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Hearts of Wood
Super-sized hives, shells, and seed pods are among the natural objects that come to mind when you view Heechan Kim's seemingly seamless wood sculptures from a distance.
Come closer and you might think of baskets and boats, because Kim's organic forms are painstakingly constructed out of dozens of thin strips of pale ash, white oak, or maple, stitched together with hundreds of separate strands of copper or stainless steel wire.
Peer inside his #8 (2010), which won raves last fall at the ArtPrize competition at Michigan's Grand Rapids Art Museum, and savor the tension between the soft, flesh-like ash and the sharp prongs of twist-tied copper; you just might glimpse the warring impulses of the human heart, yearning for both intimacy and independence.
That's what Kim is aiming for. "My construction method, in some degree, literally represents the belief that everyone is connected, bounded, and destined to live together against their will," he said by phone from his apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
The tense marriage of metal and wood in Kim's work reflects his mastery of both materials, and his passion to push their boundaries - and his own.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, the 28-year-old Kim earned a BFA in metal arts and jewelry from Seoul National University in 2006. Then he joined his family in San Francisco, where he studied metal arts and jewelry at the Academy of Art University.
Longing to shift from jewelry to large-scale sculpture, he felt drawn to wood. "I don't want the limitations of one material," he says. "At the same time, I like to master one material so I can do anything I want with it."
The desire to master a second material drew him across the country to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he enrolled four years ago - not in sculpture, but in its School for American Crafts. There, he says, "you can learn everything about wood."
Building tables, chairs, and chests soon taught Kim that "wood is really stubborn."
"Metal is hard, but if you heat it, it gets soft and is easy to work with," he says. "But wood, you need to take care of it like a king or a queen. It's out of the tree, but still it moves because of the moisture in the air."
As he learned by studying the ancient boat-building techniques of soaking and steaming planks, moisture could also help him tame wood.
After Kim spent two years designing and making furniture, RIT professors Andy Buck and Richard Tannen encouraged him to spend his final year there making sculpture. (He earned his MFA in 2010, then moved to New York, where he's looking for a studio where he can create installations large enough to walk inside.)
At RIT, through months of trial and error, Kim developed a complex process that involves an arsenal of tools traditionally used to make everything from benches and boats to banjos and brooches.
He begins with traditional woodworking tools - band saw, planer, and sander - to create thin strips out of a pale, pliant, subtly grained, sustainable wood. After softening the stiff strips in a steaming tube or a tub of hot water, he bends each one by pressing it against a hot violin iron, a thick rod of electrified aluminum used to create the curves in musical instruments.
Next he takes up a jewelry drill, fitted with a needle-thin bit, to pierce each strip. Using his own bare (and sometimes bloodied) hands, he threads short, sharp-tipped strands of wire through corresponding holes, then gently twists them tight enough to hold the wood strips together without cracking them.
When the form is complete, Kim says, he faces his toughest task: stopping.
He does not stain the piece. He does not sand the edges. He does not use glue to help hold it together.
He leaves it raw, he says, to suggest the power and vulnerability of the human heart.
Sebby Wilson Jacobson is a writer, editor, and journalism professor in Rochester, New York.