students are teaching the skills in their community centers and schools. I am very glad to see that more and more people are interested in these artworks,” Hur said in an interview with The Korea Times.

The artist first saw the Japanese traditional paper crafts which are adorned with flamboyant flowery prints and patterns. She thought that Korea could produce such artworks equivalent to that of Japan using the hanji with its high quality.

“We think the hanji crafts are difficult but once we learn how to make it, it’s quite easy and simple. Anyone, regardless of age can do it,” Hur said.

Her workshop is filled with multi-colored pieces made by Hur and other students. Among them a long standing lantern that was used for a poem reading event captures the eyes of visitors. She also makes cinerary urns that would be difficult to emulate.
“Hanji crafts are part of the traditional arts that attach paper to the basic frames. We can feel the wisdom of our ancestors. The strength, color and pattern of the hanji artworks are durable and long-lasting. Yet, it’s also precious because it is hand-made and unique in the world,” she said.

To make a hanji craftwork, first make a paper frame, attach hanji to the frame, make patterns on it, coat with glue and finally let it dry. It can take anywhere from a couple of hours to months depending on the item. There are colorful hanji craft works and also antique ones, which use bleached black paper to create a vintage tone in the colors. The techniques are diverse and changeable from twisting a bunch of hanji and scratching the surface to form the shape the makers want.

“Unlike other traditional crafts, hanji is very practical. After making it, we can use it immediately. So many students like this fact and this is often popular as gifts,” she said.

The artist emphasized making hanji art is for everyone, particularly for women. “It’s a very stable and calm activity to concentrate on. It’s very eco-friendly and good to keep stuff inside hanji containers,” said Hur.

Kim Soon-ja, 65, comes to the workshop everyday from Pyeongtaek to Sanbon to make hanji crafts. “I have been learning hanji art for two months so I am a beginner but I am really enjoying it and happy to make it because you know, at my age, the elderly donhave many things to do. It’s a perfect hobby for me,” said Kim.

Kim has another ambition to introduce her hanji crafts to other countries as her daughter is living in Sweden. “Maybe, when my daughter has a baby, I must stay there for a few months. During that time I want to bring the materials from Korea to Sweden and make hanji crafts there,” she said.

Kim pointed out that one of the charms of the paper art lies in the sense of accomplishment because it can be completed in a few hours or a month. “I feel great pleasure from this work. Also I am very proud of the traditional work as a Korean. Isn’t it amazing that just simple paper can be turned into a new artwork?” she said.

These days, hanji artworks are popular both at home and abroad. Hur has held hanji crafts exhibitions in France, Italy, Shanghai and Indonesia. She is now planning to hold an exhibition in Germany next year.

“I think a growing number of foreigners are appreciating the beauty of hanji artworks. Some of my students teach the elderly in community centers in the United States and they said that Americans also like it,” she said.

However, Hur thinks it is a pity that recently many imported materials from China are flooding the market because of the lack of dak trees, which lowers the quality of the original hanji.

“The durability of hanji made from mulberry trees abroad is totally different from that made with the native trees. Once we experience Korean hanji, we are riveted by the quality and practicality. But we can use the materials depending on the items we want to make,” she said.

Hur teaches students and sells the materials to schools and community centers nationwide. Most of the materials such as DIY packages are ordered by schools and community cultural centers as an increasing number of people are showing interest in taking classes on how to make hanji art.

Hur said that anyone who is interested in hanji crafts can learn at a convenient time at the workshop. Her works are available in Insa-dong and online at For more information, call (031) 398-0580.

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