His 'Painting' Would Please the God of Fire

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His 'Painting' Would Please the God of Fire

Sitting upright on a cushion in the lotus yoga position as if trying to attain spiritual insight and tranquillity, Kim Ki-chan picks up a traditional Korean woodburning iron and starts to draw on the surface of a piece of bamboo. His hand moves quickly. Behind the curling smoke suddenly there materializes deer prancing in a wood. The beautiful oriental picture is complete. It looks so delicate that it could have been done in india ink.

Mr. Kim, 47, is a nakjukjang - a bamboo branding craftsman. He has been designated an "important intangible cultural asset" in Korea.

There are different names for different branding techniques. Nakhwa is branding on flat surfaces, such as Korean paper, leather, silk or wood boards. Often these are used to make folding screens, shades or hanging scrolls. Nakjuk is a technique used specifically on the curved surface of bamboo items, such as pencil cases, folding fans or swords.

Nakjuk was first introduced to Korea from China in 1822 by Park Chang-gyu, an artist from Namwon, North Cholla province. Mr. Park was a renowned artist, a hwahwadoin or "master of painting with fire," as recorded by Lee Gyu-gyeong, a scholar of the same period. The technique was handed down through five generations of Mr. Park's descendants but this family tradition died out around 1950.

However, the nakjuk craft was widespread in South Cholla province, especially in the Damyang area, which has an abundance of bamboo trees. Damyang also produced Lee Dong-ryeon and Guk Yang-mun, the best contemporary nakjukjang, or nakjuk, craftsmen. In 1982, Mr. Kim was taking lessons in Korean painting at a studio when he was introduced to Lee Dong-ryeon and began to learn nakjuk from the great master.

Nakjuk requires sensitivity and control. If the iron is too hot, it will burn the surface too much, leaving behind an overly dark color, but if it is too cold, the patterns or characters will be too vague. To avoid these problems and to accomplish the desired effect, the artist must achieve perfect harmony of the iron temperature and control of the tool. Sitting straight with crossed legs is not an easy job, either. Mr. Kim had a hard time adjusting to the posture and said he often bore the brunt of his teacher's scorn for his poor carriage when he first began to learn the art.

"Anyone can try to imitate the nakjuk art after studying four or five years, but it takes more than skills of imitation to be an artist," Mr. Kim said. "Creativity within certain boundaries - maintaining the tradition but expressing the essence of the art - is vital to creating nakjuk products."

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Lee and Mr. Guk, who drew on bamboo products made by other craftsmen, Mr. Kim makes his own products, such as traditional hairpins, combs or bulja. A bulja looks rather like a duster held by a Buddhist priest when he lectures on Buddhist doctrine.

Mr. Kim has received many awards in craft competitions, including the Korea Annual Traditional Handicraft Arts Exhibition, and has held exhibitions in the United States, Germany and Thailand. In 1999, the Ministry of Labor recognized his "excellent skills" for making an eolrebit, a traditional comb made of bamboo, and last year, he was officially recognized as the nation's third nakjukjang, joining the ranks of Mr. Lee and Mr. Guk. He is most well-known for his traditional binyeo or hairpin, and his bulja, a tool used during Buddhist services.

One of his projects this year is to make another bulja, but this time using his own hair instead of horsehair or yakeuteol. In preparation for this, he has been growing his hair for five years and has many times performed the customary 108 prostrations to Buddha at Songwang temple in South Cholla province to help him in the challenging task. He will have to select hairs of a perfect length and lay each one correctly to make the bulja.

Mr. Kim is also seeking an apprentice to carry on the nakjuk tradition and next month will begin teaching classes to students between the ages of 15 and 25. After completing the course, students will receive a certificate from the Cultural Properties Administration.

An exhibition of Mr. Kim's branded hair combs (eolrebit) is being held at Gumjukheon gallery in Songwang Temple through the end of March. For details, call the gallery at 061-755-2105 (Korean service only).

by Kim Sae-joon

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