Master craftsman keeps an old art aliveIn the streets of Insa-dong, surrounded by all the modernity of central Seoul, a part of history lives on defiantly in the furniture makers who refuse to bow to mass production.
Lee Jeong-cheon, 64, gray-haired and stooped from age, saws a flattened ox-horn skin into a square in his workroom. Then, he planes down the ox-horn skin into a paper-thin sheet, which he will later use as a canvas for his paints. The result is a translucent decoration that will be fastened to a piece of furniture later.
Mr. Lee is one of the few remaining experts in hwagak (hwa means bloom or flower, and gak means horn). It’s a craft less known to the public because its items were used only in royal courts and high-ranking aristocrats’ homes. The hwagak techniques are at least 1,000 years old and said to have originated during the Silla Dynasty.
A few 200-year-old hwagak pieces made in the Joseon Dynasty are kept in museums and universities, including the Ho-Am Art Museum and National Museum of Korea. Hwagak items, which were possessed by more women than men, included spools, rulers, hand mirrors, dressers and jewelry boxes.
Mr. Lee’s dedication to hwagak art began in the late 1950s, when he started working at a factory in Ttukseom, an island on the Han River, where his house is located.
There, he met his teacher, Eum Il-cheon, one of the few surviving hwagak artists at that time. Mr. Eum’s father had crafted eyeglass frames with tortoise shells for the royal courts of the Joseon Dynasty.
One day, Mr. Eum showed him an ox horn and asked him if he knew what it was. Then he asked whether Mr. Lee was willing to learn about the hwagak craft.
To test Mr. Lee’s talents, Mr. Eum left him alone with some tools in a workroom after giving him basic instructions. Mr. Lee did what he was told and waited for his master.
“Then, Mr. Eum came back and said, ‘I see you have talent. Do you want to complete mastering the techniques?”’ Mr. Lee recalls.
It was difficult in the beginning. Mr. Lee lived on boiled scorched rice for days while he learned his craft. But he persisted, and Mr. Lee ended up opening his own workshop in 1969.
However, hwagak was a relatively unknown art form in the 1960s and thus was difficult to sell, meaning little money for craftsmen like Mr. Lee. The biggest problem with pursuing hwagak art, or any sort of traditional craft, was money.
“Being in traditional craft arts would never lead to enough money for living,” Mr. Lee says. “I am doing it because I like it. Otherwise, the techniques would be lost. That’s why I hold on to it.”
He stayed with his craft even through the early, difficult days. “I wandered around antique shops carrying my works, but few people knew what hwagak was,” he says. Nowadays, because of the media, people are much more familiar with it, he says.
He encountered even more difficulties after making contacts with antique shops and furniture stores. Other hwagak artists undercut him by selling cheap crafts and furniture pieces.
Because of the long processes and difficulties involved in strictly following traditional hwagak techniques, Mr. Lee and other hwagak craftsmen compromised some traditional techniques. Instead of using a traditional formula of boiling ox hide, pollack skin and fish air bladder into glue, Mr. Lee began taking advantage of easily available industrial glue in the late 1960s to attach the painted skin to crafts and furniture.
Using traditional adhesion methods was not only difficult and time-consuming, but it also made his crafts and furniture too expensive to sell. Just varnishing a cabinet with traditional lacquer would cost 1.5 million won ($1,293).
“Furniture pieces that are crafted in the strict traditional style with selected wood and traditional tools are often worth more, in monetary value, than other kinds of antique furniture,” says Jace Kim, head of Gaya-jae Antiques.
“If I had stuck to traditional methods, I would have starved,” Mr. Lee says. “But selling hwagak crafts and furniture using industrial glue allowed me to revitalize the old methods later.”
In 2000, Mr. Lee reverted to the use of ox-hide glue in order to continue the tradition. “I thought when I die, the traditional hwagak technique of using natural glue will no longer be handed down to the next generation,” Mr. Lee says. “Besides that, industrial glue is harmful to humans.”
In 2000, Mr. Lee was registered at the Labor Ministry as an instructor of traditional skill. He now has four students under his guidance, as well as his nephew, who will inherit his uncle’s knowledge of the old tradition.
Just as he did, these five are learning how to formulate and use traditional glue from ox hide, pollack skin and fish air bladder.
Mr. Lee has been honored with various awards for his craftsmanship, including a silver medal at the Muju Traditional Craft Art Contest. But it’s not the awards that motivate him.
“I never intended to seek fame. I was doing it because I like it. I will continue to do it until I won’t be able to move,” Mr. Lee says.
How hwagak gets made
Hwagak craft involves as many as 35 processes:
An ox-horn, valued for its transparent quality, is cut on both ends and boiled for hours to separate the skin from the bone.
Then the skin is cut on one side and flattened by using heat and a vise. The skin is sandpapered to make it paper-thin and smooth.
Using the thinnest brush, the skin is painted with a mixture of glue made from ox hide and pigments. The painting often depicts the 10 natural and animal symbols of long life and four plants that were considered noble in Eastern culture: plum flower, orchid, chrysanthemum and bamboo tree.
The painted skin is attached to a wood piece, which will be assembled to form crafts and furniture, with the painted surface affixed to the wood. Traditionally, glue made from boiled ox hide, pollack skin and fish air bladder is used to attach the skin to the wood.
by Limb Jae-un