'Not an Artist,' He Says, but He Keeps Old Art in Good Shape

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'Not an Artist,' He Says, but He Keeps Old Art in Good Shape

His hands work like magic. As he moves, old paintings and books that are worn-out and smudged with dirt begin to recover their original appearance. The paintings regain their freshness and details such as wrinkles on clothing stand out once more.

Print regains its color and contrast with the page and the books look as though they have just rolled off the press. One can almost smell the ink on the pages.

Old books, goseo in Korean, and paintings and calligraphic works, together called seohwa, are fragile and must be given special care if they are to last. Kim Pyo-yeong, 76, is a craftsman who specializes in preparing baecheop, a kind of framing.

Through his work, Mr. Kim contributes to preserving aged books and paintings. He is the only baecheopjang, master of mounting, to be recognized by the government as an intangible cultural asset.

Although the term itself means attaching cloth to the back of calligraphic works, baecheop includes work other than just mounting, such as cleaning and rebinding old books and making scrolls for traditional paintings. It is a painstaking, highly skilled task.

Mr. Kim began to learn baecheop in 1939 when he was only 14. He became an apprentice of a relative who ran a framing shop in Cheongju, North Chungchong province, and had to sharpen knives for two years and learn how to make the correct mounting paste for another two years before even beginning his basic training. He gradually attained the skills he needed to run his own business.

In 1954, he went to Seoul to work under a craftsman then considered the best in the nation. Mr. Kim has now inherited that mantle, and prevents the art of Korean traditional baecheop from being consigned to obscurity.

The most important materials for Mr. Kim's work are special paste and paper. Following the traditional method, he uses paste made from flour steeped and fermented in water for about one year. The water is strained out, along with impurities in the flour, and replaced with fresh water. The process is continued, and after 10 years the paste has become pure and concentrated enough to use. By this point, a sack of flour is reduced to just a handful of paste, but Mr. Kim says that its quality is far superior to paste made from chemicals.

He also insists on using high quality paper for baecheop, which he has up until now imported from Kyoto, Japan, but intends to begin making himself this fall.

When restoring paintings, Mr. Kim first checks the condition of the piece he will fix, reapplies the correct pigments to faded sections and cleans the entire piece using bread.

He then removes the old paper from the back of the painting, pastes in a new piece of oriental paper and leaves the painting to dry. He pastes silk cloth around edges of the painting and attaches another piece of paper. It takes six months to restore a gwaebul, a large scroll painting of Buddha.

To restore books, he first takes the work apart page by page and washes each piece carefully with warm water. Oriental paper is quite strong and does not easily tear when wet. Washing off the dirt brings out the original color of the print. The dried pages are then bound together again in a laborious stitching process.

Mr. Kim does not need a hall in which to exhibit the fruits of his labor; most of the works are important cultural assets and are kept in major museums and Buddhist temples all over the country.

He does not receive many orders these days or get much support from the government. But he continues to work, saying he believes his work contributes to keeping traditional Korean culture alive.

"My work is not art, like painting or writing calligraphy, but without baecheop, we would no longer have precious paintings by such artists as Kim Hong-do or Kim Jeong-hee from the Choson period," said Mr. Kim.

by Lee Chul-jae

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