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UI graduate student studies rare, dying Korean art

BY AARON WALKER | NOVEMBER 07, 2014 5:00 AM

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University of Iowa graduate student Steph Rue is reinvigorating her Korean heritage by helping revitalize a fading artistic tradition.

Rue studies hanji, the ancient Korean art of papermaking and its connection with Buddhist spirituality. Hanji literally translates to “the paper of Korea.”

“I am Korean-American. I kind of came back to my heritage through finding the hanji,” Rue said. “It allows me to understand a lot more of my own culture. Artifacts made with this paper can speak a lot to traditional Korean heritage and developments in Korean history.”

Rue said hanji is a dying art.

While in the West it is rare to find paper more than 400 years old, hanji artifacts date back to the eighth century.

But hanji is not only used as paper.

It’s a thick material, made from the inner bark of mulberry trees, that can be used as anything from wallpaper to armor.  

“It’s so durable, they say Korean paper lasts 1,000 years,” Rue said. 

The process is slow and laborious, but Rue believes despite the slow pace, it’s much more meaningful than factory-produced paper.

Rue became interested in Asian papermaking while listening to a lecture on the art.

Currently, she is pursuing an M.F.A. in papermaking at the UI Center for the Book.

During her studies of the ancient craft, Rue traveled to Korea this past summer to study with some of the only remaining artists who practice hanji in its purest form.

While in Korea, Rue traveled all over, from Seoul to the Haeinsa Temple, viewing, learning, and practicing the art of hanji while advancing her knowledge of Buddhist spirituality.

Melissa Curley, UI assistant professor of religion, said Buddhists combine their spirituality with arts such as tea ceremonies, martial arts, calligraphy, and many others.

“Many forms of East Asian Buddhism, including Korean Buddhism, share the idea that any kind of activities that takes years of dedicated training in order to do well can function as a kind of meditation practice,” Curley worte in an email. “A Buddhist teacher might say that the student’s state of mind is visible in the paper that she makes.”

Director of the Center for the Book Timothy Barrett said a book such as one Rue may create might begin with completely black pages. As it transpires, a circular form becomes more and more defined and will eventually return to completely black. This is something he said may confuse readers.

“Her finished artist’s books combine handmade paper, sumi ink, fine-press printing, and collage to explore subjects that are both spiritual and material at the same time,” he said.

Despite confusion, Barrett said after reading the book, people react by saying it is one of the most beautiful things they have ever experienced.

Today, Rue is working to create a makeshift hanji vat in Oakdale, studying at the UI, and applying for a Fulbright Grant to return to Korea next year.

“I feel like it’d be a shame for some slower traditional arts to be neglected, pushed aside, or lost completely,” Rue said.  “I feel like the heart of their culture gets lost, too, when ignoring their cultural traditions.”


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