Master craftswoman uses dolls to heal memories

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Master craftswoman uses dolls to heal memories

“When I was six or seven, I was given a doll dressed in hanbok (the traditional Korean outfit). But it was a great shock because [the doll] wasn’t ‘Korean’ at all. It had blue eyes!”
The experience so disturbed Im Su-hyun that she didn’t touch a doll for over twenty years. However, she eventually put reins on her phobia, and now 54 years-old, Ms. Im specializes in crafting traditional Korean clay dolls.
“God led me onto this road,” she explains. “One day I was looking at the sky and said to myself, ‘I want to clay the hearts of Koreans.’ I [immediately] forgot what I said, but two years later I found myself doing this.”
Once untouchable, dolls are now like children to Ms. Im.
For the last 20 years, she has kept a diary for each doll. “I knew they would leave me someday,” she explains. “While writing the diary, I felt like a mother who gets her children married and sends them away.”
She stored the diaries in an apple box until two decades and hundreds of dolls later she decided to publish a book. “My Home ―the Diary of Old Dolls,” released in December, has photos of the dolls paired with their own stories, sometimes with historical explanations.
Ms. Im’s dolls depict ordinary people from the olden days: brothers and sisters carrying younger siblings on their backs after school; sisters playing with frogs in the yard after being scolded by grandma for making noise inside; women doing house chores like spinning cotton into yarn, weaving on a loom, pounding cloth and ironing; mothers dyeing their daughters’ nails with balsam petals ― a must for little girls in Korea; a tired but happy couple selling fish on the street as the wife carries their only daughter on her back; a mother at the sewing machine until late at night, and grandparents telling fairy tales to their grandchildren.
“I wanted to [express] Koreans’ simple lives and spirit,” she said.
She compared the process of making dolls to that of giving a birth. It takes usually two to three months to complete a single doll. After forming its clay body, she selects cloth, dyes and sews it, cuts her own hair and affixes it to the dolls, weaves straw shoes and makes ornaments and accessories for each based on their stories.
She learned to make traditional hats that denoted social status in the Joseon Dynasty from the late Suk Joo-sun, the former head of the folk museum at Dankook University. Jung Jung-wan, a needlework expert, taught her the traditional way of sewing, and You Hi-kyung, the head of Korea’s Traditional Costume Research Institute, taught her about traditional costumes and ornamentation.
Ms. Im recalls the late Ms. Suk supported her when her obsession led to financial difficulties ― and times when she had nothing to eat. She gave advice, even late at night, on the right colors for a dress, or the age and social class and correct length for a jeogori, the traditional Korean jacket, for each period.
“One Chuseok, Ms. Suk showed me thimbles she made whenever she was sick. She encouraged me to express the lives of Korean country folk,” Ms. Im wrote. “Then Ms. Suk bequeathed me the name ‘so,’ which means ‘pure and simple.’ I added ‘yeon,’ which means ‘the lowest place,’ to complete my pen name ‘So-yeon’.”
In addition to expressing the Korean sprit, Ms. Im, a devout Catholic, has also crafted a tribute to her faith. In 2001, she completed eighty dolls for the 200th anniversary of the Sinyu Persecution of Catholic believers. The scenes involving the Korean Catholic church are on permanent display at the Jeoldusan Martyrs Museum, in Mapo-gu, western Seoul.
The project, which took nearly four years to make, is to remember the fate of early Catholic missionaries, who first entered Joseon via China and spread their beliefs among radical philosophers and opponents of the corrupt feudal system. Their influence grew significantly after James Ju Mun-mo, a Chinese priest, came to Joseon in 1794. Catholicism was considered a threat to Confucianism, on which the Joseon Dynasty was based, because it refuted the patriarchal system and Confucian rituals. After the death of King Jeongjo, who had been tolerant of Catholics, Queen Mother Jeongsun ordered the eradication of heretical and western religions in 1801. About 100 believers, including Father James, were executed, and about 400 others were banished.
Ms. Im crafted scenes such as the sacrament of confession by French Bishop Imbert (1796-1839) at a private house, an Easter mass led by Father James, and the ordination ceremony of Andrea Kim Dae-geon, the first Korean priest.
“The martyrs devoted their lives to seek faith and truth, tolerating suffering and persecution,” said Ms. Im. “While making the dolls, I was healed of the wound from [seeing a blue-eyed Korean doll]. I hope my dolls can also comfort others who have been hurt.”


by Park Sung-ha
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