California Arts Council

State of California

Korean traditional art: beautiful, unique and distinctive
A California Arts Council summer intern profiles two traditional Korean visual artists working in Los Angeles


Published: 07-30-2008

Deep in Los Angeles' Koreatown is a folk-art studio with a unique name appropriate in the immensely diverse City of Angels: Casa Muhyang. The Korean traditional arts and crafts (called gyu-bang arts in Korean) is the focus of this unique studio that has a name that is a juxtaposition of two foreign words -- one Spanish, the other Korean. It suits this uniquely Angeleno establishment, run by Bong Hwa Kim and her husband, Sun Y. Lee, two recipients of the the L.A. Treasure Award from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs -- Ms. Kim for her jogakbo textiles and Mr. Lee for his traditional Korean woodcraft.

Jogakbo sample by Korean artist Bong Hwa kimGyu-bang is a Korean word that means "living room," and household arts--arts that would take place in the living room and are traditional for the common women of Korea--are given the name gyu-bang arts. One of the gyu-bang art forms is the traditional tea ceremony that has parallels in other Asian cultures. The gyu-bang arts also include jogakbo, a distinctive type of patchwork quilting that somewhat resembles the cubist art style of the twentieth century. But jogakbo is over 200 years old, involves textiles rather than paints, and is unique to Korea.

Jogakbo quilts are typically made from the triangular pieces of fabric left over after making hanbok (traditional dress similar to the Japanese kimono), and the final products are composed of pastel-tones joined together with meticulous stitches. Lighter colors are usually used as the background, with strong and brighter colors in the center creating the mainframe of the piece. The jogokbo artist blends the different colors and shapes into absolute harmony, and the patchwork art creation is a meditative practice for the Korean women who create the colorful pieces.

Casa Muhyang is devoted solely to the arts and craft of Korea. Ms. Kim's jogakbo and Mr. Lee's traditional woodcraft are on display, and Ms. Kim teaches classes in the gyu-bang arts. Both artists contributed to the California Imagination Project, a collaborative effort between the California Arts Council, California artist Jillian Kogan, a dozen creative professionals in California, and approximately 250 arts organizations and artists throughout California. One of Mr. Lee's hand carvings can be seen in the California Imagination image of the state's Bear Flag composed of objects and images from California arts organizations and artists.

For visitors who are interested in Korean customs, Ms. Kim gives classes in jogokbo, and the studio features instruction in the traditional Korean tea ceremony. Muhyang means "no scent" in Korean, and comes from the Korean phrase jinsu-muhyang, which loosely translates as "no scent in the purest water." The facility's name demonstrates the owners' intent of the studio as a pure space to discover the natural scent or essence of tea, people, and art. The name of the studio also includes the word casa, the Spanish word for "house," and is an indication in the artists' interest in Latin America. 

"My husband and I came to America to learn more professional medical skills to help the poor and the sick in Peru and Ecuador where we lived," said Ms. Kim, who added that she and her husband spent six years in South America. (Both artists work professionally in the Asian medical field, in additional to their artistic endeavors.) 

Living in unfamiliar territory gave them a different perspective of the world and of their homeland, she said. "By experiencing life in a foreign country, we realized the beauty and value of our own culture and arts."

Creating and instructing others in jogakbo is an extremely pleasurable experience for Ms. Kim, who learned the art from her mother. She draws inspiration from nature and describes the experience as "meditative," as well as putting her in touch with her cultural roots and past generations of Korean women in her family. "Besides, when students who are learning from me improve their stitches, I am very happy," she said.

One concern for this husband-and-wife team is the difficulty many Westerners have recognizing Korean art as distinct from other Asian arts. This concern was a driving factor in why Ms. Kim and her husband opened a gallery of the same name and approached the creation of their crafts professionally.

"We are always sorry that many foreigners cannot distinguish the uniqueness of Korean arts among Chinese and Japanese arts," said Ms. Kim.

Being an artist in Los Angeles is not always easy. Because of financial difficulties, they had to close their larger gallery and transform their arts business into a smaller studio and teaching space. The experience put a damper on what is otherwise an enjoyable craft and business.

"Of course, my husband and I are not always happy," she said. "The most difficult part is money." Materials are expensive because they need to be imported from Korea, and there is little financial assistance for their craft. English is a new language for them and their limited language skills create difficulties in working as artists in the U.S. and appealing to the mainstream American community. Keeping up with both their professional lives as Asian medical experts, gallery owners and artists has become quickly overwhelming.

"Because it is very hard to run the gallery all by ourselves and concentrate on our (medical) work at the same time, we realized we had to close the gallery," said Ms. Kim with sadness in her voice.

Woodcarving by Korean artist Sun Y LeeThe two artists have had some recent positive experiences that have given them the hope that the Casa Muhayng studio will help them continue on their quest to expand the Korean traditional arts in California. They met Karen Mack, founder and director of LA Commons, an arts organization that helps artists display their craft in public spaces as part of an overall goal of community-building. (LA Commons is also a California Arts Council "Creating Public Value" grantee.) Ms. Mack has helped the owners of Casa Muhayng hold events related to Korean culture and reach beyond the immediate Korean community.

"It's a surprise that Karen can understand our broken English pretty well," said Ms. Kim. "It's very good for us. (Ms. Mack) was the one who encouraged us to participate in California Imagination project of California Arts Council," she said.

Despite difficulties, Ms. Kim and Mr. Lee plan to continue to create and share their traditional Korean arts with the public. Immediate plans for Ms. Kim and Mr. Lee include submitting works to the Asia Expo, a multicultural event showcasing Asian and Asian-American art and business held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on August 30-31. 

They also have a dream for the future: the creation of Korean arts and culture exhibitions from Los Angeles that would be displayed outside the region, and the foundation of a Korean traditional-culture institute. "We are going to keep trying to give our traditional distinctive culture wider publicity," said Ms. Kim.

Want to learn the delicate needlework yourself? Experience the art of Korean jogakbo, the tea ceremony and other gyu-bang arts at the Casa Muhyang Studio at 908 S. Lucerne Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90019. Telephone: + (213) 393-6747, www.casamuhyang.com.
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This article was reported by California Arts Council intern Hyemi Shin, a student at the University of California-Irvine, and edited by Mary Beth Barber, Communications Director at the California Arts Council.

The California Arts Council considers profiles and articles about grantees and important stories on the arts in California for its website and eNewsletter California Artbeat. Have an idea or would like to contribute an article? Contact Mary Beth at mbarber@caartscouncil.com.




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