Aimee Lee: Korean Papermaking Journey

The creative impulse is mysterious; why we do what we do often eludes us, but looking back our actions may appear quite clear. It seemed so for Aimee Lee. In a talk at Mills College Library she indicated how she found prompts along the way that took her from music to book art to papermaking in Korea. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in 2008-09 to go to Korea to "[Excavate] Hanji's history, practice, and contemporary applications," according to her website. What she learned there is fascinating, the subject of her book, Hanji Unfurled: One Journey into Korean Papermaking.

Having grown up along the Hudson River in New York she didn't realize when she got to college at Oberlin, about forty minutes from Cleveland, Ohio, how "landlocked" she would feel. She gravitated towards artist books, but it wasn't until she began making paper that she found her water-centered world again. In grad school in Chicago, she played violin and made handmade sheet music, created interactive performances that included the music and the paper. In one slide she was shown playing violin in fingerless red gloves (which she knit from yarn sent by a friend).

For her MFA exhibition at Columbia College Chicago she made hundreds of handmade paper bricks and fashioned them into a hanging structure that could be illuminated from within. She told the audience that when her mother saw the structure she wondered if it was modeled after a famous ancient monument in Korea. Aimee said that when she went online to see a picture of the monument she began to cry. She had pictures of both her mother and her father with it, on separate occasions, when they had visited the structure as schoolchildren. Something was calling her. She felt she needed to follow her interest in paper to Korea, to find out more about Korean papermaking. Dard Hunter had written about it from a Japanese perspective in his book A Papermaking Pilgrimage to Japan, Korea and China (you can see a copy in the Mills College Library). Other than that, no English language instructions or source material existed.

It wasn't easy convincing her family why she needed to make paper. Papermakers in Korea are traditionally lower class, often farmers who turned to papermaking during winter for a source of income when there were no crops. It wasn't easy convincing a Korean papermaker to teach her. One dismissed her for being a woman and not being "strong" enough to be able to make paper. And they wanted to know why she wasn't looking for a husband, instead.

Traveling to another country to learn was perhaps more natural for her than for some artists. Having moved and traveled quite a bit, and usually doing her work through artist residencies, Aimee refers to what she does as "itinerant artmaking." When she makes paper in different states and countries she uses the native plants. She mentioned that people tend to value domestic plants because they have lasted over time. She told stories of how the mulberry plants from Japan won't grow in Korea because the "soil is different, the people are different, the air is different, and the water is different." And how a relative brought the tiny potatoes she preferred from Korea to plant in America only to be "horrified" at how large they grew in Wisconsin. In Korea, Aimee learned how to traditionally prepare the mulberry that grew there.

After the chemicals are assembled you can begin mixing up the vat and forming paper. For every one sheet of Korean paper, she explained, you have to form two pieces of wet paper. As you will be able to see in the videos she has posted, the paper is made at an angle, causing one end to be thicker than the other. By couching (pronounced "kooching") two pieces together in opposite directions, the one sheet will have a uniform thickness. Threads are used to separate the doubled sheets. I saw the doubling as a metaphor for the personal connections she has made over time, and for her impulses that have prompted her discoveries: music and art, her papermaking in the United States and in Korea, life on the East coast and in the midwest, and life and landscapes in Korea and America. 

Aimee has posted several videos about Hanji. Here is the book trailer, another video is below it. There are others you can search for. The book goes into detail both about her journey and about the Korean papermaking process. She said everything she talked about was in the book (and there is plenty more than I have reported!). But if you get a chance to see her speak in person, take advantage of it. She is enthusiastic, thoughtful, and highly knowledgeable. She clearly enjoys her craft. Where will she go next? Info about her schedule and more is on her website.


Roberta Warshaw said…
Really fascinating work.
Velma Bolyard said…
alisa, i'm glad you wrote about aimee's presentation. i saw an early one, just after korea and before the book was written, and i know how wonderful her talks are.