It might be hard to imagine but “hanji” (traditional Korean mulberry paper) can turn into a wonderful picture without using a brush and paint. The hanji paper art shows how a deft touch can be more delicate than any other tools.
The artworks are produced by tearing up a variety of colorful hanji and pasting them together. The paper is torn onto layers to express light and shadow, to imbue color and shape.
Cho Su-jung, a traditional paper artist, believes that hanji artworks can portray anything she wants from abstract to still-life paintings that require sophisticated and delicate paper tearing techniques.
“I can make the works resemble watercolors or oil paintings simply using hanji pieces of a variety of colors and thickness. I can freely use the colorful hanji like the paints to express what I want,” Cho said in an interview with The Korea Times.
Cho, who started the traditional paper art some 30 years ago, recently opened the Cho Su-jung Korean Paper Art Gallery to showcase her artworks in Daechi-dong, southern Seoul. She is the first artist to create a picture with the hanji tearing techniques in Korea.
“Over the last 30 years, my art has been underestimated because the art circle sees my art as a kind of mosaic rather than a picture. But actually my work is a perfect picture without using brushes and pigments,” she said.
Although Cho began her artistic career in Japan where traditional paper art is more advanced, traditional Korean paper has a higher quality to depict something on the canvas, she said.
Hanji is made from the bark of a mulberry tree. Its texture is fine and smooth and the long fibers create a fluffy effect while the tearing part produces attractive feathered edges on pieces of paper.
“The key point of tearing hanji involves carefully pulling the paper apart, leaving the paper fibers at the edge of the paper exposed to maintain a natural look. The torn edges complement many styles and designs more than any other papers in the world,” she said.
Although artworks created by paper tearing have a long tradition in China and Japan, it can also be found in Korean aesthetics much earlier. Koreans attached the leaves of a chrysanthemum or bamboo trees attractively on screen papers of the lattices. The simple motif has been handed down to the present, she said.
“When I was in Japan in the 1980s, Korean culture was not appreciated well even though we have a long history and rich heritage. So I wanted to promote the beauty of Korean traditional culture through the artworks,” she said.
Compared to the conventional paintings, hanji artworks are eco-friendly as the materials come from nature. “So they never look boring and last long. The art has more irresistible charms,” she said.
An awl, glue, deft finger movements and aesthetic tastes can produce wonderful pictures, she said. Anything can be expressed through hanji according to the degree of thickness of the paper.
From flying spores of dandelions to abstract brush strokes, she has depicted any object of her imagination into her works. Cho has produced some 150 works over the last 30 years. Some works take a couple of hours but others require a month or so to complete. But the whole process is part of her spiritual training for aesthetic achievement.
“While concentrating on my works, I forget all anxieties. When I am free from such distracting thoughts and greed, I can create the best works. The art purifies me in many ways,” she said.
“Hanji pictures do not change with time. They produce their own pictorial sense from the tearing, fitting and attaching together with bits of variously colored hanji, so they create a unique world of paintings which can hardly be expressed with Western papers in its tactile sensation,” she said.
“I think this is a kind of national project as it represents the beauty of traditional papers. I am very proud of being a traditional paper artist. Without such pride, I couldn’t have done this job for so long,” she said.
Cho has also nurtured some 500 pupils who are mostly housewives as the art is easy to learn for amateur artists.
She also harbors a wish to promote the art through her gallery and overseas exhibitions. Cho held an exhibition in Washington in the United States last year and received positive responses from Americans.
“When I show my artworks to foreigners, their reactions are more fervent than Koreans. They are amazed at the hanji artworks. So I will expose them to more foreigners through hanji picture making classes and exhibitions.”
The gallery is open to anyone who is interested in learning about hanji artworks. Particularly, foreigners are welcomed, Cho said.
At the gallery, visitors can enjoy the artworks, learn the art and drink traditional teas.
For more information, visit www.hanjigrim.com.