|Master Craftsman Yi Jae-man was born into a family of artisans: his grandfather
was a master of dancheong (the art of painting traditional architecture such as
temples and palaces), his father was a master carpenter, and his mother a great
embroiderer. His grandfather and his father died when Yi was very young, but his
mother, who was a great craftswoman and the winner of an award from a Japanese
emperor for her achievement in embroidery, taught him about the art of his seniors.
These lessons influenced him significantly as he grew up.
Unfortunately, Yi suffered a terrible misfortune at the age of one when he inadvertently
put his hands into a fire pot. The accident left permanent marks on most of his fingers,
some of which had to be removed up to the second joints. The tragedy, however,
couldn’t keep Yi from competing in national art competitions including painting
contests, and winning awards when he was in elementary school.
In 1968 another experience, this time a fortunate one, changed his life forever when one of his middle-school
friends, who admired his artistic talent, brought him to the workshop of Eum Il-cheon. As mentioned above, Eum at
the time was the greatest Hwagak artist in Korea, and who continued his family tradition of three generations. During
their first visit, Eum gave Yi 50 ox-horn sheets and told the junior to bring the sheets back within a week with
whatever designs he preferred to paint on them. Yi returned with his creations just after three days. Marveled at what
the teenage boy had produced, Eum suggested that the boy become his pupil, but Yi declined the proposal. The
senior didn’t give up and visited Yi’s house to persuade his mother that her son’s outstanding talents would make
the boy a great artisan under his tutelage and guidance. She was interested in the old master’s proposition, believing
that it would bring a great opportunity for her boy to overcome his impairment and find a ‘proper’ job in the future.
During the following persuasion session, led by his mother this time, 16-year-old Yi Jae-man finally said yes.
The toilsome life of “farming by day and studying by night,” translated from a Korean proverb, continued for most of
Yi’s middle and high school days. During this time he learned Hwagak skills at Master Eum’s workshop, which was
quite a distance from his house, until late at night while going to school during the day. After graduating from high
school, he began to live with his tutor at his workshop and received apprenticeship training. His education was not
limited to just Hwagak, but was extended to other traditional crafts such as mother-of-pearl inlaying and metal craft, of
which Eum was also an expert, when Hwagak materials became hard to get. At the workshop, Yi focused all his
energy on one technique at a time as if to compete against his tutor and win. By the time he opened his own
workshop after successfully completing his apprenticeship, he had already became a great craftsman who had
mastered the entire process and techniques of Hwagak art, from making baekgol (‘bare frames’) and jangseok
(‘metal ornaments’) to lacquering.
However, reviving the dying tradition by running an independent
workshop was soon found to be a daunting task. Korea at the time
was still one of the poorest countries in the world and the market
demand for these ‘royal objects,’ which had been so valuable in
the past that only the affluent were able to afford them, was pitiably
low. Making a living by Hwagak alone was almost impossible. To
make matters worse, his mother fell seriously ill with palsy; thus,
Yi had to dedicate much of his time and energy to care for her. The
despondent conditions surrounding his life kept telling him that he
should find a new job. But he persisted and held even more firmly
onto Hwagak, recalling his tutor’s resolve that he should not leave
Hwagak for whatever reason because his day would soon come.
In fact, Eum Il-cheon had given him a wonderful pen name,
Wonseok (‘The First Stone’), in the hopes that his talented pupil
would live like a stone, never leaving its resting place. According
to Yi, abandoning Hwagak would be morally wrong, especially since his aged tutor had done everything he could
to pass all his knowledge and skills onto him, in spite of unfavorable conditions. Yi still firmly believes that it is
his moral obligation as a head pupil to uphold the wisdom and talent that his tutor bequeathed unto him.
However, he did not follow his mentor’s training rigidly. As any great pupil
throughout human history, he has tried to move one step further
ahead of his instructor by developing new techniques,
designs, colors and materials. For example, he bravely
gave up the use of traditional ‘fish glue’ to adopt a chemical
glue, after finding that the latter resulted in increased
durability for his Hwagak artworks. He also discovered an
innovative technique with which he can now produce ‘ox-horn
papers’ as thin as 0.3mm. The new, sheer papers are easier
to handle, adhere better and are more transparent. His
magnificent achievements in the art of Hwagak, especially
considering the difficulties he endured including his impaired
hands, were eventually publicly recognized when in 1996 the
Korean government gave him the honorary title of Master
Craftsman of Ox-horn Inlaying, a traditional craft designated
as ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 109.’
The life of Yi Jae-man hasn’t changed very much since he received his honorable title as he still devotes much of
his time to create what is new from what is old. For him, knowledge of tradition is meaningful only when it is beneficially
used for creating contemporary works, and that making the same old object that his tutor made before him
lacks significance. Yi believes that artisans of the 21st century should be different from those of the 20th century, and
artists in the next hundred years should be dissimilar from him. He is firm that artists of each period should leave
their own mark on traditional works of art for coming generations. It is in this sense that people call him a progressive
artisan who loves challenge, change and development.
View the master's works