When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Will Appear

Written by Aimee Lee, Junior Researcher ’08-09

My search for a papermaking teacher started the year before I applied for a Fulbright grant, and ended nearly six months after I arrived in Korea. I knew it would be hard, but did not expect to find much more than I was seeking, let alone more than one teacher.

I landed in Korea in June 2008. Soon afterwards, on a sweltering afternoon, I was with a family friend whose neighbor had learned that I was researching hanji (Korean handmade paper). She told me the owner of an oil shop at the local market made hanji dolls. Doll-making was not part of my research, but I went anyway — only to discover that the oil shop had shut down after an accident that had killed the owner’s children. I left, not giving doll-making a second thought.

Through the summer and fall months, I traveled the countryside looking for the right teacher. I finally met Jang Seong Woo, whom I had contacted over a year before, during a Paper Road Festival event at the National Palace Museum. I told him about the paper mills I had visited and the papermakers I had encountered, none of which had fit my research needs. He understood, informing me that his own mill was the only place to learn the specific type of papermaking in which I was interested, and invited me to train with him. “Just find a place to stay close to the mill and I will tell my mother to add another spoon to the pot,” he offered warmly.

2008 Junior Researcher Aimee Lee and her paper weaving teacher, Na Seo Hwan, brush lacquer onto pieces made from woven hanji in northeastern Korea at a traditional family paper mill called Jang Ji Bang.

During the brutal cold of January 2009, while learning how to make hanji and to weave paper, known as jiseung, I asked Mr. Jang if he himself had learned from a jiseung teacher. He responded that he had, but that his teacher’s story was tragic. The man had a family and owned a business before a car accident instantly killed his two children and sister-in-law and left his wife badly burned. He immediately shut down his shop and stayed home to care for his wife. I was shocked at the similarities between this story and the one I heard the previous summer. I asked where the shop was located and, recognizing the answer, confirmed that Mr. Jang’s teacher was the same man I had tried to find last year.

Mr. Jang introduced me to the man, Na Seo Hwan, in February 2009, when I began taking lessons at his home. Himself a third-generation master, Mr. Na had learned the art form from both his father and grandfather. He had not had a serious student in a while since jiseung is very difficult to learn. As a result, most students quit early on. I stayed at his home for eight-hour sessions while his wife cooked incredible meals to keep us energized. Even though they were only ten years older than I, it was clear that I was becoming both disciple and surrogate child.

Above, third-generation master Na Seo Hwan shows Lee how to weave a traditional hanji lantern.

As an artist and ambassador for hanji, I encouraged Mr. Na to begin exhibiting his work rather than keeping it forever hidden in a ten-story high-rise in Seoul. A month after I left Korea, he presented a solo show in Insadong’s famous Ssamziegil area, and eventually won a top prize for his work. Never had either of us expected to find each other and nurture each other’s work. The reciprocal nature of our student-teacher relationship was one of the most meaningful parts of my Fulbright year, and a reminder of how unexpected tragedies — as well as unforeseen relationships — can visit and transform our lives.

Since returning to the U.S., I have held four solo and several group exhibits, lectured about my work and research, and taught a class on Korean paper techniques. Each of my solo shows has used or featured hanji in the hopes of raising awareness not just of the paper, but also its applications in art. My most successful exhibit, “Native Intelligence,” took place at Diaspora Vibe Gallery in Miami. There I used hand-ground ink (traditionally employed in calligraphy), paper felting and large sheets of hanji to create a themed show that synthesized my research and studies, while gesturing toward my ancestry and connection to the Korean landscape. Most importantly, the exhibit was my way of honoring the lessons that I had learned from my teachers.