SHOREWOOD, Wis. (CBS 58) – Art can be a universal language for people to communicate ideas to other cultures, a woman here in the Milwaukee area who is a Korean immigrant, uses her art of Korean paper folding to share her culture, and the story of her life as an immigrant with people young and old.
She has been recognized by many organizations and her art has also been exhibited.
“I started paper folding arts in South Korea in 1996, when I wanted to teach my children fun early childhood crafts,” SeonJoo So said.
According to So, the art of Korean paper folding is actually very different from the Japanese art of origami.
“[In most types of origami you] make the 1 item with 1 piece of paper, don’t cut, don’t use glue, just fold to make one item,” So said, “but the Korean way of folding paper, no restrictions. “
Cutting, gluing and using multiple pieces of paper are all on the table.
So said, there are many different schools of Korean paper art.
Everything from intricate swans with thousands of folded pieces, to intricate baskets hand-woven from twisted paper, to “paintings” made with techniques that date back thousands of years using handmade paper.
So said in post-war Korea, where art supplies were scarce, Korean paper-folding arts flourished.
“So we usually use a recycled part, using the newspaper, a magazine, using this type of paper to create creative and useful works,” So said.
So said, it’s hard to estimate how long intricate pieces like these take to make.
“Sometimes I can’t measure time,” So said, saying she often folds paper while doing other activities like watching TV, “I just fold the units one by one, put them together. “
She said putting all those pieces together can take days.
So’s grandmother, who died at the age of 105, inspired her to start learning the craft.
“My grandma always said, ‘don’t stop learning, if you stop learning something new you can’t do [yourself happy when you are a] Senior.'”
So said, when she was a young woman in Korea, she studied genetic engineering, but gave up that career when she became a mother.
“In the Korean tradition, the mother, the parental law did not want [mothers] to work outside the home,” So said, “many Korean women have no chance of working outside the home.”
Instead, she says she learned paper folding from her grandmother to stay sharp.
“Practical activity makes [the] brain [..] smart,” So said.
Her grandmother also encouraged her to seek more in life.
“She pushed me to learn something more, to study abroad,” So said.
It was then that she moved here to the Milwaukee area in 2006 to pursue a Masters in Education.
“I was 44 at the time,” So said, “before that, I had never [spoke] in English.”
Now So says she teaches Korean paper folding arts to UWM and MPS students, she even has apprentices.
So said, moving to America was a culture shock–beyond having trouble with the imperial system–
“Now, even now, I can’t measure, a mile?”, laughed So, “how long [is that]?”
So says she also saw similarities, especially with the roles women are expected to play, as she was in South Korea.
“[Women in the Western world,] also […] fight for [balance] work and chores, or their management of their lives and their ambitions,” So said, “it’s very similar.”
So, she hopes her story of being inspired by her grandmother to have a life beyond the home and pursue her passion for the arts of paper folding, can inspire people to find their happiness, regardless of their background. race, gender identity, ability or social status.
“I can help some parts of that kind of sense, share my arts and share my life,” So said.
She has a studio where she does much of her work in Shorewood, you can find out more about the studio by visiting her Facebook page.