The unvarnished truth: Though an old art, lacquering lacks appreciation

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The unvarnished truth: Though an old art, lacquering lacks appreciation

Chun Yong-bok, 51, a lacquer craftsman better known in Japan than in his homeland, recently published his autobiography, which is titled "I Am a Korean Lacquerer."

"I think I'm the luckiest guy in the world," Mr. Chun says in a strong Gyeongsang province accent. Since 1988, he has lived in Japan, occasionally visiting Busan.

Mr. Chun is a glib talker. He deeply understands Korea's traditional lacquer culture and studied its related fields while residing and working in Japan.

Mr. Chun considers it fortunate that he learned about the Gajoen, a multipurpose convention hall that includes art and ceremonial rooms, located in the center of Tokyo. Most of the decorations in the hall are lacquer pieces painted by Mr. Chun. Lacquer painting is a time-consuming process of applying coat after coat of sap-based varnishes.

Mr. Chun contributed to the renovation of Gajoen in 1988. In fact, he used a staggering 10 tons of paint over three years to do the job. Of the approximately 4,000 lacquer paintings in Gajeon that Mr. Chun created, some are massive, others are as small as placemats.

"Lacquer culture is almost forgotten in Korea, but in Japan the practice is still popular," he says. "In the 1930s, our Korean ancestors contributed to the formation of a glittering lacquering culture in Japan."

He did not end up at Gajoen by coincidence. The manager there had heard about how hard Mr. Chun had worked to master lacquering, enduring extreme poverty to learn the craft. A Gajoen official came to Korea to ask Mr. Chun to restore a broken table. His work pleased the official, and a connection was formed.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Chun began visiting Japan to seek an opening for the restoration of the Gajoen. He even entered a university in Busan to learn Japanese. To save money for his trips to Japan, he slept on the street. After these hardships, he was able to beat out his Japanese rivals for the job, though at first it looked unlikely that the Japanese convention hall would pick a Korean craftsman.

"I am embarrassed that Koreans are so ignorant about lacquering," he says. "Lacquer was widely used among our ancestors, and it maintains its original color for thousands of years."

Mr. Chun feels that he is unfortunate as an artist. "I only want to indulge in creative work, but since many people are ignorant about lacquering, I have to inform them about this traditional art. That's why I took this opportunity to publish a book and I am working on my second one."

Mr. Chun is also bothered by his nation's indifference toward lacquering. He deals with those feelings by trying to convince people that the traditional art is alive and well.

by Oh Byung-sang

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