▲ Sculptor Song Jong Won above with a haenyo statue he carved, and discussing how he got into the carving business, below. Photos by Jean K. Min
Dolhareubang sculptor Song Jong Won hasn’t had an easy life. His dream as a young man was to attend college, study English literature and the English language and later teach; however, shortly after starting college he suffered a debilitating illness that left him unable to speak clearly for years. To this day, Song has no idea what the problem was but it was clear that English teaching would no longer be in his future plans. He said he went through stages of depression and frustration trying to decide what to do with his life and found his answer in “The poem of five best friends,” by Yoon Sundo and Hwang Jhini, that he remembered from college.
Song said he considered the poem and the elements of Jeju Island and decided rock would be his new best friend. “Rock is permanent, it is always there, and it would be the most reliable [substance],” he said. “One day while near the KAL hotel in the middle of Jeju-Si, I looked up and noticed the two prominent dolhareubang at Samsonghyul and decided this was what I would model my work after.”
He said he kept his work a secret because to hold a degree and be working with rock would bring shame to his family. He then needed to make a living from his craft. In 1964, Jeju’s first folk museum opened and the director was one of Song’s friends. The director approached Song and asked if he could sell his dolhareubang sculptures in the museum. Song said he made his friend promise to never reveal his name, so not to bring dishonor on his family.
A local journalist did a story on the sculptures and asked who was responsible for making them. Song’s friend did not reveal his name, but the reporter found out on his own and The Jeju Daily published a story on the dolhareubang in 1968 in which Song was named. To his surprise, his family said nothing.
According to the article, some 500 pieces had been completed at the time. Song said that a pack of cigarettes then cost 30 won, and his dolhareubang sculptures sold for 100 won, barely enough for him and his family to survive on. He upgraded his material to volcanic rock and increased the price to 10,000 won and more, which was considered expensive back then.
Song began crafting his pieces using just a nail and hammer as it was difficult to come by a chisel initially. Finally he ordered a proper chisel from a local ironsmith and began to “churn them out,” at an average rate of two a day. These days he seldom creates more than a single piece a month.
“When the government decided to make the dolhareubang the iconic symbol of Jeju, I felt proud,” he said. Dolhareubang are given to sister cities as a symbol of friendship. In the past the dolhareubang was an idol of worship, a symbol of protection, as well as a distance marker for local residents. Today, the image has been commercialized and is a souvenir for tourists to proclaim that they have been to Jeju, Song said.
Song’s sculptures have gone all over the world and now reside in New Jersey, Japan and Mongolia, among other places. He said he has created about 1,000 major works. The larger sculptures he has made sell for as much as 30 million won. It is not the number of pieces he has produced that is important, Song said, but the detail involved and the attention paid to each work.
In 1984, Jeju hosted an annual competition and the governor ordered 2,500 dolhareubang for the occasion. Song said he was commissioned to the work but he couldn’t make that many on his own so he made around 500 and subcontracted the remainder. His son has now taken over Song’s business and teaches sculpture at Jeju National University. He is confident that his son understands the importance of the work and hopes he will always take it seriously. “So now I am an occasional farmer. I grow tangerines,” Song said. He has recently turned his attention to sculpting other figures, including haenyo, another prominent symbol of Jeju. Who knows, perhaps they will become the next gift from the government to sister cities.
The poem of five best friends
How many friends do I have? Count them:
Water and rock, pine and bamboo -
The rising moon on the East Mountain.
How happy I am
When I welcome my five friends!
What else do I need
When I have five friends?
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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