Art, the matchmaker of three men - Yongwoon Choi (Novelist)


Anecdotes Related to Jangam-ri, Majang-myon, Icheon City


I am on friendly terms with Kang Dae-Cheol, a senior sculptor, and Choi Tae-Hoon, a fledgling sculptor, enough to say that we are very close to one another. I met those two through Yi Mun-Yol, an (eminent) author.

It seems quite right to explain about those two seniors a little in detail beforehand, if I want to tell you about the sculptor Choi Tae-Hoon. Since it will foster an ideal ambiance to talk about him.

In late fall, 1985, I quit my job only to leave for Icheon, where I joined Mr. Yi that I had always admired and who was going to take me as a trainee. Back then I was a thirty year old single man. I was desperate to make such a final decision, feeling anxious that it would be my last chance ever to do what I really want to do.

Mr. Yi lived in up-country Jangam-ri, Majang-myon reached by bus that ran only three times a day in those days, concentrating on writing in a rented farmhouse. I was allowed to unpack in a loft there. And I embarked on working on stories without much promise of getting through the only door to the literary world.

Mr. Yi had initially settled down in Dae-gu and then moved up to Seoul. It had not been even a year before he got tired of living in a big city and started to look for someplace nice to write. It turned out to be Icheon. It was Kang Dae-Cheol, the sculptor that recommended him to move in there. Mr. Kang was originally from Icheon but he chose to set up his own nest in secluded Jangam-ri in preference to the other villages in Icheon. In his house were there two bedrooms and a big studio looking like a storeroom. It was the sculptor and his sculpture that I encountered in the studio. No. It was more than that. I witnessed the entire journey of creation. I had no idea about technical terms/Whatever the technical terms were; I just called the working process ‘clay and plaster work’. And I called complete works sculpture.

It was a great morale boost to a literary aspirant observing an artist live, work, and struggle although he was in other art genre than literature. Thinking to myself “Aha, giving birth to art is supposed to entail such anguish,” I managed to stay dauntless about my repeated miserable defeats in literary contests in spring. Meanwhile, as a piece of sculpture was being created through a truly mysterious awe-inspiring process, I got thrilled as if I fathered it/as if I gave life to it.

 


Hill House and Tobacco House


Mr. Kang and Mr. Yi, either of who was his senior by only one year, were close enough to be friends but they were strictly on “second-name” terms/they used honorific expressions/they used respect language to each other and respect each other’s territory. When they drank, they both would drink like a fish through the night or occasionally they enjoyed drinks for two nights and three days. They usually went on a binge for days in a raw, when they had their fellow artists living far away over. Among those guests, they were a party of various artists like a novelist, a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a ceramic artist and so on. Once, over 30 beautiful female art college students of painting or sculptor paid a visit and my heart fluttered with anticipation and excitement.

I naturally learned to drink as I learned to write from Mr. Yi. Those drinking habits of his were far from drinking with manners, or relishing flavor silently; they were carousals of hard drinking habits. Since then it has been 20 years but the habits are still the same. Even now we go through the same process of getting drunk not to enjoy drinks but to converse with someone sitting across you; as usual we suffer from the same terrible hangover lying in bed like the dead, easing the upset stomach next day.

Both of them had pretty similar drinking habits. The next day after they were completely drunk, both their houses would give no sign of life. They were just lying like corpse, sleeping all day long, as if they were intoxicated by slumber/or the state of half awake and half asleep went on all day. Since they two were away from their own families for their work, there was no one around to make and offer a broth to ease a hangover sincerely. At first I clumsily managed to make a sort of bean paste soup with chopped scallion for them, and yet they would not listen to my earnest offer, waving me ‘No’: “I can’t eat anything. Why don’t you eat it and get some strength/get yourself to feel better?” That happened several times and then, before I knew, I fell into a habit of sleeping all along the following day, after I went on a drinking spree.

Mr. Kang’s house stood on a hill so it was called Hill House and Mr. Yi’s house was Tobacco House since the former owner of it was a tobacconist. Despite the fact that the two houses were about 700 meters apart, they were capable to read each other sympathetically and fascinatingly well as though they communicated by telepathy.

 

For instance, one of them would turn up without notice and say
“Feel like a drink today? Isn’t that what you said to me?”


Then the other would say
“Ah? I did say that. Do you know what day it is today? It IS the very Tuesday, Tuesday.”


It went on like that.

While I was visiting either of them, I learned to drink, artists’ pleasure, writers’ pride, or small acts of sympathy. One winter, it snowed up to your waist. The pleasure of the encounter for a drink after making our way through the snowfall. /The pleasure of making our way through the snowfall and encountering for a drink.

 

 


Guy Torching onto Wood with a Welding Machine


Like that, the year 1986 turned into the year 1987. That spring, Mr. Yi had a writing room built there. So that fall a little over 30 pyong house was completed on the site where the study of Buak Literary Academy now stands. I moved into that new house with my books. What is funnier/more interesting is that the new house was right next to Mr. Kang’s Hill House.

And now I got to go to the studio in the Hill House several times a day. One day, I camped in the studio all day helping myself to three meals/getting treated to three meals and watched his work ripen every single moment.

Without an announcement, the year 1988 came upon us. I won a prize in a literary contest in spring, finally having my one foot in the literary circles/signing my name up for the bottom seat of the literary circles, got married, and moved out to Seoul.

And a few years passed by. Accordingly, by the time the Hill House occupied my mind and body as remotely beautiful and warm memories, unexpectedly, really unexpectedly, I happened to meet a sculptor named Choi Tae-Hoon there.

Meanwhile, Mr. Yi had founded Buak Literary Academy that he had always been dreaming of for his young juniors (Mount Seolbong used to be called Buak so the Academy was named after it) in 1996. He invited young literary aspirants, who he provided with free board and lodging and to whom he delivered his passion and knowledge. As my literary root is connected to Icheon and Mr. Yi, I frequently visited Buak Literary Academy. Then, one day, being tipsy with a couple of drinks, while I was taking a stroll down memory lane, groping here and there, every corner of Buak Literary Academy, I detected the next door, Hill House. As I was turning on my heel to there, all of a sudden, a pale fluorescent electric welding shade caught my eyes/flew into my eyes.

A young sculptor wearing his hair in a long ponytail in heavily oil stained working clothes was torching onto a huge dry tree root the dirt of which had been shaken off. Torching onto a dry tree root with a welding machine? Instantaneously I looked at him who was against common sense that I knew. The fair-skinned, big-eyed young artist was looking at/gazing at me.
“You’re torching onto wood, is it working?”
“Didn’t you see? I’m doing it as it’s working.”

I should first have mentioned this./I followed the wrong order but I had heard that Mr. Kang, the previous owner of the Hill House, moved several meters farther into the inside and had a new house built and then a young sculptor took and lived in the Hill House. Nevertheless it was the first time I had ever met him. For a while I watched him working and came back to the Academy. I wished to stay longer but the work of electric welding was too blinding and hurting to my eyes to look longer. I had to leave there without saying goodbye.

“Mr. Choi, Hellooo Mr. Choi”
After getting back to the Academy, I asked Mr. Yi
“I saw a young sculptor in the Hill House. He was torching onto a burnt dry tree root with a welding machine.”
“Oh, you haven’t introduced yourselves to each other? He is Choi Tae-Hoon, a very decent sculptor. Later I’ll call for and introduce him.”
Choi Tae-Hoon. Since then, his name had been engraved on my heart. With a label saying that he is the one who torches onto wood with a welding machine.

That day we got together for drinks. As it was getting more enjoyable, we finally introduced ourselves to each other. Afterwards, it was not rare for me to see Mr. Choi that I had met in that manner: whenever I went to the Academy with some errands to run, he was there. Even when he was not there, I went and looked around his studio.


“Your work looks great.”
Then he replied with a faint smile, his face expressionless,


“Thank you. Are you familiar with sculpture?”
Then I insisted that I was definitely not, waving him ‘No’ wildly, but in my mind I grinned wickedly: of course you should regard me as an audience of a very high level of appreciation. I had numerously seen the entire process of sculpture, from a first draft, a plaster one to a final bronze one. I had even assisted Mr. Kang working on the details of some of his work.


“Frankly speaking, I’m not quite familiar with sculptor but, thanks to Mr. Kang, I’ve developed a rather good eye for it. Now, I feel your work is fuller of stories than any other work I’ve ever seen. How shall I put it, if you just ask me to comment on it, I’d like to say like this since I don’t know much of the technical terms. It’s not common. It’s rich with stories.”


“I really appreciate that/your good comments.”
Like that, the first year I met him waned.

It was early next January. There was a get-together for drinks with new comers at the Academy and the young writers who had learned from Mr. Yi personally before the Academy was built. There did he show up. Then, it struck me as funny that there was no sense of difference among us although we all were in literature and yet he was in sculpting. It was the same at the next drinking occasion and after that. The Academy trainees altogether relied on him as their big brother and felt free to visit him and get treated to drinks.

Mr. Yi did not seem to mind his joining us/his presence. Thereupon, naturally he and we got really close together. I, who was his senior by some years, obviously became his big brother and he my younger brother. When I got sober, however, I slightly felt sorry to treat him like my little brother. That was we, artists’ sentiment of keeping our dignity or conscience; it was because he produced so great work. In my eyes his work was the finest. If he had been a mere mediocre sculptor/If his work had been somewhat lesser than what it was, I might have treated him as wildly as I would make the Academy trainees work. Yet his work was fascinating enough to make me feel small around him all the time. For that reason, when I was not drunk, I addressed him as ‘Choi, the artist’ rather than as ‘Tae-Hoon.’ It was different when I was drunk though.

 


Buddy for drinks at Buak Literary Academy


Soon after his second exhibition, the Theme of Space, I heard really shocking news in August 2000. When I went to the Academy, he was not around and his studio was also closed. I thought he had something to do but one of the Academy trainees told me about his car accident: He was not slightly injured but seriously injured, wandering around the boundary of death and life.

Discharged from hospital after the painful struggle, by the time he turned up again at the studio, everything had gone to ruin. God was that much jealous of a promising young artist’s success? He looked so haggard and feeble that I could not think of God’s jealousy. His body, which used to be solid like that of a youth majoring in Physical Education, now only relied on a cane to walk. Even in that condition, without any break, he devoted himself to his work/ he was engrossed in his work, splashing flames. Then a series of Plants were born.

Once again, I would like to make sure that I do not know about sculptor much. I am merely capable to select works that suit my taste/inclination. So to speak, I was a little more knowledgeable than a layman to the extent of the span of a hand.

The series of Plants was quite different from his second solo exhibition that depicted the greatness of the universe. Indeed, as the one who went as far as to a threshold of death, he delivered a powerful message that whatsoever exists in the world, although regarded as petty and trivial, is by no means worthless. Before the accident, he must have thought as little of them as we. Then he must have come to see and understand the world from a different perspective. I did not ask Choi Tae-Hoon about the reasons even though I greatly wondered about them. That much his work had already earned my trust abundantly.

And then, another two years passed by. This year, I have been to Icheon unusually frequently, so that I have spent more time drinking with him and visiting his studio. Yet… his work has changed again in my eyes. A series of forests, the countless collections of small trees sculpted out of copper wire was it. I am not exaggerating but, at the sight of the bronze forests, actually, I vividly felt that my lungs became cool and clean. To that extent, his work contains an intense message again this time.

One day in April, with news of begetting a son, he came up to the Academy, brining local traditional sausages and makkuli (raw rice wine). Even in broad daylight, I was willing to get drunk to celebrate the occasion. It could not be helped. For he was not another ordinary acquaintance but our Buak Literary Academy’s permanent true artist and buddy for drinks.

While drinking, a streak of a thought was coiling up: since precious new life was born to him, now his work will change once more. Looking in his eyes, I could tell that for sue./I was able to be confident of that.