Minah Song: In Korea, papermaking is a craft that has only been grasped by people who learn directly from their masters, who also learned it from their grandmasters. The craft, transferred in the old, remote paper mills from one generation to another, is not necessarily a mystical secret, but it is somehow shielded from the eyes of the general audience. There are only a few books in Korean that document the production of old-style Korean paper, hanji, and other traditional crafts of the country. It is natural to presume that the subtleties of the papermaker’s craft can never be learned from a book, but—not only among artists, conservators, papermakers, and paper hobbyists—there is a strong need for information regarding various technical and cultural aspects of Korean traditional hand papermaking. Today gigantic factories in Korea use an automated production process to make billions of sheets of paper. There are fewer and fewer people who carry out the difficult task of learning how to make hanji. Korean-American Aimee Lee is one such person, and she has written Hanji Unfurled: One Journey into Korean Papermaking, the first book exploring practical and artistic aspects of hanji that has been published in English. Aimee Lee’s book, written in straightforward narrative and not evading personal reflection, describes experiences of the author, who had a unique chance to study Korean papermaking and other traditional crafts at the source. In 2008, Lee travelled on a Fulbright grant to Korea and became an apprentice at Jangjibang, the paper mill of the Jang family that has been making hanji for three generations in the mountainous region of Gapyeong, northeast of Seoul. Explaining her reasons for undertaking her task, Lee observes, “Although my original intent during my visit to Korea was to learn one particular way of making paper, my journey led me far beyond the surface of hanji. I started to appreciate the social and cultural importance of paper on various scales: prosaic, elite, functional, decorative, structural, and symbolic.”
In the beginning of the book, the readers will find a theoretical description of hanji, explanation of the history of the craft, characterization of raw materials used by Korean papermakers, details of the process, and a comparison with other Asian papers. Lee connects the theory to practice by outlining a chain of empirical examples from her own experience—the difficulty of finding a hanji master, the struggle of early apprenticeship days, and the slow way of learning how to make hanji. Numerous photographs and the author’s hand-drawn diagrams of tools and process provide unusual and a truly stunning number of useful details. By sharing her point of view, not as a master, but as a student, she has, in essence, allowed us to have a look at her student notes. Instead of explaining techniques of papermaking and traditional crafts in a detached, academic way, Lee’s personal narrative enables readers to follow her own steps in learning the complicated and meticulous process of papermaking. Vivid descriptions let the readers almost smell the cooking bark, feel the sliminess of natural formation aid and the weight of slurry on the screen, and hear the sounds of water moving in the vat.
Lee’s was not easy task since traditional hanji makers are not keen on accepting foreign apprentices even though they often complain that young people do not want to undertake hard work and no one wants to learn hand papermaking. In this traditionally male-dominated craft, and in a male-dominated society, when a woman from another country wants to come and learn paper-making, the craftsmen’s attitude can be described as anything but enthusiastic. The author describes in chapter three how difficult it was for her to get in touch with masters and even more, to convince them to open their minds and to finally accept and teach her. Her hardship comes alive in the account of perseverance and hard work that was necessary for her to build a professional relationship with the craftsmen.
In chapters six through nine, Lee presents other traditional Korean crafts directly related to hanji: jiseung (twisting paper into cords and weaving them into objects), natural dyeing, joomchi (paper felting), and calligraphy. As Lee mentions, even though joomchi is known to some Western artists, sadly for contemporary Koreans both jiseung and joomchi are becoming obscure and forgotten. `
For many years it has been customary to call mulberry paper by its popular, Western designation – “Japanese paper” or “Japanese tissue,” a fact related to the quality and popularity of Japanese paper. Washi, Japanese handmade paper, has already become a familiar name, while its Korean equivalent, hanji, is still new and largely unknown. Aimee Lee’s book will undoubtedly contribute to hanji’s recognition amongst artists, papermakers, bookbinders, and conservators. But this is only the beginning of the process to widely promote and ensure the continuation of hanji. As emphasized in chapter ten, “Hanji Today,” not much can be done without Korean papermakers’ effort to consistently maintain the highest quality of their products. Given the specific demands of the highly skilled professionals who buy handmade paper, a point made by Lee is well taken: “Korean paper mills need to learn how to become accountable and competitive in the international market, recording and maintaining samples of their product lines for quality control.”
For Aimee Lee, the end of her apprenticeship and her studies in Korea did not mean the end of her journey. After returning to the United States, she built a Korean-style hanji papermaking facility in the Morgan Art of Papermaking Conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio, and continues to teach hanji workshops and experiment with hanji in her artwork. “My impetus was to find a way to connect my heritage with my identity as an artist and a person,” reflects Lee in the final chapter of the book. “But I believe that the study of hand papermaking can be as rewarding to someone approaching it for entirely different reasons.” No matter what the reasons and paths are, Lee remarks, “I am heartened by all the ways that we can connect” through the study of the remarkable tradition of hanji. Excerpted with permission from Hand Papermaking 28, no. 2 (Winter 2013): 41–43. © 2013 by Hand Papermaking, Inc. (www.handpapermaking.org). All rights reserved.
Barbara Shapiro: Inspired by a desire to connect more deeply with her heritage, visual artist Aimee Lee traveled to Korea and offers us a perceptive and detailed personal account of the state of Korean papermaking. We are privileged, as she was, to spend time in the workshops of current masters of the art of Hanji (mulberry paper) and many of the associated crafts, enriching our understanding of the formation and usage of a pristine luminescent sheet drawn from the pulp of the chamdak tree. Presented with the flow of a travel journal, this book will appeal to those scholars and craftsmen who seek a deeper understanding of fast disappearing traditional processes as well as a frank analysis of the state of the craft in Korea today. Hanji is enjoying a slight upsurge due to the “well being” health movement and the work of a few recognized artists, but it will never again be as prevalent as in the past when strong ubiquitous hanji papers covered floors and windows, were woven into chamber pots, and even served as clothing.
Armed with a Fulbright Fellowship research grant and a few fortuitous personal connections, Lee devoted a year to total immersion in her subject. We follow her daily practice during the apprenticeships she obtained, rare for a woman and rarer still for a foreigner, albeit Korean-speaking. Her own diligence and work ethic carried her deep into the study of Hanji and earned the confidence and friendship of her various tutors. The cold and physical fatigue she experienced are palpable, as is her joy at learning to pull a proper sheet of the distinctive Korean webal tteugi or “single screen scooping” paper.
Following an introduction to Hanji’s history, ingredients and the contemporary pressures on its production, four chapters chart the saga of Lee’s Hanji apprentice-ship from the five-month search for a master willing to take on an American woman student through the demanding physical ordeal of learning in a month what practitioners spend a lifetime acquiring. Upon completion of her Hanji training at Jang Ji Bang paper mill, Lee broadens her horizons and ours with a further apprenticeship in Jiseung, the cording and weaving or twining of a variety of vessels and traditional objects. This leads into exposure to the natural dyes necessary to give the woven works their distinctive allure. Especially interesting is the story of persimmon or gammul dyeing Lee experienced on Jeju Island, known for its strong independent women. Equally delightful are Lee’s explorations of Joomchi, an artistic use of the felting qualities of manipulated Hanji, and of calligraphy, “the main reason that paper came into being.” Contemporary artists and the few schools that teach hanji are presented with a frank analysis of current political trends and failings.
Once back home, Lee keeps her promise and finds the means to open the first Korean papermaking facility in the US, Eiben Studio at the Morgan Conservatory in Cleveland, OH. Aimee Lee’s dedication to her craft and generosity in sharing her saga make for a passionate and informative read. For more information on Aimee Lee: http://aimeelee.net. Textile Society of America Newsletter, 25, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 16–17.
Molly Elkind: “Lee provides a thorough description of the distinctive process of making hanji, its history, its myriad uses, and the state of the hanji industry today. This is one artist’s candid story of the struggle to make contacts in Korea that would allow her to learn, her successes and failures along the way, and her deepening passion for her subject and her heritage.…This book will appeal to papermakers, basketmakers, and to those curious about Korean people and culture. It is sure to stand as a solid contribution to scholarship in its field. It is also a good read.” Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot 44, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 11. In the same issue, also read “Aimee Lee and the Art of Hanji” by Judy Dominic, 34–39.
Libby Pomroy: “I love this book. I knew I would even before I cracked it open. In 2010, The Hanji Crew contributed to a Kickstarter campaign for author Aimee Lee’s project to build North America’s first hanji studio—in Cleveland. The Hanji Crew is a group dedicated to learning and teaching Korean hanji, or traditional papercraft, and using the proceeds from the sale of our products to benefit Korean arts and cultural efforts, mainly in the Twin Cities.
In return for our support of Aimee Lee’s project, we were rewarded with fascinating updates on her blog, and a few months later, some sheets of the glorious hanji paper she created. Her recently-published book chronicles the path she followed from her Korean American roots in New York City to her journey as a Fulbright scholar traveling through Korea learning about the history and soul of hanji, Korea’s strong, beautiful handmade paper.
The book is part cultural travelogue, part character study (each of the author’s Korean teachers is more interesting than the last), and part technical guide.…
While Lee’s description of hanji-making goes into some detail, the text is easily understood and a delight to read. Tidbits of information jumped off the page as I read, such as Lee’s papermaking teacher saying it is possible to discern when a sheet of paper is ready, based on the shapes of the fibers of the finished sheets.…
For a glimpse at this uniquely Korean art form—and one artist’s journey to discover its versatility—Hanji Unfurled is a gem.” “Old art learned the old way.” Korean Quarterly (Winter 2013): 55–56.
Melissa Jay Craig: Hanji, an incredibly strong, beautiful, versatile and sustainably sourced paper, was once literally woven into the fabric of Korean lives. That wide-ranging presence is also how hanji affected Aimee Lee as she spent a Fulbright year intensively studying with some of the few remaining masters of hanji-making and its related arts. She takes us along on an intimate, comprehensive journey into this ancient, essential, humble yet noble material, from its history to its struggling present and possible paths for its future. This book is a valuable resource, a must-read not only for papermakers but for anyone interested in perpetuating honored traditions into an environmentally responsible future. Read it, and then get your hands on some hanji. You will be as enthralled with it as I am, and as grateful to Aimee and the Morgan Conservatory for bringing hanji production to this country.