HAND/EYE first became aware of the work of the Korean-American artist Aimee Lee almost three years ago when she was interviewed for Fiddling with Paper. From that interview we learned that Lee earned a Fulbright scholarship to research hanji or hand-papermaking in Korea for a year. Lee trained in the northeastern part of Korea at Jang Ji Bang which produces some of the finest hanji in the country.
Hanji is a complicated and labor-intensive process that involves multiple back-breaking steps. Of her hanji experience Lee says "was life changing. I fell in love with hanji, with learning about the culture I was partially raised in, with Korean food, with the landscape, with the work ethic, and with people." Now Lee’s gift of love to the art of Hanji and to her mentors is all laid out in her new book, Hanji Unfurled: One Journey into Korean Papermaking.
As noted in that first interview with Lee, she is intense and just like the days when she practiced the violin with the hope to become a concert violinist, she has taken that same intensity to both her art and her journey.
Her interest in hanji started in an art history class during her sophomore year as an undergraduate. It was on a field trip to the Allen Memorial Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, where she viewed several newly acquired Chinese paintings and learned that the paper of one gold-flecked scroll was originally from Korea. It was during that museum visit that prompted a revelatory moment in which Lee knew she had to go to Korea and learn about Korean art. Flash forward six years later to graduate school where Lee is studying book and paper arts. She still knows nothing about hanji, but later with a Fulbright research grant in hand, she travels to Korea with the intention to learn the process of making traditional hanji at a papermill and notes to “…create a network of people who cared about its preservation, to interview artists who used hanji, to integrate, to integrate hanji into my artwork, and to disseminate the information online. I stated in my proposal that I would return to the United States, build a hanji factory, and teach Korean papermaking.”
Lee lovingly writes of the beauty of hanji that comes in a range of thickness, color, dimension, translucency and its remarkable tenacity. “It is strong, even when thin. This lends the paper to a wide variety of manipulation techniques that include texturing, cording, weaving, cutouts, and papier-mâché. Hanji retains its integrity even after being handled repeatedly because its long fibers are flexible and bend rather than break, getting stronger for the wear. It also filters pollutants and dust and insulates better than glass, which is why it worked so well as wall, window, and door coverings.”
Hanji Unfurled is more than a technical how-to of papermaking. Lee writes of her travels through fast-paced cities to traditional Korean villages to Buddhist temples to island outposts. In addition to meeting the few remaining papermakers who practice webal tteugi, the indigenous Korean sheet formation, she also meets teachers from other allied craft forms, ranging from felting and texturing to natural dyeing to calligraphy.
Hanji Unfurled is the first English language book about the artform, but it’s also Lee’s exquisite love letter to her heritage, art, her teachers, but most of all to the paper that captured her heart.
To learn more about Hanji Unfurled: One Journey into Korean Papermaking, please visit www.thelegacypress.com/lee_page.html.