[ZOOM KOREA] Artist Jang Mee-kyung's tigers always change their stripes
In Korea, tigers are a symbol of bravery and are commonly seen in Korean folk culture, particularly mythology, fables and old sayings. Tigers have long been perceived as the guardians of Korea that defeat all sorts of disasters, plagues, demons and ghosts, which has led to their frequent appearances in artworks.
Fifty-one-year-old ceramic artist Jang Mee-kyung’s signature pieces are comprised of tiger-shaped statues. Jang drew inspiration from the stone statues at Gyeongbok Palace in central Seoul; dancheong, or traditional multicolored paintings on wooden buildings; and kkokdu, traditional wooden dolls. Jang’s statues represent tigers as holy spirits that chase away evil spirits, using intense, bright colors to give them a lively appearance.
Jang was born in Seoul, where she recalled spending a normal childhood. Her living room had paper dolls of newlyweds and a large Asian painting, and these items inspired her to dream of becoming a painter.
Her parents were initially against her wish to go to art school for university, but were finally persuaded to allow her to go. She majored in ceramics and took one step closer to becoming an artist.
Jang spent her years at university going on trips to temples, ancient palaces, museums and art museums to study Korean heritage. She was especially interested in gwimyeon, or monster masks made from giwa [tiles used to make the roof of traditional Korean homes], subsequently writing her graduate thesis about them.
After graduating university, Jang spent some 10 years making porcelain bowls and tea sets. Although she enjoyed making gwimyeon, they did not sell well as people were not very interested in them. Jang had no choice but to start producing ceramic ware that was popular among the general public, rather than focus on her artistic values.
However, one day, she coincidentally found a great opportunity that would later on guide her back to creating art to her preference.
The Kokdu Museum in Jongno District, central Seoul, asked her to make them kkokdu. During the two years Jang spent making the wooden dolls, she realized how much she loved them, leading her to open her very own solo exhibition in 2008 on the kkokdu she had made.
Jang officially started incorporating tigers into her artworks in 2010, which was also the Year of the Tiger. She received an immense number of requests to make ceramic tiger dolls, to the point that she was unable to work on anything else. Jang said that although she adored making kkokdu, she also found delight in making the ceramic tiger dolls.
The Year of the Tiger has returned, and Jang continues to depict tigers through art.
Jang’s tiger artworks have a uniqueness distinctive from other artists. She first uses a mixture of clay, including white clay, according to a set ratio, and uses many different sculpting techniques to shape the tiger’s face.
In her process, Jang burns oak into ashes and mixes it with oxidized steel into enamel for the sculpture’s exterior. This helps the statue gain a natural, wood-like feel.
Nowadays, Jang integrates gwimyeon and tigers together. Gwimyeon portrays an imaginary animal, like the dragon, that takes on the characteristics of many different animals, and Jang’s tiger sculptures are likewise.
She uses obangsaek, a traditional Korean color spectrum of red, blue, yellow, white and black, to make the sculptures vivid and adds strong patterns. The tigers show their teeth but rather than eliciting terror, they appear humorous and friendly.
Jang’s tigers are static like the stone statues in Gyeongbok Palace and have a strong divine energy. Recently the artist has reflected people and their day-to-day life stories as elements in her tigers.
The Covid-19 pandemic is one example. Jang paints patterns of clouds on her tigers, as clouds symbolize longevity and also relate to topics on the environment like climate change. The clouds are a source of hope and determination that environmental issues should be solved.
Jang says she thinks it's interesting to make sculptures that don’t necessarily appear like tigers. To some people, they might think of the sculptures as their own pet dog or a household cat. It is Jang’s wish that her tigers convey happiness to people by allowing them to perceive her works as whatever they like.
Jang first started creating tiger sculptures because she enjoyed sculpting an animal that is deeply rooted in representing Korea. However, she now wants to make tiger statues that are open to a bigger world and transcend Korea. Although she is not exactly sure how they will turn out, she is positive that the tigers will guide her along the way.
BY PARK SANG-MOON [email@example.com]