On a sunny afternoon late last week, I ventured down to NYC’s Washington Square Park for the purpose of exploring the crafty capacities of hanji, traditional Korean paper. Under the urban canopy, I learned how to fold, crumble, and sculpt a trio of dyed sheets–one violet, one indigo, one lavender–into a floral brooch after attempting to calligraphically pen the two syllables of “Tanya” in Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) onto a flat, white piece of hanji.
Made from mulberry bark, centuries-old hanji is regarded for its versatility. Aspects of the material’s adaptability and persistence were addressed in last week’s International Seminar on Hanji Globalization Strategy 2015, which was supervised by Korea Craft & Design Foundation and hosted by Korea Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
“The use of hanji is wide and flexible: books, furniture, household goods, accessories, shielding from [the] sun, warming the room by applying to doors and windows, etc.,” attendant Minny Lee, a photographer who often prints on rice paper, illustrates.
Lee tells me she has worked with hanji before, mainly in Korea, and was pleased with how the symposium served as a sign of heightened awareness for a material that is hard to come by in the US.
One of the highlights for Lee was the presentation by paper conservator Rhea DeStefano, who discussed hanji’s “high standard testing results” and effectiveness for book conservation. Lee also enjoyed learning about Aimee Lee’s “process of making hanji and how she built a hanji-making workshop space” in Cleveland, though notes that it’s rare to find people back in Korea who produce the paper using traditional methods.
Debbie Han is another visual artist who attended the event. She first came across hanji when she traveled to Korea and bought it as a souvenir, which she used “to cover the windows for soft lighting.”
Han says she is drawn to the “organic beauty and natural color” of the paper, though notes that some of these same qualities may make it difficult to adapt as a canvas for “popular types of paints in the western world which seem a lot more bold and synthetic in nature.”
Of course, unique materials aren’t meant to be all-inclusive to every type of practice. As Lee sees it, since hanji is still used today, it is both old and contemporary.
“Artists can carry that tradition and reinvent hanji,” reasons Lee. “I think that is the job of the artist–reinterpreting the new from the old.”