Sculptor labors to make his art worthy of worship

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Sculptor labors to make his art worthy of worship

Before Buddha’s birthday, Park Chan-soo was writhing in agony. Before him stood a wooden statue of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, which he was about to plate in gold.
Although Mr. Park had labored on the Amitabha sculpture for more than a year, he could not concentrate on finishing it. All he wished was for the sculpture to turn out worthy of being worshiped.
For Mr. Park, 55, every day is Buddha’s birthday, for his job is creating sculptures with Buddhist images. Four out of five of his works are either Buddhist statuary or related items. Of course, his pieces are not just sculpture, but objects of worship. A sculpture made with lewdness and neglect is but a mass of wood, Mr. Park said.
Over his 45 years of devotion to the craft, Mr. Park has produced more than 100,000 works. Of those, he considers 1,000 to be masterpieces.
Mr. Park has carved several replicas of Geumdong Banga Sayusang, a gold-plated Buddhist statue sitting with legs crossed and chin supported by its right hand, whose two originals are National Treasures. Among other works, Mr. Park has replicated a seated statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, a noteworthy relic of Korean art history found at Pagyesa temple in Daegu.
His works are found in Japan, China, Mongolia and Southeast Asia as well as India, the birthplace of Buddhism. They can also be found in predominantly Christian nations like the United States and France.
“Around 20 to 30 percent of new Buddhist statues in Japanese temples and homes are the work of Mr. Park,” the Japanese broadcaster NHK reported in a news program. “Baekje introduced Buddhism to Japan and now Mr. Park’s works are pacifying the minds of the Japanese public.”
Mr. Park came to Seoul at age 12, apprenticing for two years with the sculptor Kim Seong-su before studying under Lee Un-shik. After high school, he concentrated on the sculpting of Buddhist images with specialists in the niche. That’s when his interest in restoration work was piqued. In 1985, the government recognized him as one of the select craftsmen who are permitted to restore cultural assets.
Recognition for Mr. Park came in 1987, when he created Yungangdae, a pagoda-like wooden canister for storing Buddhist scriptures, that can be found at Yongmunsa temple in Yecheon. Mr. Park also sculpted Hwamuntugaksotong (1988), a tall container with a carved-flower facade that is kept in Tongdosa temple, and Beopsang (1989), a monks’ podium for which Mr. Park received a presidential award. In 1996, Mr. Park himself was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Property. Despite these accolades, Mr. Park said, “There is still a long way to go.”
Mr. Park shrugged off a compliment bestowed upon him by a visitor. Shaking his head, he showed his scarred hands.
“The cardinal element of wooden sculpture is texture,” Mr. Park said. “After 10 years of sculpting, I was able to feel that texture and then took an interest in fine sculpture. After that, I came to appreciate good wood.”
To find quality wood, he’s traveled far and wide. His favorites, aloe wood and Chinese juniper, are expensive, but he seemed ready to give almost anything for them.
Nowadays, Mr. Park is overseeing the nation’s first wooden sculpture school in Yeoju, Gyeonggi province. His desire is to hand down his techniques to the next generation.
“My last wish is to put together all of my tastes and techniques to create one piece that can touch everyone’s soul,” Mr. Park said.

by Lee Man-hoon
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