Water, a Table, and Eager Hands

Water, a Table, and Eager Hands

Jiyoung Chung’s sculptural art re-envisions an ancient papermaking technique.

A loose ball of dampened white paper strips in her hands, Jiyoung Chung sits in her studio in Providence, Rhode Island, and talks about the art of joomchi. She works the fibers, “agitating” them as Korean artists have for centuries before her. She passes the ball back and forth from hand to hand, swiftly tugging the shredded bits apart and pressing them back together, much as a baker might knead and pull dough.

The process, the artist explains, “breaks the layers of paper and reconnects them into one piece,’’ which she ultimately forms into a sculptural sheet. Fibers must be agitated for hours to fuse together, but Chung enjoys the process. Indeed, she sees it as an essential dialogue with the material – and more than that, a way to grapple with deeper issues.

“It’s not boring,” she says. “I’m negotiating with the material as I do it,” stretching the fibers wide apart and studying the holes and shapes that emerge. “Paper softens. I see the hardness of the agitation as life. The more you deal with it, the easier it gets. I’m not dealing with the paper but with the process of creating.”

The centuries-old art of joomchi emerged from the even more ancient Korean art of hanji, a paper made from mulberry tree bark that has been boiled and pounded. Mulberry trees are plentiful in Korea, and until recently, fabric was expensive, so hanji became a kind of substitute for more traditional cloth. Koreans found that they could fuse as many as 20 layers of hanji by squeezing and rubbing the damp sheets between their hands. The result is the much stronger joomchi.

Because it is so labor-intensive, joomchi eventually fell out of favor in Korea. But Chung is helping revive it by transforming it into abstract art. She makes textured hangings, rent with holes, layered with various colors, overlaid with collage pieces, or stitched with a riot of paper yarn. She also transforms joomchi into clothing, lanterns, and pouches, and combines it with found objects such as stones or wood.

Perhaps surprisingly, the 34-year-old Chung’s training is not in fiber art. She graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2002 with a degree in painting and earned an MFA in print/media in 2005 from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

It’s her “strength as a painter,” in fact, that makes her work so distinctive, says Maria Tulokas, professor emeritus of textiles at RISD. Chung’s mother, artist and RISD faculty member Chunghie Lee, introduced her to papermaking when Chung was a child growing up in Korea. (She came to the United States at age 19.) She loved it, but there was a hurdle: Papermaking equipment is bulky and expensive. So the young artist searched for a method that she could use on her own in a smaller space. In joomchi, Chung says, she “came across this technique where all you need is a table and water and eager hands, and you can make it anywhere, 24/7.”

Pieces from her Whisper-Romance series adorn the walls of her crowded studio. The fabric planes, most in rich red or black, are hung so that they appear to float away from the wall. Light filters through the fabric’s scattered holes, casting shadows and illuminating facets of the rough, wrinkled fibers. Air currents stir as people walk by, rippling through the work, as if the material itself were breathing.

“Art creates art,” Chung says. “It’s like letting nature finalize the work by creating its own shapes.”

The spiritual dimension of Chung’s work is especially evident in Whisper-Romance, which she has been working on for about six years. She created it after talking with her father about a news story involving a son who had killed his parents. Her father theorized that the murders had happened because “the essential relationship” had been broken.

Over time, that concept of broken relationships became the foundation of her work. “We have ‘horse whisperers’ and ‘dog whisperers,’ but I believe we need ‘human whisperers’ to heal what has been broken in our essential relationships to ourselves, to nature, and to God,” she says.

Chung has been doing some whispering herself. Since 2005, through many workshops, lectures, and solo and group exhibitions, she has been introducing joomchi to the United States; in 2008 she began introducing it to Europe and now Australia. In 2010, she curated a Korean and American joomchi exhibition in France that traveled to Korea; a version of the show will be on display in Rhode Island in July and August.

Later this year she will teach joomchi at Hansung University in Korea, with an emphasis on clothing, and she is teaching at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts this summer. Last year, she published a richly illustrated book, Joomchi & Beyond, which chronicles the history of the craft and offers step-by-step instructions for makers.

And in February, Chung was one of six artists (out of 660) honored with an Award of Excellence at the American Craft Council’s 2012 show in Baltimore.

Today, she feels like “a cultural ambassador, showing the beauty of Korean tradition and handing it down to the next generation.” She loves teaching joomchi to Westerners and showing Western interpretations in Korea.

“I feel so blessed that other people’s cultures are responding to ours, and they are creating their own version of joomchi.”


Chung’s work will be on display at the “International Joomchi & Beyond Art Exhibition” from July 9 to August 10 at the Atrium Gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. Pam Thomas is a writer and editor in Rhode Island.