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NAMU CHO. A Higher Vision


SMITHSONIAN CRAFT SHOW

 

PAOLO MARCOLONGO. Finding Harmony in Glass and Metal

SYLVIA GOTTWALD. Rococo Minimalism


 

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NB06 bracelet of twenty-four karat gold fused on sterling silver, diamonds; 6 x 3.5 centimeters, 2007.

Namu Cho


A Higher Vision



 

A deep fascination with forms in nature lies at the root of Cho’s artistry, and it continues to sustain his practice and propel it forward in new directions.

 

 

In a corner by the entrance to Namu Cho’s basement studio in Bethesda, Maryland, a four-foot-high metallic sculpture stands like a sentry. This abstract cyclopean figure, with its steel body and head of bronze sprouting long, fang-like gold appendages, represents Cho’s take on the jangseung, a traditional Korean totemic carving often placed on the outskirts of a village, both to mark boundaries and to ward off demons. In this case, its presence seems to demarcate the studio as a place of solitude and creativity, protecting it from the outside world and its endless demands and distractions. As is the practice in Korea, Cho collects rocks on his walks and places them around the base of the sculpture as a kind of offering.

The house, located on a quiet, wooded cul-de-sac in this suburb of Washington, D.C., is itself a sanctuary of sorts. Cho and his wife Jean, also an accomplished jewelry artist, have filled the space with their handmade art objects, large and small, functional and decorative. In the open doorway leading to the living room, for example, stands an imposing piece of sculptural furniture—a solid wooden bench from which sinuous metal forms extend upward, like climbing vines and outstretched arms, toward a sphere of pure gold suspended above, a radiant sun that is also an eye. This composition—which is echoed in several wood-and-metal sculptures mounted on the walls opposite—seems to link the primordial pull of the sun on living things to our own very human striving to achieve a higher vision. These same motifs can be found, in various combinations, in some of Namu’s jewelry pieces.

A deep fascination with forms in nature lies at the root of Cho’s artistry, and it continues to sustain his practice and propel it forward in new directions. Sometimes the inspiration is directly apparent, as in his many stunningly beautiful damascene pendants, brooches and bracelets depicting elegant, sprightly flowers and leaves, or imaginary landscapes with anthropomorphic trees stretching their limbs toward a sky laden with shimmering stars of gold and diamond. In other cases, the influence of nature is felt more in the energy that animates the work, as converging patterns of gold on steel evoke undulating waves and textured planes that catch the light from different angles and reflect it back at the beholder.

The artist himself radiates a sort of calm intensity, relaxed but focused, soft-spoken but also generous and open. “I’m not good with words,” he informs me as we sit down across a small table in his studio. Nevertheless he patiently answers all of my questions, occasionally getting up to retrieve raw materials, tools and in-progress works to illustrate a particular process or style. Mostly, though, he prefers to let the works speak for themselves. “I don’t want to explain too much,” he adds. “Whatever you think of, that’s what it is.”

MIRAGE 23 of twenty-four karat gold inlaid on steel (damascene), twenty-four karat fused on twenty-two karat, twenty-two karat gold, diamonds; 6 x 3 centimeters, 2008. Photograph by Hap Sakwa

Namu Cho was born in Seoul in 1955. Already a city of 1.5 million people (its population has since increased nearly sevenfold), its mountainous surroundings nonetheless offered opportunities for solitary encounters with the natural world. “In the center of Seoul, there’s a mountain. I lived right beside it,” he recalls. “Whenever I was coming home from school, I would go to the mountain, just play by myself, walk around.” On these walks, he would collect objects whose shapes and colors interested him, something that set him apart from other kids. “When I was a child—not a craftsman, not an artist, just a child—I knew I was different. I would play outside with my neighbors, and they liked to take things from my pockets, because my pockets were always full of strange things—rocks, metal, whatever I could find. So they would try to see what I had.”

An indifferent student in high school—“I didn’t even know the dates of the exams, because I didn’t care much, I was empty, I had no goal”—he enrolled in the school of crafts at Seoul’s Kookmin University, where he came into his own, excelling in metal art and design and earning his MFA in 1984. Like many fine art jewelers, he started out primarily as a sculptor before discovering that he could be just as expressive working on a smaller scale. Along the way, he mastered traditional Korean metalworking techniques, including poe-mock-san-gam, known in the West as damascene, in which gold is hammered into fine grooves etched with chisels onto a darkened steel alloy. He also learned to make his own alloys, such as odong, a copper-gold blend sometimes referred to as “black gold.”

Cho’s education in traditional Korean techniques has served him well over the years—especially damascene, at which he has become an acknowledged master. Upon graduating from Kookmin, however, he felt that his training had been overly focused on technique and tradition, with less emphasis on individual expression. With this in mind, he decided to pursue a second MFA in the United States, enrolling at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

“In Korea, they were teaching more ‘craft mind’ than ‘art mind,’ ” he says. “Maybe they are different now—we are talking about thirty years ago—but they saw the object more as a functional, useful thing. At the School of Art in Bowling Green, they saw it more as an artpiece.” In fact, Bowling Green did not have a program in metal art per se, so Cho ended up being “a class of one,” studying painting, sculpture and drawing, and incorporating those skills into his metalwork. “The American education opened boundaries more, so I could be more creative. I totally broke my craft concept.”

After completing his MFA at Bowling Green in 1986, Cho returned to Korea, hoping to impart some of this new openness to students in his own country. “Because I am part of the first generation in Korea to study abroad, I wanted to teach because I had a new vision, totally different than in Korea at that time,” he says. “I could use color, I could paint on the metal, so I liked to give them the idea that you could do it this way or that way.” While he found that his students in Korea were eager to experiment, some of the older faculty seemed less receptive, perhaps even “afraid” of embracing new ways of doing things. “They didn’t say that, but I could sense it,” he recalls.

He remained in Seoul for a decade, teaching part- time at several universities and setting up a commercial studio to make his own line of fine art jewelry. Cho found himself becoming increasingly frustrated on both fronts. Unable to secure a full-time teaching position, he spent much of his time commuting to different schools, which in turn left him with less time to do his own work. Meanwhile, he was having trouble establishing his brand in the marketplace. “In Korea, they don’t have much knowledge of art and craft, so they just go by name. They don’t buy newcomers,” he explains. This period was not without its successes, including gallery shows in Seoul and having his work featured in a three-year traveling exhibition of Korean metal and fiber art that toured the United States and Canada. But around his fortieth birthday, he decided that he needed a change. So, in 1996, he returned to the United States.

Cho had secured an invitation to teach at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, from Komelia Okim, who headed the school’s jewelry and crafts program until her retirement in 2013. He subsequently also taught for a year at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. More importantly, Namu and his wife Jean (they married in 1997) found in the greater Washington, D.C. area both a vibrant Korean American community and a large, supportive and knowledgeable network of jewelry artists and patrons. Cho quickly developed a strong clientele for his work, and within two years he was selling enough to stop teaching and commit to working full-time in the studio.

In the beginning, he says, galleries accounted for roughly ninety percent of his sales, but now he sells most of the work directly to the public, mainly at craft shows. “At the craft shows, I can sell to anybody. Maybe now they’ll say, ‘Oh, this is Namu’s work, so I’ll buy it.’ But when I started, they didn’t know me but they would still buy it, which was really a surprise for me,” says Cho. “My market in Washington, D.C., is really big. I only do six or seven shows a year, but four are around here. I have three shows in Washington and one in Baltimore. I can sleep at home when I’m doing these shows, so this is a good location.”

With the Potomac River and Blue Ridge Mountains nearby to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, it also happens to be a good location from which to pursue his favorite pastimes. He likes to spend time walking in the mountains or along the river, collecting rocks, just as he did in his childhood. His particular passion, however, is for deep sea fishing, especially for large tuna, which he makes into sashimi. “I’m a good sushi and sashimi maker,” he says with a smile. “I sharpen my knife. Since I’m a metalworker, I can sharpen it really nicely.”

The artist aptly refers to his studio process as “drawing on metal.” Each piece begins with detailed sketches on paper, drawn from memory and imagination. The imagery is generally derived from nature, though he has no interest in simply copying what he observes. “Everything I see, I re-create or re-digest,” he says. Cho uses the Zen Buddhist phrase “empty mind” to describe the everyday moments when inspiration strikes. “I just visualize—when I’m half-asleep, or when I’m driving, or especially when I’m walking around, then it just hits me—ah! That shape or that pattern, that idea will be good. Then I draw it.”

The next step is to decide which techniques will best accomplish his vision for the piece. Cho’s works fall into three general categories—damascene, fusion and damascus steel—though in practice he often combines these processes. For instance, many of the damascene brooches in his Mirage series have a central element of twenty-four karat gold fused onto twenty-two karat gold and then shaped and textured by chasing and repoussé. When wedded to the etched and inlaid damascene background, the fused element adds contrast and dimensionality, often resembling a fiery throne or stele set against a black sky pierced with shining stars. In his damascus steel rings, coolness predominates. It is a testament to Cho’s capability as a metalsmith that he can perform this technique, which was utilized in swordmaking until roughly 1750 and then gradually died out. Damascus steel derives its strength from repeatedly forging and folding iron and steel together in layers, creating swirling patterns of dark and light. It has only recently been rediscovered, and few metalworkers are able to forge this material.

MIRAGE 9 pendant/brooch of twenty-four karat gold inlaid on steel (damascene), twenty-two karat gold, diamonds; 4.5 x 3 centimeters, 2006. Photographs by Hap Sakwa.

“I like high contrast,” says Cho. “That’s my own character.” The damascene technique, which accounts for most of his output, is particularly well-suited to making high-contrast pieces. The effect produced by sharply defined motifs of gleaming gold on a ground of blackened steel gives the works a strong graphic quality, almost like a woodcut or steel engraving—truly “drawing on metal.” The elegance of these mostly vertical compositions, with their intersecting planes of intricate geometric patterning, also brings to mind the paintings and prints of the Vienna Secession, particularly the works of Gustav Klimt, another artist who was fond of using gold.

The ability to control the process at every stage is part of what attracted Cho to metal as his medium, rather than, say, clay. “I can control metal better than ceramic, because ceramic is finalized by fire, which I cannot control,” he says. “I like to manipulate the piece right up to the end.” This hands-on approach extends beyond the design and fabrication of individual pieces to include the materials and many of the tools used in their making. In addition to mixing his own alloys of gold, copper, platinum, and steel, Cho has also fashioned for himself hammers and a set of fine-edged chisels in many sizes, which he keeps in an antique watchmaker’s chest in the corner of the studio. He uses these to prepare the steel ground on his damascene pieces by cross-hatching the entire surface, creating a woven-thread effect. “Poe-mock-san-gam, if I translate it directly, means ‘fabric inlay,’ ” he explains. “So actually you are creating a fabric kind of surface on the steel.”

Fabric played a more literal role in the genesis of several pieces based on figures from Korean mythology and iconography. For these works, Cho received textiles from an accomplished traditional embroiderer in Korea, which he then deconstructed in order to discover the technique. Using twisted filaments of goldwire, he painstakingly recreated the embroidered patterns in metal for his Dragon brooch, a whimsical creature whose body of whorled gold ‘thread’ is haloed by a crested mane in damascene. Another piece depicts the Samjok-o, a three-legged crow whose appearance is considered an omen of change. “There is a legend that if you see a three-legged bird, especially a crow, then a new dynasty will come,” he explains. Interestingly, the Samjok-o’s body is scaled, like a dragon’s, while the dragon has a streamlined form that would look more at home in air or water than on land.

Cho has been recognized by his peers with numerous awards, including, most recently, a blue ribbon for Best in Show at the Washington Craft Show in November 2013. “Somehow, they treat me as an artist,” he says, as though this still comes as a surprise after all these years. And yet, despite his continued success, Cho seems impatient to discover what direction his work will take next. He talks about wanting to retrace his steps, to make a new beginning. “When I made my first damascene works, they seemed totally different, because it was new. I had a different vision at that time. I want to have that again. I have to think more, harder, deeper. To become new again. To find myself again.”

 

 


 

 

 

 

David Updike
David Updike is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. He is the coeditor (with Jane Golden) of the book Philadelphia Mural Arts @30 (Temple University Press, 2014). For the past twelve years he has worked in the Publishing Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he has edited exhibition catalogs on subjects ranging from Rembrandt to Zaha Hadid. He last wrote for Ornament about Baltimore jewelry artist Shana Kroiz, in 2012. For this issue, he returns to Maryland to profile Bethesda-based artist Namu Cho. The next issue will feature his take on jeweler Holly Lee.


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