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[ZOOM KOREA] Giving najeonchilgi a modern twist

Nov 16,2017
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Crafstman Kim Young-jun creates lacquerware inlaid with mother of pearl, or najeonchilgi, late into the night, at his gallery in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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1. Kim Young-jun looks at najeon works he created to celebrate the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. 2. Kim carefully coats his work with lacquer. 3. Pope Francis’s chair, which was used during a mass held at the Myeongdong Cathedral. 4. A lacquer painting of grass and insects. 5. An Xbox with mother-of-pearl inlays created by Kim. 6. A najeon moon jar. [PARK SANG-MOON]
“I spent my childhood watching the shining of a lacquered wardrobe inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which my mother regarded as her most precious treasure. I am still drawn to mother-of-pearl’s luminosity and it has become the driving force behind my work. The color of the jagae [a native Korean term referring to the craft of inlaying mother-of-pearl] changes depending on the angle of the light, which makes the works so enchanting. With such distinct characteristics, I create countless colors with my own methods, and inspire others with my work.”

As a najeonchilgi artisan, Kim Young-jun works to add a modern touch to the traditional Korean art form of mother-of-pearl lacquerware to fit the contemporary tastes and designs. To find the perfect shine for his pieces, he goes through every abalone, conch and pearl oyster shell he can find, which eventually become the jagae of his artwork. His meticulous inspection is necessary as the shine differs depending on what type of shell he chooses. His fastidiousness pays off in his artworks, which give off depth and have a unique quality that lure viewers in to take a closer look.

Kim hasn’t always been set on becoming a noted mother-of-pearl lacquerware artist. He was once a successful analyst at a famous stock firm. However, his stress from work reached its peak following fluctuating stock prices all day, until finally, he quit his job in 1994, after 10 years with the firm. He was 37 years old at the time.

After submitting his resignation, he set off to begin the second phase of life. One day, he visited his friend’s furniture factory, and there he saw something that reminded him of his childhood: lacquerwares inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

To study jagae, he was always on the move, like a bee buzzing around flowers in search of nectar. He visited every workshop he could to properly learn his craft, and while studying, he discovered that there was a big problem with the jagae designs: the traditional black mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquerware clashed horribly with the interiors of contemporary apartments and did not match modern design preferences. Furniture stores began to close one by one. Seeing this phenomenon, he made another big decision to go abroad, so that he could study more about jagae and its designs.

So while others were leaving the slowly dying najeonchilgi industry, he put himself on a plane to the United States with plans to study.

Ever since his days as an analyst, he always liked the proverb, “There’s always light on the path where no one ventures.” To him, it meant that only the ones brave enough to go forward could succeed. Even to this day, he treasures the proverb, which helped him overcome hardships and develop into the artisan that he became today.

After finishing his studies in design, he came back to Korea to devote himself to his craft. He hosted several exhibitions to showcase his pieces to the public, but his attempts only created more disappointments and discouragement. The young women who came by his gallery commented that the mother-of-pearl lacquerwares were pretty, but they still thought that the furniture wouldn’t fit in their homes. They found the design to be too outdated to fit contemporary lifestyles.

It would be unlike Kim to give up right then. He again went abroad, this time attending a design school in Italy called Domus Academy to study more about designs for two years, then going to Japan to learn about refining techniques for raw lacquer from a lacquer artisan at Kanazawa University. Through his studies, he became the first and only person in Korea to receive a patent for a lacquer refining technique. However, despite his passionate learning, there came the period of ennui after dedicating seven years to najeonchilgi. He was almost bankrupt, and he had to work part-time as a taxi driver. But his passion for his art grew even more, burning steadily and quietly in his determined mind.

After participating in the Maison & Objet Paris trade fair in 2007, he was invited to display his works in the Park Hyatt Vendome Hotel in Paris. Completely by chance, Bill Gates was staying at the hotel and purchased some of his pieces: two lacquer paintings of grass and insects, and two circular lacquer paintings. Meeting Bill Gates was totally unexpected for Kim and was a kick-start to his career as an artisan.

The following year, Bill Gates made a special order, asking Kim to make mother-of-pearl-inlaid Xboxes, which spread Kim’s name to the world as a famous artist and najeonchilgi expert. He decorated the Xboxes with the shapes of butterflies and Japanese apricot flowers, which symbolize perseverance and endurance. With the hope that peace will eventually come to the world, he named the artwork “Peace.”

After his first big break, Kim again received global attention for his work when he created a chair for Pope Francis, who visited Korea in August 2014. Despite other beautifully handcrafted chairs, Kim’s chair was the favorite of the Pope. The simply-designed chair suited the pope perfectly, with the chair itself lacquered in black. On the back of the chair, Kim embedded the symbol of the Pope’s coat of arms in jagae. The chair was used during a mass held at the Myeongdong Cathedral.

At Kim’s gallery located in Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi, the hardworking artist sits on his stool and continues creating brilliantly-colored lacquerwares inlaid with mother-of-pearl which bring together elements of traditional and modern Korean design in harmony.

A lacquered dressing table inlaid with mother-of-pearl using Byzantine patterns that caught the eye of the princess of the United Arab Emirates, circular-shaped works of jagae titled “Cosmos” which represent the maker’s feelings, and a najeon moon jar, which is deemed to be priceless, are all currently on display in the gallery. The beautiful colors created by the works of Kim shine brightly in his workshop and throughout the exhibition space.

After going through many failures, disappointments and sacrifices, Kim now finds himself a successful artist. Nevertheless, he is still not satisfied with his current place, and is working on a new project - to bring his two-dimensional art to three dimensions. He will work endlessly towards new challenges without fear, because he has always worked this way, pursuing new areas of artwork and continuing to develop najeonchilgi.

Until this new style of art that Kim is working on using najeonchilgi is complete, he will not rest, repeating his trials of failures and successes, steadily going forward on his path as a creative artist.

PARK SANG-MOON [moonpark@joongang.co.kr]