Conveying Korean Metalcraft with Kenny Son.
Kenny Son is an emerging designer-maker who has recently completed a six-month mentorship under master metalsmith Sung Joon Cho in Korea, with funding provided by the Australia-Korea Foundation. Kenny participated in the program with the aim of introducing traditional Korean metalsmithing skills to the Australian jewellery community. After graduating from Sydney College of the Arts in 2010 with a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Honours) and completing a Masters in Design at the University of Technology in 2013, he has successfully launched his own object and accessories label, Studiokyss, based in Sydney.
Kenny was kind enough to answer some specific questions about his time in Korea as a context for understanding more about his upcoming exhibition at Studio 20/17, Conveying Korean Metalcraft. I interviewed him over Skype from Sydney while Kenny was close to completing his program in Seoul, South Korea.
Let’s start by telling me how you came to make jewellery and objects? I imagine it’s been quite a journey.
I started at Sydney College of the Arts, majoring in Jewellery and Objects. I started because I just wanted to make. I really liked working with my hands, building things, making things. I started it, I loved it, I still do.
I graduated from SCA and took a year off to try different things and see what I wanted to do – from photography to working at the Powerhouse Museum. I realised that I wanted to continue learning but at the same time I wanted to try something different. That’s why I went to UTS, you went to UTS right?
Yes, I studied there for one year before I started at SCA.
I did it the other way around. I finished up at SCA and wanted to try something different in terms of approach and execution. I went to UTS and did Object and Accessories for my Masters Program.
And when did you graduate?
I graduated in the middle of last year. I had this idea [the program] that I wanted to do pretty much as soon as I graduated. The beginning of that year I looked into the scholarship provided by the Australian Korea Foundation that looks at building the relationship between Korea and Australia in relation to culture. It’s an Australian government foundation, the primary focus is on the improvement of Australia, benefitting from things that relate to Korea.
It has a subject or a topic that the scholarship focuses on each year. Last year it had to do with sport, but I thought what I had planned was different, that I had a case. They thought it was really unique and different. And yeah! Here I am, nearly at the end of the six months, due to go back to Australia.
What does your program focus on?
Basically, my program focuses on learning traditional Korean metalcraft techniques, and going back to Australia with a range of workshops and an exhibition at Studio 20/17. My progress will be shown as well as my mentor Cho’s lifetime work, who has a lot of years behind him, a lot of work and a lot of experience. Korean metalcraft is something special, so it will be good showcasing that in Australia, to see what Australia is missing in terms of the area.
Did you design the program yourself?
Yeah, I designed everything, along with a friend of mine, who is a well-known jeweller here. I was speaking to him to see if he had any ideas and he said, ‘Hang on, I’ve got a person in mind, let me talk to him first’. He introduced me to Sung Cho. He was born in 1945 and he’s been a metal craftsman all his life. I got introduced to him and had lots of phone calls with him. He said that he thought this program would be worthwhile and he had something in mind as well and we sort came up with this program.
It was hard for me because, and this is only my assumption, but a lot of the other people applied for the scholarship through a company or a school, which makes it a lot easier in terms of insurance, accommodation, paperwork…
In terms of just general support?
Yeah, exactly, and because Cho’s coming to Australia I had to organise everything for him as well. So doing the actual program as well as all the behind the scenes stuff is really difficult. Things like finding accommodation for the short stay [in Seoul]… I’m just like, how did I do it? I think now that I know that I scaled everything a little bit too big for myself to handle in the beginning, but hey, it’s a challenge and it’s what I wanted.
What has the experience of the mentor/mentee relationship been like? That’s not something that a lot of people get to experience in Australia.
It wasn’t easy. There’s the age difference, he was born in in 1945, I was born in 1987, that’s already forty plus years difference. He’s lived in Korea for seventy odd years and I’ve been away from Korea for twenty odd years so there was that cultural difficulty to start with. But, time fixes that.
It was quite special. It’s different learning on a one to one basis. It’s more intimate, more direct. If you do something wrong or make mistakes, there’s someone to go ‘nup’, or ‘do it again’, and let you know what the right way is. It’s a really good way of mastering something. I started the program November 1st, and everyday, except some Saturdays and Sundays, I went from 9 in the morning to five o’clock, or five-thirty, everyday. It means you have a lifetime teacher than you can always go back to if you need. It was really good, really special.
It sound like you will to continue having a relationship with him when you’re back in Australia.
I think so.
Can you explain one of the techniques you’ve learnt from Sung Joon Cho?
One of the techniques I learnt was ipsa.Simply explained, it is creating a chisel that has a very sharp angle, probably less than 5 degrees, well, much less than that, created out of specialized steel. It’s the repetition of the hammering against the chisel onto a steel plate and you are creating hundreds of, how should I put it…marks or indentations, and then putting in really fine silver wire.
And you’re hammering it into the indentations that are made with the chisel. The wire has to be about .2 or .18 millimeter thickness. You are creating a series of shapes or images with the wire and hitting those into the indents.
Wow, that sounds amazing.
Yeah! It’s quite interesting.
What has your experience been of the Korean metalcraft and jewellery community?
I can’t compare it to anywhere else around the world, only Australia, so it’s a very personal comparison. My opinion is that the metalcraft scene in the Korean universities are a lot more disciplined. There’s a lot more hours put in. Students stay until say 11pm, sometimes 12am. It’s just hours and hours and hours – that’s what’s expected. In Korea, even after they turn 17, 18, 19, a lot of them still stay home or they have a dorm at school. They get support from the family in terms of school fees. In Western culture, once you are an adult, you move out, you make your own living. And it’s hard with work commitments to find that amount of time.
A lot of the teachers or the lecturers have studied either in Japan or Europe, like Germany, Munich so forth. So a lot of the influences are from there in terms of design and skills. And material wise, it’s quite different from Australia. In Australia, there’s a lot of, if I can say [laughs] kind of very strange materials that comes into the metalcraft scene, I shouldn’t even say the metalcraft scene because some of them don’t even end up using metal! That’s what’s so great about the Australian jewellery scene is the freedom to work with so many different materials and techniques. The atmosphere or environment also influences you. Australia has such a good natural [environment], it’s full of trees and beautiful plants and flowers and so forth. Here, it’s very hard to see wildlife because there are so many high-rise buildings, it’s so urbanised. That’s got a lot to do with the work that comes out.
You’re recently had a small exhibition in Seoul. What were you exhibiting and what was the response?
That exhibition wasn’t planned. It wasn’t part of the program at the beginning. It was held at Gallery Ah-won. Gallery Ah-won specialises in craft, mostly metalcraft. I’ve got to know the owners of Ah-won just through people I know in the industry in Seoul. They’ve been watching over what I’ve been doing. They also have an association with my mentor. They said why not show what you’re doing to the metalcraft scene in Korea as well. Nothing huge, nothing major. It was on for about a week. It was quite special. It was also an event to say goodbye to the people I got to know in Korea and a lot of people who have an association to the Korean metalcraft scene came, lecturers from different universities, current practicing artists and students as well.
The exhibition was progress work, trials and experiments. Nothing in the exhibition was finished. It was like a process diary, an archive, of what I’ve done and how I’ve learnt it, the process behind a certain technique. That’s how I displayed it. It was all laid out on three different tables. It was the tools as well, because I had to make all the tools. Cho’s known for that as well. Because he does traditional work, not a lot of tools are available for his work. In Australia the exhibition will be called Conveying Korean Metalcraft but here it was called The Process Diary / Conveying Korean Metalcraft because it was a process diary basically. It was just great, thanks to Gallery Ah-won.
How do you think your personal relationship to Korea has changed? Do you see yourself going back to live there?
At first it was hard. Some of the things I just didn’t understand, not like ‘what does that mean’. More like why, ‘why would they do that’? In Australia I’m very connected to the Korean community but actually being in the country, experiencing it as a 28 year old, is very different. Life as an adult in Korea is very different because of the history of how the country developed. Korea’s history has effected how people live today. There was a huge Japanese invasion in the early 1900’s and the Korean War in 1950. It’s an amazing country if you think about it. Everything was destroyed because of the war. It redeveloped, re-civilised. Now Korea’s a country with a number one IT area, so many huge companies; Samsung, Hyundai, LG. If you think of that you just go, ‘oh’, you understand why some of the people are really stressed, why some things are different. And that’s why a lot of people put in a lot of hours, like I said before, even the students, tend to put in lots and lots of hours. Because without that you can’t come than far in 56 years.
What do you hope to bring back to Australia?
I hope to bring back more than what I initially did! It ranges from knowledge, skills and techniques to experience and even including emotions and stuff from over the six months. This program was highly set on skills, techniques and knowledge that are very rare in the Australian metalcraft scene, which could benefit the people in the industry.
Conveying Korean Metalcraft at contemporary jewellery design gallery, Studio 20/17, will show both your and your mentor’s work?
Well, what I’ll be showing is the progress rather than finished work and what Cho will be showing is his lifetime’s work.
Ok, so that’s pretty major!
Yeah, yeah! Not 100% [of it] because he’s sold a lot of stuff but what he’s got and what he’s managed to get, he will be showing. Everything he makes by hand, but it’s finished to perfection. A lot of people go, ‘oh is that cast?’ or ‘is that pressed?’ but he hand cuts, hand carves and hand raises everything. You just go ‘woah!’
How will the your work and Cho’s work fit alongside each other?
It will make a lot more sense, seeing my process and his finished work. I think it will be better that way.
You are hoping to introduce Korean techniques to Australia – how are you hoping to achieve this?
Through the exhibition firstly, and I’m set to have a range of workshops. Firstly at the Jam Factory in Adelaide, Perth JMGA and finishing off the main workshop at SCA which is co-funded by the Korean Cultural Centre in Sydney.
I’m doing the workshop in Sydney by the way, and I’m very excited! Will you and Cho be doing the workshop together?
Cho will be leading the workshops but I think it makes sense that I work as an assistant and as a translator.
How will your time in Korea benefit your future work? Do you think what you’ve learnt in these six months will become part of your work?
I think so, definitely, yeah. I think six months, it could be a very short time but at the same time it’s a long time to be apart from your actual life and submerging yourself into a complete program. Everything’s set, everything’s planned, there’s freedom but you know what you’re going to be doing for the next five, six months. It will be a huge part of my future and my work. Not everything [I’ve learnt], I must say, because some things are really traditional and some things…it doesn’t fit into..
Your personal aesthetic?
Yeah exactly, my personal interests. There will be huge influences or even changes towards what I do, and how I work, and the techniques I’ll be using as well.
Did you have opportunities to travel outside Seoul during the program?
I got to travel a little bit because I had some time during weekends, to see Korea and get to know Korea – going to Kunsan, it’s the southern coast of Korea. And also Jeju Island, it’s also off the South of Korea. Time and time again, it is the most wonderful place, a really amazing place within this world.
I’ve met so many people. Through the program I’ve become friends with a lot of good people, I’ve made a lot of connections and friends. Some of them will be great friends after I leave this country and because a lot of them are in the metalcraft scene, I’m sure we’ll be contacting each other if we need help with anything, on a personal level, and workwise as well. That’s quite special.
Lots of good food as well. I have a lot of Korean food back home as well but still it’s different. Definitely, food, lots of…I don’t know if I should say this but lots of drinking as well! Drinking culture here is huge.
So you’ve had fun as well as working really, really hard?
I guess so! Towards the end it was more working, working but yeah.
How are you feeling now you are at the end of your program?
I’m quite excited, a little bit scared, but quite excited.
Thank you Kenny!
Conveying Korean Metalcraft will show at Studio 20/17 from the 14 to 28 June. Join the artist for drinks at the opening on Saturday 14June 4-6pm.