Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Chunghie Lee: multiple layers


Chunghie Lee has dedicated her life to the revival of Korea’s Pojagi, or wrapping cloth, tradition. Her work can be found in such celebrated collections as the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she presented her own work as part of “Fashion in Motion” in 2001, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City and the Jack Lenor Larsen Foundation. Her work ranges from site-specific installations to wearable art. With four upcoming solo exhibitions planned for this year and teaching commitments around the world her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Based in Korea, Jessica Hemmings caught up with Chunghie Lee at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she spoke about what led her to textiles and her hopes for the future.

J: Why did you begin to work with textiles?

L: I could say in two ways, one personal and one professional. In a personal way, I was introduced to fabric when I was a teenager. It might sound like an ordinary thing to Western girls, but in Korea I remember that I made a kind of bra when I was a teenager and I gave it away to my friends. They were so surprised. To me it was nothing difficult, but so much fun. I have always liked to make things with my hands, especially fabric and thread. So textiles came naturally to me. My BFA was in traditional lacquer work for furniture design in the Applied Art Department at Hongik University in Seoul, certainly not fabric. After my BFA I had a job and three children. I remember that I was very busy doing the household things and also making things for the children instead of buying. When I was able to return to a graduate program thirteen years later, the wood medium was not something friendly or familiar. But fabric, thread and sewing, knitting and crochet needles, felting – all those things were so near to my daily life. I went to textiles.

J: And pojagi, the traditional Korean technique, for which you are now so well known?

L: In the early 1990s there was a touring exhibition of traditional Korean metal and fibre crafts to America and Canada. Luckily, I was one of the invited artists. After the exhibition Korean fibre artists gathered to talk about the exhibition and we came to the conclusion that it was a good time as Korean artists to go to the United States to talk about our work. But I never imagined that I was one of the people who would travel there. Going away, from my family was dreamable but never imaginable practically. But somehow I became one of the group going to the United States. I thought I would lecture on crochet, but the opinion of the group was that we needed to talk about something special to Korea rather than Western. Pojagi was suggested. I knew what it was because its daily use is familiar to Korean people, but I did not have a specific understanding. I spoke to the Director of the Embroidery Museum, Dr. Hur Dungwha who started to collect pojagi in the sixties. It was through his invaluable efforts that these pojagis were preserved. When he showed his collection to a Korean audience it was like an awakening. At a certain point I thought maybe now I know what pojagis are. But as a doer, as a making person, I thought, if I do not make it my lecture would be half empty. So I began to make pojagi, which meant I had to go to the market and buy traditional Korean fabric. I found how beautiful the fabrics are, meaning that I did not pay so much attention to my own culture’s fabrics and colours until that moment. It was like finding my own treasure in my back yard.

J: Could you speak a little about your concept of the No Name Woman?

L: I do not think it is now like this – but in old times, women’s role was raising and giving birth to children. Especially in male dominant societies, like Korea in old times, woman’s role was very limited and there was almost no leisure time. But out of necessity most people raised ramie, cotton and hemp in their fields and made hand spun thread and wove it. They made fabric and clothing for their families. There was so much time and labour in making – so much patience – the fabric was precious. After they made clothing for their family there were scraps. Out of the scraps they made patchwork pojagi. It was in the spirit of saving or recycling to make something necessary, like a food cover or bedspread. The motivation was saving, not to show off oneself through making. Today, everyone finds beauty in the good craftsmanship, compositions and colours in the old pojagi. There was no professional ambition to make pojagi; it was innocent motivation. Without realizing, their spirit and motivation became the strong inspiration for the people who live today, people like me.

J: Traditional pojagi has a tremendous amount of function. Is the function of your own art practice about educating the rest of the world to this tradition?

L: I don’t know if I want to use the word educate. I was rather thinking that I am introducing or reminding. Because the rest of the world must have similar social backgrounds, not the same, but in other cultures there must be situations to make something similar for their daily necessities. So it is like reminding, or I would prefer to say introducing. But through making pojagi myself I would like to emphasize the mysterious beauty and harmony that can come from discarded scraps. I think this is a great metaphor for our own lives.

J: And you now spend a lot of time teaching workshops around the world. How does your role as a teacher connect with your own making?

L: When I teach I find the most enjoyable part is how the participants in my class respond to a Korean traditional item they were not familiar with. Especially when I teach classes at the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States and the Evtek Institute of Art and Design in Finland, I discover so many responses I could never imagine. These classes include a diverse range of students, from Freshmen to graduate students, textile majors as well as non-majors and a variety of nationalities. I find there are so many responses I could never imagine. Because I know what pojagi is, I might have fixed ideas. But to Western participants, their reaction is so fresh. But your question is: does it affect my own work? It could, but perhaps not as much as it could, I think I am so strongly attached to the intrinsic beauty of traditional pojagi and the nameless life – that is what I am conveying through my work – so I don’t think physically the inspirations from the classroom influence my work. But certainly there are many inspirations from my classes, and it influences my teaching in Korea to my Korean students. Because the Korean students, like I am and I was, have a fixed idea about pojagi. If I introduce the examples and thought processes from my Western classes that is very good stimulation for them. But in my own work I am still talking again and again about the power of the nameless and innocent motivation, the power that accumulates in little discardable things.

J: And for the future?

L: I have a vision to have a vocational school: crafts, drawing, to do with the hands and mind so students can go out into the world and find work with their hands. I had this dream some years ago and visited many schools and the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, while I was doing research on “creative curriculum development in art education” when I was residing at RISD as a Fulbright Scholar Grantee in 1994. I thought the FWM could be an ideal model for my school. My physical eye and mind’s eye were so wide open when I visited there. When I met with Korean officials who could make a decision about making a workshop they said it was a good idea, but nothing ever came of it. When I visited the Bauhaus Archive Museum this summer I was reminded of the vision I had tucked away for some years, while seeing the wonderful curriculum in front of my own eyes. My mind is going to that direction now.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 9: 22-23)