Sim Jeong-bo’s mastery world of totem poles and wood letter carving

신태섭 기자l승인2019.08.26l수정2019.08.26 09:11






▲ Totem pole and seogak artist Sim Jeong-bo

Totem pole
Beauty is at the eyes of beholder. Totem pole and seogak artist Sim Jeong-bo found his beauty in life at carving wood. As the time lapses and his skill and passion deepen, the beauty has become a trace of his life. Korean totem poles, in particular, are precious for Sim for they have stood eternity no matter how hash tempestuous storms whirling around them. Standing in front of these totem poles, one might image the roughness of our life by appreciating the carver’s passion and technique.  

Heading to Chiak Mountain in Wonju City, we have to follow up the meandering paths for a while to reach Sim’s studio. The first to greet us are totem poles somewhat rough as if they are protecting their owner from intruders. Stepping into the studio, we might wonder whether we are in a museum for there are objects that seem to be beyond time and space. 

Totem poles are monumental carvings, consisting of poles, posts or pillars, carved with symbols or figures. They are different in forms, size and colors but same in its function of preventing bad luck from entering a village. 

“There is a cliff where I grew up. I didn’t dare to climb. But one day when I was in my 20s I saw a couple of totem poles standing on the cliff. So I climbed up to have a better look and they were standing there firmly much weathered and worn out. One might just pass them without noticing what they were because the figures were almost ambiguous. Then this thought struck me hard that they had been still standing there for a long time no matter rain, snow, storm and scorching heat. They were just beautiful and I felt overwhelmed” remembers Sim.

Ever since he found the beauty of totem poles, he launched a journey to find master totem pole carvers nationwide day and night. He learned the skills and the art of carving for many years. When he thought he was ready, he started to make his presence by displaying his works at various competitions. Winning a prize at the 2001 Wonju Chiak Mountain Totem Pole Competition, he carried on his prize-sweeping to the Grand Art Festival, the Donga International Art Festival, and more. In 2008, he obtained patents for his pole design, and in 2009 for totem pole design, which led him to list his name in the hall of traditional totem pole masters. 

In order to make a totem pole, he climbs mountains 100 meters above sea level to pick the very best trees possible. The more curved and deformed the better the trees for totem poles. Sim turns what all sees as ugly into what all sees as beautiful. One noticeable characteristic of Sim’s totem poles is that they have scary face like many others yet the expression has warmth. They do not have regular forms but irregular yet harmoniously done. 

Seogak is not different from making totem poles in terms of carving the objects. The difference, however, is that the former carves letters and images onto the wood board. Sim has been researching and developing our traditional seogak methods and is the one who founded the Gwangwon Traditional Culture Research Center, and who has been fostering talented young seogak artists for many years. One of this achievements worth mentioning is his development of ‘nakgwan structure’ that carves letters more three dimensional; Sim has finished ‘Utility Model Registration’ for the method.

“Seogak is like a total art in which a lot of different skills should harmoniously be executed. It is such a charm that a seogak artist turns the two dimensional surface into a three dimensional form through various carving techniques. What is most important, however, is that the carving must express the vitality of the wood since the material is not an artificial substance. One good way to do this is to keep the streaks of the wood.”

Sim obtained a wood craft instructor certificate in 2009 and worked as a seogak lecturer at Korea University. He has held more than 50 times of invitational and solo exhibitions and won the best prize at the 2010 Donga International Art Festival and an excellent instructor’s prize at the 2013 Gonga International Art Festival. 

Recently, he organized a large scale exhibition for talented young seogak artists as the chairman of the organizing committee. The exhibition was designed to promote exchanges and networks between seogak artists.


Kim Ju-yeon’s never ending passion in spreading the beauty of traditional calligraphy and seogak art


▲ Calligrapher and seogak artist Kim Ju-yeon

Seogak is a traditional Korean art form that a caver carves letters and images on a wooden log. Historically, seogak has been closely linked with calligraphy since carvers carve letter written in calligraphy. The difference, however, is that while calligraphy is two dimensional, seogak is three dimensional. For this reason, many calligraphers are doing seogak alongside. Yet it is hard to find calligraphers who are excellent in both arts.

Kim Ju-yeon is a calligrapher and a seogak artist who obtained a master’s title in seogak and who gained fame for his unique ‘Hosan style’ in calligraphy (Hosan is her nickname). In 2017, the Federation of Artistic & Cultural Organization of Korea approved Kim as a ‘master seogak artist’. As if to prove it, she won the presidential prize at the 19th International Calligraphy Style Exhibition and the Culture, Sports and Tourism minister’s prize at the 53rd Daehyeon Yulgok Writing Style Competition. 

Kim opened the Kim Ju Yeon Traditional Art Transmission Academy in Yongin City. It was quite surprising for me to see this woman seemingly in her early 40 to be a master seogak artist and a famous calligrapher. 

When Kim was 9 years old, her father took her hands one day to go to a calligraphy academy. I myself once learned calligraphy around that age but I gave up in 6 months. It might have been too hard for a 9 year old boy to exert such a concentration for each stroke of words. For Kim, the word ‘hard’ did not seem to apply as she remembers back “The words appeared on the ceiling when I laid down myself on bed to sleep at night.”

“Ever since my father grabbed my hand to a calligraphy academy, calligraphy has been the center of my life. We were not a well-to-do family so it was such a burden for me to buy tools such as Korean papers and brushes and all that. But I thought about it most of the time. I even taught calligraphy and Chinese in part time when in university to carry on my passion.”

It was when Kim was in high school that she opened her eye to the charm of the world of seogak. Her high calligraphy teacher did seogak though not mastery but it was enough to make this young student enchanted by carving the letters onto a wood board. 

“I traveled a lot to find seogak artists as there was a certain limitation to learn the skills by myself. I built the necessarily techniques gradually and became able to add my own styles. It was great to see that people finally started to recognize my styles, and one after another, the orders were made to me.”

The signboard hung at Balwang Temple and the engraving of ‘Jo seon yeon ye sa’ (SBS drama title meaning Joseon Romance) remain probably as the two most popular works of Kim for many ordinary people. 

The life changing event took placed in her 20s when she saw by chance the works of master seogak artist Sim Jeong-bo on SNS. The meeting of Sim and Kim created a great synergy and Kim learned cutting edge skills and souls of seogak art under the instruction of Sim. The years of learning and teaching developed as the pupil and the teacher relationship, and the relationship today has become more like ‘fellow artists’. 

“Letters have their souls and vitalities. And the souls and the vitalities become bigger through the execution of seogak. It is truly charming that seogak leaves the traces of knives and hammers as they are even after the completion of the work. And I feel overwhelmed that I carve the letters I write. Whenever I appreciate my seogak works, I just can’t help being happiest!”

At the Kim Ju Yeon Traditional Art Transmission Academy, we can learn calligraphy, seogak and Chinese characters. Everybody is welcome regardless their age or sex. The courses are open for as little as 6 years old to senior citizens and those whose dream is to be a calligrapher or a seogak artist. It is notable that some children learn calligraphy and seogak and even obtain the first grade Chinese character certificate under the attention to detail instruction of Kim.

Recently, calligraphy – not traditional but pen writing – is booming on SNS in South Korea. Numerous courses and lessons are being offered. How can we interpret this same word but different meanings? I would like to say that calligraphy in traditional term is the art itself but calligraphy on SNS term is rather more trendy and commercial. It is notable, however, that many of the latter categorized calligraphers are originally the traditional calligraphers. 

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