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A Korean Painter Who Fell in Love with Japanese Painting
Interview with Sukhyang Cheong

This month, KVG interviewed Ms. Sukhyang Cheong, a Korean painter specializing in Japanese painting who has lived in Kyoto for more than forty years. Sukhyang first arrived in Kyoto in 1973, attended art university here, married a Japanese man, and raised their kids. No matter when and what she was doing, her life has always been engaged with Japanese painting and she has created countless numbers of works up to now. Sukhyang tells us of the charm of Japanese painting and about her life as an artist in Kyoto.

Wild Chrysanthemum; 1985

An encounter with Japanese painting
I was born in Haenam, in the southern part of Korea and went to junior high and high school in Kwangju. When I was a teenager, I was so into learning calligraphy. I loved to create things with my own hands, and my enthusiasm made me decide to go to Hongik Art University in Seoul. There were two major painting departments, ''Ink Painting'' and ''Color Painting.''

There, I met Professor Sen who had learnt Japanese painting in Japan during the colonial period and was teaching colored painting in the university. When I first saw her work, I was stunned by the vivid colors she used, the likes of which I had never seen before and was deeply moved. This was my first encounter with Japanese painting.

After graduating from university, I was working as an art teacher at junior high & high school. Eventually, I married a Japanese man who was studying Korean history. Originally from Kyoto, this is how I came to settle in the city. After moving here, my hope of continuing to study Japanese painting grew and I was accepted as the first full-time Korean student at the Kyoto City University of Arts.

Full Moon; 1982

Delving deeper into Japanese painting in Kyoto
First graders at university are required to learn reproduction. It helps students get to grips with using Japanese painting tools, such as glues and pigments. Since I wasn't fluent in Japanese language at all at the time, all I could do was spend many hours, from morning till dusk, focused on reproducing Japanese paintings during the first stage of my study in Kyoto.

The piece I remember most vividly reproducing in those days is ''Choju Jinbutsu Giga (Caricatures of Frolicking Birds, Animals and Humans).'' It is a huge scroll painting originally produced in the Heian period (794-1185). Since I had already had a background of learning ink painting in Korea, reproducing the ''Choju Jinbutsu Giga'' was truly fun. I managed to complete the entire two scrolls, which seemed to be an unbelievable achievement, receiving many comments from people around me that suggested I may have been the first person to accomplish such a task.

Graduation work
Another fascinating memory is my graduation work. By the time I was in the third year, I'd learned a lot about how to use Japanese pigments and was thinking about what kind of work I would produce for my final graduation piece.

One day, I heard about a person who owned a Buddhist image from the Yi Dynasty of Korea which had not been publicly exhibited. I was eager to meet the owner and was finally able to make contact and visit him with my professor.

I still clearly remember my sensation when I saw the work. Although the entire painting had turned slightly blackish, it was in perfect condition without any damage nor fading of color. It was a perfect piece depicting the Yoryu Kannon (Deity of Mercy) sitting on coral in the ocean. I fell in love with the painting instantly and wished to produce the reproduction of this great piece.

The owner saw and appreciated my enthusiasm and kindly gave me permission to reproduce the image. He said, ''This piece is so precious that I have never shown it to the public. However, I feel your enthusiasm and because this painting was originally from Korea, I would like you, a Korean person, to try.'' I was so grateful that I could choose this fascinating art work for my final graduation piece.

However, it wasn't at all easy to do once I started. The most difficult part was to reproduce the touch of the thin golden veil which covered the Kannon. I couldn't make even the smallest of mistakes as just one could ruin the whole picture. It required tremendous concentration for many hours, working for 13-14 hours a day, still took me almost four months to complete. It was really a tough job, but I was so happy to achieve something so great in the end.

Yoryu Kannon, Deity of Mercy (Goryeo peiord); Reproduction by Sukhyan produced in 1976 as her graduation work of the university in Kyoto

Expanding career as a Japanese painter
After graduating from art university in Kyoto, I didn't belong to any major painting groups in Japan, therefore I had difficulty finding a way to exhibit my art works. I didn't know what to do, but I was again fortunate enough to encounter a gallery owner in Gion.

The owner of the gallery, Mr. Matsumoto, had a unique policy of choosing exhibitors and art works. He held just a few exhibitions a year and exhibited only unknown artists or works. In those days, the gallery had a reputation: if an artist is chosen by Mr. Matsumoto and shown at his gallery, it was said that the artist would become successful. Luckily, he enjoyed my art work and let me hold my exhibitions at his gallery.

To date, I have held seven solo exhibitions at Mr. Matsumoto's gallery. Without meeting him, I wouldn't have succeeded to the point I am at today. Mr. Matsumoto's faith in me, and the opportunity to exhibit as his prestigious gallery was incredible motivation to me at this stage of my career. I wanted to repay his kindness and trust in my work, putting forward my best pieces in his gallery.

I could see that the 1980s was the end of a good era. At that time, the Nishijin textile industry was still thriving in Kyoto and many textile manufacturers and wholesalers purchased my works to use them as their design inspirations. My paintings sold quite well and it helped me to buy expensive mineral pigments and other necessary materials for my work.

Indian Spinach (Tsuru Murasaki); 1986

An Artwork Becomes a Legacy
In Kyoto, July is the most important month of the year since it is the month of the Gion Festival. In 1986 I had a chance to create original drawings for the tapestries for one of the festival's main Hachiman-yama Floats. During the festival, 33 large floats called Hoko or Yama will be established in the city. Each float represents the pride and history of the local town to where the float belongs. I understood how precious the float is for the people, so having this opportunity was a true honor.

I had never experienced creating the design for a tapestry and it was really challenging. After a lot of research, I finally decided on a design inspired by the ''Ji-Cho-Sei'' philosophy. It is a major Korean philosophy based on Daoism which notes ten natural objects (i.e. sun, sky, cloud, earth) and auspicious animals (turtle, crane, tiger) necessary for a good long life. I loved the concept and created the design of the tapestry from it.

Then, Kyoto's renowned textile manufacturing company, Kawashima Orimono, made my design into a great weaving work to become superb tapestries. These tapestries will decorate the float for the next few hundred years, passed down from generation to generation. It is a wonderful feeling to know that my art works will be enjoyed by many people for years to come during the incredible Gion Matsuri.

Mizuhiki tapestry of the Hachiman-yama Float in the Gion Festival designed by Sukhyan in 1986

What does Japanese painting mean to you?
When I was young, I asked my professor in Kyoto, ''What is the definition of Japanese painting?'' He laughed and said, ''I don't know.'' Funny, but there was, and still is, no existing clear definition. Some say paintings made by Japanese people can be called Japanese painting, some say the paintings produced with Japanese pigments are called so, and others claim different theories that are too long to describe here! It's somewhat confusing even now!

One day, I visited Saiho-ji Temple (famous Moss Temple). I saw an orange mushroom growing on the moss. I was struck by the contrast of the deep green of wet moss and the lively orange mushroom. It is very difficult to explain with words, but at that time, I believed this vivid scene must be a point of origin of the Japanese painting.

My major motifs are flowers and plants. I have long-held an appreciation for them since I was young, but my interest grew after coming to Kyoto as a result of the huge varieties I was able to see here - many more than Korea. Japanese flowers are more various, bigger and more colorful, probably because of the climate difference from Korea. I love Japanese flowers.

Wild Plants (a hanging scroll); 2003

Sukhyang Cheong
Born in Haenam, Korea in 1944. Learned Oriental Art in the university and worked as an art teacher in Korea. Came to Japan in 1973 to study Japanese painting at Kyoto City University of Art. Over 45 years since she came to Kyoto for the first time, Cheong is still deeply in love with Japanese painting and has created numerous paintings and held many exhibitions.

Saiundo - my great supporter and friends
Looking back on my life in Kyoto, I can tell I was very lucky to have met important and supportive people, including teachers, at each turning point of my life. Saiundo is one such example. I have purchased my painting materials from Saiundo for almost 40 years, since I was studying in Kyoto as a student. The owners, Mr. & Mrs. Fujimoto have always been helpful when I choose tools and pigments and they have grown to become my closest friends in Kyoto. I especially like the gold powder at Saiundo - it gives paintings a truly sensitive touch.

Saiundo has been in the business of providing great Japanese master painters and foreign artists with the finest Japanese art supplies for more than 150 years. They stock a wide range of high quality brushes, natural mineral pigments and inks, as well as handmade paper. Experience the traditional atmosphere of our quiet, downtown shop. Great for artists or beginners, Saiundo will help you get what you need.