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Painter Woobong Choi Young-shin Expressing the Korean Spirit in His Paintings


The Poet Nosan Lee Eun-sang judged this painter as follows: “Living for some ten years in Chunseolheon, never leaving the mountain, as Uijae’s finest disciple, he received the transmission of Uijae’s art, developing his spiritual energies through a contemplation of nature, then spent another ten years broadening his insight by study of the classics, establishing his own purified artistic world. Now, at last, he has reached a point where his technique has become upright and exquisite, shunning vulgarity, and he draws people into a vast realm of profound, unsullied artistry and poetic feeling.” He is painter Woobong Choi Young-shin. He majored in Buddhology at Dongguk University and graduated from Graduate School of Buddhist Studies at the same university. The Post visited his exhibition and talked with him.

 The Post: You held an exhibition called “With Orchid Scent, Make the Korean Wave” in the Exhibition Hall in Unhyeongung from August 1st to September 2nd, 2012. This exhibition was presented by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and organized by the Korean Event Co., Ltd. What is the objective of this exhibition?

 Woobong: I held this exhibition because I thought the current Korean Wave has been weighted towards its external glamour, so by drawing Korea’s traditional mountains, water and the Four Gracious Plants (Plum, Orchid, Chrysanthemum and Bamboo), I wanted to put an aspect of the Korean Spirit into the Korean Wave.

 The Post: Why did you dream of becoming a painter? In addition, I heard that you studied under the painter Uijae Heo Baek-ryeon, the last great master of the southern Chinese style of landscape painting and literati painting, as was the custom in the old days. I’m curious about how you first met Master Uijae.

 Woobong: My home environment greatly influenced my dream of becoming a painter. When I was young, I lived with a grandfather, Hyobong Choi Beom-sul (the Independence Movement leader and great tea master) in the temple. At that time, Uijae, who was a close friend of my grandfather, often visited the temple and drew traditional landscape paintings. After he came back, people revered him as a great man. So, I decided to be like him to be a respectable person. I told my grandfather that I want to learn paintings under Master Uijae. At first, my grandfather forced me not to go because he worried that I pulled myself up in the middle of my work and it was not easy to live in other’s home. But at last, I was sent to study the traditional art of landscape painting with Uijae. I studied with Uijae until after he died in 1977 at the age of 87, after which I set myself up as an independent artist. It was a great fortune and an honor to have spent those 30 years under Master Uijae.

 The Post: Is there a memorable story for you while living with him? 

 Woobong: One episode with him occurred in the mid-Seventies, when I was offered an academic position at Dongguk University, but I rejected the offer because Master Uijae objected to accepting the offer of employment. He said that my learning of paintings is not over yet. That certainly increased the pressure on me. After hearing that, I was constant in my devotion to learning. Since then, I have taken the considerable responsibility to carry on the legacy of traditional Korean paintings inherited from Master Uijae.

 The Post: You draw in the Southern Chinese school of landscape painting. What is the difference between the Southern Chinese school of landscape painting and the Northern Chinese school of landscape painting?

 Woobong: Basically, the techniques of the Southern Chinese school of landscape painting are different with those of the Northern Chinese school. The techniques of the Southern Chinese school of landscape painting convey a historical tradition that above all gives preference to the painter’s heart in the spiritual expression of the vitality and inner essence of the natural object, but the techniques of the Northern Chinese school stress the forms of objective factualism or descriptivism. I am displaying my works and my pursuit of the spiritual tradition inherited from Master Uijae. I think completeness of an art comes from doing only one thing. I emphasize on the spirit of doing only one thing during life although it is a painstaking process, because when people do that, they can develop to a high degree of maturity and gain wisdom of life. I realized it from my experience and actually, by doing so, I could develop my own artistic world expressing a higher value to a spiritual idealism. 

 The Post: Is there any good way to have the eye for Korean painting?

 Woobong: To have the eye for Korean painting, people need to learn about its brushwork. A brush used for drawing Western painting is thick, so it is possible to paint over the drawing and to rub out painter’s mistakes. But, that used for drawing Oriental painting is fine, so if paintings go wrong, a painter needs to do it all over again. Thus, at first, people need to learn how to use a brush. By doing so, people can be educated in how to examine Korean paintings. In this particular case, there are many differences in the perceptions of Korean painting between people who are experienced in painting with a brush and those who are not. Those who learn brushwork can spot a delicate difference immediately in the paining.

 The Post: Do you have any advice on living life for Donggukians?

 Woobong: First, find only one thing valuable and meaningful to you and do it during life without being carried away by your feelings. Don’t chase after another. You will end up losing both of them. Because I only focused on one thing (painting), I have had great success in my field. Second, meet one good mentor and learn under him or her as ever. In my case, my traditional landscape paintings are the result of Master Uijae’s influence. I had adapted Uijae’s landscape painting’s main features to my own approach, and only then did I establish my own artistic world. In other words, on the basis of my intensive studies with Master Uijae for thirty years, going beyond the realm of landscape to include the technical skills needed in painting the Four Gracious Plants, Flowers, mental skills, calligraphy and brushmanship, I could begin to faithfully develop my own creative activities. Lastly, all is well that ends well. If you put my above two advices into practice, good fulfillment is a natural outcome of your journey’s end.

 “What is next for you?” In response to this question, he answered that as a representative of Seomjin Gang Culture Forum, he will be active and do his best to create enjoyable and protective environment near Seomjin River where people can rest and enliven their spirits through many cultures of tea, poem, writing and painting. Lee Ku-yol, art critic, wrote as follows in the catalogue: “By Woobong Choi Young-shin’s gentle and vivid ink brushwork, his original landscape paintings, taking as their subjects the Korea’s natural elegance, combine deliberate transmission of composition with a free development of mood. He is also active as a calligrapher, and in addition holds a significant position in society as a tea master, following the high life-vision of his grandfather. Following on from Uijae, traditional writer, painter and tea enthusiast, Woobong is a very special person.” When the Post visited his exhibition, he welcomed the Post with a smile. Also, during the interview, he kindly answered all those questions. Now, he is a respected person as he wanted to be when he was younger. As a proud alumnus, he will continue to make his art grow deeper.

Kim Yu-young  tbfor700@dongguk.edu

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