|Clockwise from top are Kim Jeong-yeoul in front of his 'najeonchilgi' wardrobe in his workshop and Lacquerware Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl Experience Center and Succession Hall in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province. Korea Times photos by Shim Hyun-chul|
Master experiments in lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl
By Chung Ah-young
YANGJU, Gyeonggi Province — A stackable dish box adorned with fragmented nacre pieces shaped in baby's breath flowers remains unfinished and perhaps never will be. Kim Jeong-yeoul, an artisan of "najeonchilgi," or lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl, has stopped working on it since 2008 when he went through the most difficult time in his life.
Kim introduced this "unfinished" work as the product of "han" or hopeless sadness combined with anger, which well describes a lonely artisan who has survived in this modern era. "I thought this would be one of my lifetime masterpieces when I began working on it. But I couldn't finish it because I experienced a very difficult time back then," he said in an interview with The Korea Times. Nevertheless, Kim said that throughout his lifetime his craftwork has been one of the things he's used to beat hardship and loneliness.
|Various kinds of seashells used for najeonchilgi.|
Kim said when it comes to traditional artisans, for many ordinary people, three words — tenacity, ignorance and poverty — might cross their minds. "We have walked such a lonely road, but don't forget we help maintain the roots of traditional Korean culture," he said.
Particularly, najeonchilgi craftsmen with a high degree of patience and accurate, dexterous skill take pride in the difficulty of pursuing their work. His stubbornness and pride have never allowed him to compromise with anything that runs against his artistic sense.
|A plate adorned with mother-of-pearl and eggshell.|
Kim has been good at working with both "najeon" or mother-of-pearl and "chilgi" or lacquerware since he began learning the crafts at 14 in Tongyeong, North Gyeongsang Province, home to nacre craftwork because of its abundance of high-quality, multi-shaded, lustrous sea shells.
When he was a boy, Kim's mother took him to a craft workshop run by a relative, Ahn Chang-deok. While being trained there, he developed skills by emulating his teacher. As a result, Ahn passed his workshop on to Kim when he was only 17. Kim has never looked back.
In 1985 Kim moved to Yangju to learn "otchil" from traditional lacquerware master Cho Sung-hoon. Kim runs his workshop and the Lacquerware Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl Experience Center and Succession Hall funded by the Yangju city government there.
|The filing process on mother-of-pearl.|
Najeonchilgi was synonymous with wealth until the 1970s but is now regarded as a thing of the past, as lifestyles have changed since people lived in "hanok," or Korean traditional houses. At that time traditional lacquered dressers and closets decorated with the mother-of-pearl inlay were common. But now this has given way to Western-style fitted furniture apartments.
Kim said it is becoming rare to find authentic najeonchilgi craftwork after the introduction of mass production and new materials replacing otchil or natural lacquer. New paints, such as cashew lacquer, can't make the craft durable and authentic, he said, noting that otchil is resistant to heat, acid and humidity and thus lasts for thousands of years. Finishing nacre-inlaid artwork with otchil is key to a better shine, and natural glues better preserve the work as well.
Making a piece of najeonchilgi requires numerous steps from making a wooden frame and coating it with "saengot," or fresh lacquer, to drying and coating. These steps are repeated before the inlaying of the mother-of-pearl designs begins. The pieces of mother-of-pearl are cut using two methods, "jureumjil" (filing) and "ggeuneumjil" (cutting), according to how the designs are produced and inlaid.
More spiritual training than skill
Kim's daughter, Kim Young-hyo, 35, has been learning traditional skills from her father for about six years. When he teaches his daughter, Kim transforms from a gentle father to a strict teacher who never allows a mistake in this highly sophisticated craftwork.
"To become a master, your eyes should become keener and keener to identify the smallest error in making a shape," he told his daughter who was making a traditional box decorated with ggeunuemjil. He stressed that when pursuing najeonchilgi craftsmanship, artisans should develop spiritual strength.
"Artisanship is achieved through numerous years. It is not about skill but about spiritual strength to overcome all the obstacles in pursuing this job," he said.
Kim pointed out that young people who are interested in this craft tend to learn only techniques as fast as they can, but if they do only that, they are nothing but technicians, not artists.
"Now many people can see how to make najeonchilgi through books and the Internet. But with only that kind of knowledge, they cannot produce a masterpiece. This can only be born from a life of suffering," he said.
Kim's artisanship is fully reflected in a huge masterpiece of a najeonchilgi mural, the largest of its kind in the country, installed in the lobby of Yangju City Hall, Gyeonggi Province. It took some one-and-a-half years to finish this work, which is 3 meters in width and 1.7 meters in length. Almost all kinds of najeon craft techniques and materials were used.
The mural expresses "Yangju byeolsandae nori," or Korea's traditional mask drama representing this region's folk culture. Kim expressed his hope to develop this traditional craft into more painting-like experiments through collaboration with renowned painters.
Who is Kim Jeong-yeoul?
Born in Goseong, South Gyeongsang Province in 1954, Kim began learning "najeonchilgi" at 14 in Tongyeong, North Gyeongsang Province, home to the craft because of its abundant high-quality seashells. He moved to Yangju in 1985 to learn "otchil" or lacquer painting from traditional lacquerware master Cho Sung-hoon.
He created a traditionally crafted najeonchilgi mural featuring "Yangju byeolsandae nori" or Korea's traditional mask drama representing this region's folk culture for Yangju City Hall, Gyeonggi Province in 2001.
Kim won the top prize at the National Craft Competition in 1992 with his traditional mask pendent inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and he won a medal from President Kim Young-sam in 2001 and gained the top master status from the Ministry of Employment and Labor in 2011.
His daughter Kim Young-hyo, 35, has been learning traditional skills from her father for about six years. He currently runs his workshop and the Lacquerware Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl Experience Center and Succession Hall in Yangju.
Kim was designated as Gyeonggi Province Intangible Cultural Property No. 24 in 1998.
What is 'najeonchilgi'?
The term "najeonchilgi" is a combination of the words "najeon" or mother-of-pearl and "chilgi" or lacquerware. The craft inlays colorful pieces of seashells on an object and then applies a layer of lacquer. The traditional lacquer crafts are estimated to go back 1,500 years. "Najeonchilgi" flourished in ancient China and Japan but has declined in recent years.
In Korea the art form peaked during the Goryeo Kingdom and began to change as the brilliant Buddhist culture during the Goryeo period gave way to the temperate Confucian culture during the Joseon period.
It has been kept alive in Korea due to artisans who have passed down traditional skills from generation to generation. Kim said Korea continues to preserve this glazing tradition despite diminishing interest from people. "We should be proud of continuing the tradition, even though the craft originated in China," he said.