South Korean Exhibition Showcases American Crafts

By Louise Fenner
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - A new art exhibition in Seoul, South Korea, features contemporary craft works by four American artists.

Flights of Fantasy at the Seoul National University Museum of Art showcases quilts, jewelry, sculptures and textiles that are part of a collection of American contemporary crafts on display at Habib House, the U.S. ambassador’s official residence. The Korean arts community and private sponsors worked with the embassy to bring the American works to a wider audience.

“We open our doors for guests often, and it is a rare guest who does not notice the large wooden bird hanging from the living room ceiling, or the striking glass sculptures, or the bold quilts hanging on the walls,” said Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the exhibition opening on July 5, which was attended by some 300 guests. “Bringing this exhibition, Flights of Fantasy, to such a spectacular new museum - where it is open to the public - is especially thrilling,” he said.

The Habib House collection, sponsored by the State Department’s ART in Embassies program, features works by 20 American craft artists.. Four of these artists are featured in the Flights of Fantasy exhibition: Brad Story, a sculptor who creates colorful wooden models of birds and other winged creatures; Judith James, a textile artist who employs stitching, screen printing and relief printing in her elaborate fabric-based works; Michael James, a quilt-maker who creates nontraditional designs using a digital textile printer; and Lisa Vershbow, a jeweler who creates bold designs with nontraditional materials such as anodized aluminum and plastics in combination with silver and semiprecious stones.

In addition to attending the exhibition opening, the artists are conducting lectures and meeting with Korean artists and students in Seoul and Daegu. Their comments, as well as the ambassador’s, were supplied by the embassy press office.

“I feel honored to be here and to exhibit at the Seoul National University Museum of Art, which is just a stunning space,” said Story, who was making his first trip to Seoul. He said he and his wife were particularly impressed “with how warm and hospitable the Korean people are to us.” Story, from Essex, Massachusetts, is a seventh-generation boatbuilder who has been creating models and sculpting all his life.

“I do think American artists feel quite free to express themselves in a personal way in their art, and one of the [Korean] faculty members at yesterday's lecture seemed interested in that,” he observed.

“There's a lot of excitement about the exhibition,” said artist Lisa Vershbow, who is the wife of the ambassador. “The response to the ART in Embassies collection in the residence has been very enthusiastic.”

America’s contemporary crafts scene “truly communicates the creative spirit of American culture,” Vershbow continued. She also cited a thriving contemporary crafts scene in Korea. “Universities all over the country have excellent applied arts departments with large student enrollments,” she said.

Michael James, who was interviewed by phone at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in advance of his trip, said he and his wife, Judith, looked forward to “learning more about the crafts scene in Korea.”  He planned to explain his innovative quilt-making techniques in workshops with local Korean artists.

“Quilt-making has been an integral part of America since this nation was founded,” James said.  Most cultures, he said, have “some form of textile practice that involves sandwiching some kind of insulation layer between fabrics and stitching them through.”  Quilting goes back many, many centuries, he added.

James teaches textile design and quilt studies at the University of Nebraska and is a faculty fellow of the International Quilt Study Center (IQSC), the largest publicly held collection of quilts in the world.  The collection encompasses works from around the world, including Korean pojagi quilts. The IQSC recently acquired a large collection of ralli quilts from Pakistan and India that “are so richly embroidered it takes your breath away,” James said.

Looking ahead to his trip, James said he planned to learn “a few words of Korean on the plane en route to Seoul so I can greet people in their language.”

Flights of Fantasy continues through July 21.  Corporate sponsors include United Airlines, Boeing Korea and the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea.

More information on the ART in Embassies program, which has been exhibiting original works of American art in the residences of U.S. ambassadors for more than 40 years, is available on the State Department Web site.

More information on the Flights of Fantasy exhibition is available on the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul.

Additional information on the collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is available on the International Quilt Study Center Web site.