FACES OF KOREA: Carving Out His Own Niche, JO Gyu-hyeon

by Anne Ladouceur, 07/06/2007

Seoul is a city rich in historic and cultural sites. Some of these are places, some structures and a few are human. One of these has become a kind of human landmark in the city centre. For over a decade, a one-handed man, JO Gyu-hyeon, has been carving woodblock wall hanging at his stand just outside Deoksu Palace. No one walking in the area, even on the City Hall side of the street, can miss his works. They are lined up and along the old palace wall on each side of his carving table.

JO lost his right hand in an auto accident, in April of 1970, when he was only 10 years old. As it is generally difficult for the disabled to find work, even more so in the late 80’s early 90’s, he decided to find something that would allow him to earn an independent living, despite his disability. For many of us, woodcarving would not appear to be an obvious choice to make, but to him it was.

Since 1992, he has shown up on the job at the same time in the morning – almost every day of the year. The only time he takes a day off is when it’s raining cats and dogs, as it can at this time of year. JO Gyu-hyeon has something of a missionary spirit, which he reveals not only in is carvings, but in his attitude toward his work style as well. When asked why it’s so important for me him to be at his spot along the Doeksu Wall at the same time everyday, he explained that it was important that he show people that a handicapped person can work and is reliable, not lazy.

His sense of mission is also revealed in what he chooses to carve on his wall hangings. Most of them are texts, written in Korean characters (Hangeul) that convey either a religious or moral message. Some are only text, while others may also have an image of some kind, such as the taegeukgi (Korean flag) a bird or flowers on a tree branch. Mr. Jo doesn’t speak a lot of English, but he has enough to make a sale to tourist or foreign residents. His works are not just for visitors, as we often see Koreans coming by to either buy or commission a carving. However, if someone asks him to carve a nameplate to put on a house or desktop, he prefers to decline the request.

Most of his wood carvings are intended to hang in a home in the same way embroidered samplers did in the North American past. As the samplers often contained proverbs or sayings for a good life, so do JO Gyu-hyeon’s wood carving. His are mainly gahun, golden rules for family harmony and success, such as “Strive and you will succeed” or “When things are good, reflect. When things are bad, be brave". Some are not so short, and contain long lists of do’s and don’ts.

I first began buying the wood blocks back in 1999 to give to people as gifts. They are reasonably priced, unique and, for me, a symbol of one man’s determination not to bow down to fate, but rather to “carve” his own place, in his own way.

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