Heehwa Jo creates detailed embroidery work inspired by ancient Korean designs. She’ll think about a design for a while and when it is ready to come to life, she gathers her supplies and begins the piece.
How did you get started making fiber art? Why did you choose that medium?
I’ve always had interests in working with fabric and thread, which has naturally grown on me through my entire life. I don’t think I can say I chose it; it’s just always been by my side.
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As the way many children would do, I liked to make a draped dress with a sheet or blanket and dangling ornaments with balls of thread.
When I was in my teens, I got more chances to broaden my experience about textile materials. My aunt used to bring me different kinds of leftover fabric, one of my dad’s friends was a skilled machine embroiderer, not mention that my mum was good at sewing and knitting.
When I was studying textile and design in the university and working for a couple of clothing companies, fabric and thread were obviously my best friend and I’ve never gotten tired of them.
When it comes to designing and creating things, all I need to think about is what to do, not what to use.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
It’s hard to put my finger on, but I thought myself as a creative person since I was very little. Though I say it myself, I’m quite amazed at the creativity and dexterity of my childhood works whenever I open an old sketchbook or something.
I’ve got a few episodes about how much I was keen on creating things when I was a child that I still remember. I stayed up late at night knitting a cross bag on the day I first learned how to crochet when I was about seven or eight. That crochet bag was once my favourite bag.
I really enjoyed every art subject in school. Homework from art classes were the joy of my school life, so I never asked my parents to give me a hand for my art homework. I was rather unpleasant if I saw any signs that they wanted to help.
What motivates you artistically?
The first thing that moves me is purely my thoughts. Nothing and nobody actually asked me to do embroidery, but only the voice inside my mind seems to keep feeling and telling me to work with my hands.
Specifically speaking, the ancient Korean embroidery motivates me, of course. That’s what gives me the visible inspirations, where I can start to expand my artistic imagination. I often receive strong impetus from them. It feels like I encounter something I created in my former life, if there is such a thing, and am reunited a long time later.
Apart from the embroidery itself, other different genres of art also gives me good motivation. Every artist in every field apparently shares many things in common, so I love reviewing and feeling empathy with them. Usually, I prefer to get implicitly inspired by the other types of art such as paintings, sculptures and fashion as they help me refresh my perspective while the ancient embroideries guide me to the relatively explicit direction in terms of subjects, techniques and expressions.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m a half-planner and half-improviser, I would say.
Basically, I’m not a planner at all when I do something. That’s why I sometimes need to try and pretend to be a planner for my better work performance.
Before I get started my work, I plan a lot; I think hard. I think and think and think until I’m convinced of what I’m going to work – If you can call it ‘planning.’
I often put a piece of fabric and a few skeins of threads together on a table and just look at them from time to time for a few days. That’s how I give it an extra care when I plan things. I’m not good at recording or making a list even though I agree with that that is worth doing.
Once I feel convinced with what to do and what to use, then I prefer to play it by ear. When I plan a colour palette of threads, for example, I don’t pick the colour for every single design. Instead, I only make a selection of threads that go well together overall, and I choose which colour to use on the spot regarding what other colours have already sat nearby.
Describe your creative space.
I’m not that particular about my workspace or environment.
Before I came to Edinburgh, I had my own studio in Seoul, where a massive collection of books and piles of fabric were. Yet I preferred to work at home just because I wasn’t diligent enough to walk to the only 3-minute away studio.
While I do embroidery, I sit still at a desk, a dining table or a tea table, wherever. While I think about a next project or something new, however, anywhere else but the table would be better for me.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Without any noise, it seems hard for me to concentrate on anything. The first thing I do every morning is turning on the radio or music and the last thing of the day is turning it off. Silence, ironically, is the biggest disruptor when I work.
While I work at home, many kinds of things play including music, radio, podcast, movies, and so on. It depends on the day and the mood. My current favourite is an English podcast talking about my favourite TV show, Doctor Who. Even during the classes in my studio when I was in Seoul, instrumental jazz music was always playing on.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I’d love to, but it’s not easy to carry on while I’m travelling. When doing embroidery in the traditional Korean way, you have to straighten the fabric with a wooden frame which is normally bigger than the actual work and heavy all the way. Besides that, you need some space, larger than one seat, when you work with it as you don’t want to prod somebody next to you.
That makes it hard to bring my work to my travelling. Instead, I take the time as a chance to refresh and gather inspiration and try and store it in my mind.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
As I’m not an organised person, there’s no regular term at all.
My work usually is monthly basis and occasionally yearly basis, and it is likely more time-consuming than it looks. Unsurprisingly, doing embroidery using fine threads requires a great deal of time and labor. Even some work looks simple and straightforward, it might be involving some invisible work or it might’ve started from making the twisted thread.
On top of that, the smaller the size is, the more extra care or effort you need to put most of the time when it comes to the traditional Korean embroidery. I normally prefer to do single project at a time, but while I do a long-term work taking more than a half year or so, I need to have some short-term works to refresh my eyes and hands.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I made a series of brush pouches in 2021 based on an ancient hand-drawn design artifacts, which were supposed to be used for making the embroidered pouches for the royal family in the past but no real one has existed.
I was intrigued by the set of embroidery designs and curious about what they would’ve looked like if they had been really created. What I had to do was put myself in an embroiderer’s shoes who professionally worked for the royal court back in time. I imagined how they would’ve picked the fabric and thread, and what colour combinations and stitch techniques they would’ve used for them.
To get closer to achieving my vision, I mobilised every knowledge about the traditional Korean royal embroidery, which had certain styles in it but no absolute rules to follow. This kind of project is what I really enjoy working on; I’d like to describe it as an uninspired creative work, if that makes any sense, in terms of the fact that it’s a collaboration of the ancestor’s original ideas and methods and my taste of creativity and actual skills.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
It’s hard to pick one favourite.
Just to name a few, I enjoy the time imagining and picturing what my next work would be and I absolutely love every moment doing embroidery. Often, putting stitches is so satisfying that it’s a bit hard to keep going on as I need a minute to feel the full satisfaction on my own; it’s a kind of my self-indulgence.
What challenges me, if I had to pick one, would be transferring the design onto the fabric. Since I draw every design myself even when it’s about an artifact replication work, I have been too accustomed to seeing it by the time I draw the final design on the actual fabric. I’m a person who doesn’t like to do the same thing repeatedly, so transferring the same design after a several rounds of revisions isn’t something I completely enjoy.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
There are a few memorable pieces about what I do.
One of them is about authenticity in terms of delivering and maintaining the tradition, which I was told by a restorer of mounted arts who usually helped me to get my work mounted and framed. He went like, “Supposing that you saw an antique wooden spoon that is worn and chipped on one side, and you are going to replicate it based on the traditional and cultural aspects. Then, would you make it with the same chip as is?” His saying resonated me a lot because I often felt a little bit uncomfortable whenever I encountered an embroidery modeling an old artifact having the same distortion or misrepresenting the original form.
Regardless that I do find that the shabby, moth-eaten artifacts have their own beauty that they’ve survived with through the ages, it’s questionable what to derive from the deliberately created damages with no history. It’s absolutely fine if it intends to carry a certain visual effect or something, but if it’s about conserving the authentic usage, meaning and heritage, it would be better to approach it more in depth. This is quite tricky to explain what I feel about even in my first language. I don’t want to make it in black and white, but what I want to address is that the ‘chipped spoon’ question gave me some food for thought.
If you could live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose? Why?
It would be something relating to fashion field since that’s what I’ve been constantly intrigued by. I would work as a designer or an editor dealing with contemporary fashion, not a traditional one.
Fashion is inevitably associated with custom, history and society, and it’s one genre of textile art and craft. No matter what the subject is, it seems hard for me to keep my hands off those kinds of things.
Besides that, if I’d gone a totally different way, I might’ve got involved with languages or writing which are surely other forms of art.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I used to have regular classes and workshops in my studio and some other places when I was in Seoul.
Now that I’m living in the UK and don’t have a regular workplace, I hope I can get good opportunities to share my work and knowledge to those who want to learn and know more about Korean embroidery in the UK while I stay here. Fortunately, I had my first online classes last June with people across the world, and I’d like to keep preparing and offering as much as possible.
Where can people see your work?
For anyone living in Edinburgh, or thinking of visiting Edinburgh this coming November, I’m planning to have a small solo exhibition with some of my work I’ve brought from Seoul at the Edinburgh Central Library. I’ll be sharing the detailed information once everything sets up. Also, I hope I can have great opportunities to present my embroidery in many cities in the UK or other countries nearby by participating or holding exhibitions if possible while I am here.
Interview posted August 2023
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