"It's a bit of a disaster zone," Aimee Lee says of her apartment. "Please excuse the mess." The place is spotless. Though nearly a century old, it looks brand new and freshly scrubbed. Sunlight floods the windows and there's a nice, crisp smell to the air, not the cloying fragrance of aerosols or synthetic chemicals, just the faint, reassuring scent of a clean home. Lee arrived only a few hours earlier, after a trip to Japan and Korea and a grueling teaching schedule at Oberlin, so I don't know how she found time to meet me, much less tidy everything up. A garland of produce stickers hangs from the entry, and handmade papers lie bound on the table, with detailed captions (e.g., "Seeds and silk, stalks and pods, Oct. 15, Euclid Square") noting where and when Lee sourced natural fibers for each batch. "I travel a lot," Lee explains, "When I find green space, I ask permission to collect plants and make paper with them. It keeps me grounded." Remember that the next time you consider purchasing an Eiffel Tower keychain in Paris.
Bottom left: Spun and woven hanji lamp, persimmon dye
Lee's artist statement focuses on "how certain craft forms survive in the face of mass production and a culture of cheap and fast excess." She adapted ancient techniques and materials to produce a medium seeped in family, culture, and history. As someone interested in the links between traditional and indigenous ecological knowledge and the dynamics of social systems, I wanted to meet the Hanji Unfurled author and learn more about converting natural capital into human capital. Hanji is an indigenous Korean method of hand paper-making. The paper can be corded and woven into anything from chamber pots to shoes, textured and felted, dyed, or used for art and calligraphy. Lee is the US' leading hanji researcher, a prolific, perseverant Fulbright fellow who visited a male-dominated society as a foreigner and earned the respect of hanji masters, including an apprenticeship in the male-dominated, dying craft.
Produce sticker garland, knitted books, natural dyes
After seeing a hanji display at the Maison & Objet show years ago, I had this idea that hanji was a zero-waste magic bullet, a viable alternative to plastics in everything from space probes to speakers. Internet articles described it as superior to washi in every way, with tensile strength, air permeability, and reflectiveness ideal for industrial application. "It's such a tiny part of the hanji market, more novelty than anything else," explains Lee. "Real hanji is extremely labor intensive. It won't have an impact because manufacturing costs are much higher than plastic. No paper is 'superior.' You need different papers depending on different uses- certain papers are best for covering a wall, for example- different qualities are suited to different applications." Paper commoditization eliminated differentiation, resulting in plummeting margins for traditional craftsmen as consumers bought solely on the basis of price. "You can't honor the materials and labor involved in making hanji if you try to make money off of it. You're not ever going to make money off of hanji- that's the wrong way of going into it. Korea is so overwhelmed by new technology and more sparkly things," that hanji may, eventually, die completely. "There's more interest in it, but how can they make money off of it?"
Hanji canteen and dustpans, paper thread, and miniature gourds
As Lee shows us her painstakingly crafted water canteens, teapots, and dustpans- we're allowed to touch everything- I'm struck by my chilling tendency towards eco-consumerism. I aspire to a zero-waste lifestyle, but in buying the same Klean Kanteen and Life Without Plastic products as everyone else, I'm distancing myself from the process of transforming life-derived materials into functional objects. Here's a person deeply connected to the quotidian via things made with her own two hands. Lee shows me a silk scarf dyed with persimmons, using a technique learned on Jeju Island (at home, she saves onion peels for dyeing) and I tell her that in my quest to eliminate waste from my life, I felt loss replacing the tactile experience of reading, writing, and using paper with digital substitutes, especially considering the carbon footprint and ethical concerns associated with laptops and eReaders. "I'm not interested in reducing paper," she admits, "Just crappy office paper." Lee incorporates various sustainable mediums in her art- from marshmallow comics on upcycled black denim to bark lace and knitted books. "I'm always aware of [sustainability]- being an artist and writer, all I'm generating is paper. I'm generating stuff. I felt guilty about that and did a lot of found object work. It was never interesting for me to go buy new materials and make something. The process of paper-making is wonderful. Being able to use found materials and reuse them indefinitely is great."
Lacquered hanji teapot, persimmon dyed-duck, handmade papers made from local plants, paper duster
"The kinds of values instilled in me made me feel bad about work that was harmful or wasteful in any way. I'm not trying to live in an angelic, zero footprint way, but it's possible to generate work that doesn't require a big footprint. The tradeoff is you have to work really hard. Do a lot of menial labor. Which is great- it's important. We're too far from manual labor. I don't want to be a farmer, but a little work isn't going to kill anyone. Teaching now, I'm surprised at the simple things people aren't taught to do anymore. The hands are less engaged. Students barely hold pens or pencils or anymore. It's all new to them. They're pushing towards everybody being digitally literate and they don't get to the other stuff."
"Mina Takahashi [used this] beautiful quote: 'Everything in the universe is contained in paper, earth, water, sky. All this comes together because you nurture a plant first.' When you turn milkweed fluff into paper, you open the pods, separate silks from seeds... it's very labor-intensive, but it's easier than separating cotton seeds. You appreciate and realize how much labor goes into things when you start making paper. Korea and Japan make such nice paper, and have these long traditions of paper crafts, because they never want to throw what they make away. They turn every scrap into new pieces because they're strong and invested so much into creating them." Before we leave, Lee laments the shift to built-in obsolescence and demonstrates a duster made from scrap paper, picked up on her trip to Japan. "Things we stick in the recycling bin, they save."
To visit Lee's blog, click here. For a list of workshops and exhibitions, click here. To read about her latest show, click here. I interviewed her a few weeks ago but it's taken a long time to write this because she made me think about what I'm doing in trying to go zero-waste. I've been so focused on filling my apartment with the right plastic-free stuff that I've forgotten the joy of making, working with my hands, turning dirt and plants into things I can use- which is what got me interested in reducing my environmental impact in the first place.