Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Human treasures connect past and present

BUCHEON — Manufacturing traditional drums for 50 years is not easy but without hearing the sound, it seems impossible. Im Seon-bin, a traditional drum maker (Intangible Cultural Property No. 30), uses his sense of touch and feeling, instead of his ears, to detect the subtle vibrations a drum produces. It is the final phase for the artisan in finishing a drum.

He lost his sense of hearing in his right ear at 11 after being seriously beaten at an orphanage. Over the following years, he has been bent on his work of making traditional drums, led by his mentor into the profession. Now he has almost lost his hearing in his left ear and he needs a hearing aid, which is only used for communicating with others not during his work because of the distortion of the sound.

Born with a limb defect as a result of polio, he has lived quite a dramatic life from literal rags to becoming a master artisan.

The 61-year-old began making drums at an early age to make a living and was not originally attempting to keep the job for such a long time.

Im demonstrates his craft at the Bucheon World Intangible Cultural Heritage Expo now taking place through Oct. 12 at his workshop for visitors, along with other traditional artisans.

He has his own space and the honorable title as a master of drum making and his passion has remained the same for 50 years, but his eyes and high-pitched tone of voice reveal how hard his life has been in the past, and he still struggles in the present.

The artisan said many of the people with heritage distinction face poor conditions with little support from the government. Before the designation, he could sell his instruments but now he cannot do so anymore as he has to keep his honorable reputation as a manufacturer of only masterpieces.

In addition, he needs to hold two regular exhibitions a year but after the exhibitions, he has to tear his drums apart with his own hands as he cannot afford to keep all of them in his small workshop.

“My drums are like my children. But I have to destroy them because nobody or no institution wants to buy and keep them. I can give the drums to any museum or anyone who wants to keep them for free,” he said.

His voice trembled when he talked about the low recognition people have for the special artisans that make the traditional crafts. Im said that there is no change from the past to the present day in the awareness of his profession as he couldn’t help but deal with butchering cows and other animals to obtain good leather.

“In the past, this kind of job was regarded as a vulgar and lowly job. Do you think it has changed? No. Nobody wants to learn how to make traditional drums because it’s a hard job and it’s hard to make money from it,” he said.

But Im has never doubted his destiny as a drum maker who feels like all his woes are washed away once he listens to the sound from a drum he has made. “Because of that sound, which pierces my heart, I cannot give up my job however hard it is.”

These days, most of the drums are made by machines or imported from China at cheaper prices. Worse, it is becoming more difficult to procure good materials such as high quality leather or lumber, which are essential for drum making. According to the type of leather or kind of wood used — pine or Paulownia, the drums make different sounds.

“Leather is like the father while lumber is like the mother. The sound produced between the leather and the wood is like a child. I don’t forget the sound from my drums,” he said.

Even though his life is still tough, Im has a wish to restore the ancient drums from Silla and Goryeo to Joseon Kingdoms. “I have the resources that document the ancient drums. I can make those traditional instruments. Until I die, I want to restore the exceptional drums that show the historical changes of the instruments,” he said.

Fan maker: reinventing traditional craft into modern artwork

Jo Chung-ik, a fan-making artisan (Intangible Cultural Property No. 10), views his craftsmanship differently and considers it for ornamental artwork.

He is displaying two gigantic fans with some 260 centimeters in width at the ongoing exhibition at the expo.

“The concept of traditional fans has changed. People don’t use fans any more due to air conditioners. So I changed my perception of traditional fans. Now I am trying to create more decorative and artistic fans that can be hung on the wall,” Jo said.

The 63-year-old said that in ancient times, the main function of the fans were to make wind but now their roles have shifted to become artistic and modern creations.

He has made traditional fans for the last 30 years in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province renowned for producing high quality “hanji” (traditional Korean paper handmade from mulberry trees). Hanji is a basic component for making a fan, along with bamboo.

The artisan said that Jeonju has produced a lot of the most luxurious and highest quality fans in the past.

“We traditional craftsmen can contribute to fostering the image of the globalization of Korean culture. I hope many people appreciate our values not just as antiques but as beautiful Korean artifacts,” he said.

Source: The Korea Times

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