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Homage to the Haenyeo: A Collaboration

I was requested to write this article for the 2014 KBF (Korea Bojagi Forum) Catalog on our Collaborative Process as a guideline for other artists.

Leonie Castelino, Bojagi Textile Artist Brenda Sunoo, Photojournalist. Author of "Moon Tides. Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea" Soonja Yang, Grand Master of Galot. Jeju Persimmon dyer. Owner/Designer of Monsengee.

I met Brenda Sunoo, author of “Moon Tides. Jeju Island Grannies of the Sea" in 2012 at the Korea Bojagi Forum (KBF) in Heyri. In 2014, there are approximately 4,500 Haenyeo, average age 65, who are actively working. They are Korean women divers exclusive to Jeju Island who eke out a living free diving for seafood and sea weed from the ocean floor. They can hold their breath from 20 a 90 minutes depending on their age and season. They surface for a minute between dives - from shallow waters to depths of 15 - 20 meters. The hazards are many: entanglement in their nets, knife gets embedded in rock, running out of breath, jelly fish, sharks, and more.

The stories of the Haenyeo resonated very deeply within me. They are the stories of women, who keep body and soul together for their families, and do so without glory.

I called Brenda in March 2014. I was inspired by her book and wished to use her photographs in my Bojagi for KBF 2014. She suggested we collaborate, as she had been searching for a textile artist to work with. We established that I was the textile artist, the Bojagi and the interpretation was mine. We talked and shared and achieved a comfort level of trust and faith in each other.

Why was I passionate about this subject? I realized it was the universal story of the power of women, a celebration of women and aging, respect and pride for every earned wrinkle of life experiences, communal support for each other in sharing, caring for each other in widowhood, ill-health, good times and bad. It is the strength of the feminine.

For Brenda, homage to the haenyeo was inseparable from preservation of the environment. Her interviews informed her of the hazards that threatened the seas surrounding Jeju Island. The collaboration was more than honoring the Haenyeo, it was respect for the seas and ocean - their environment which was at risk. Besides, the Haenyeo reminded her of her grandmothers who immigrated to the US. We were both passionate about different issues which were congruent to the Haenyeo.

It took six weeks for my concept, ‘Homage to Haenyeo’ to germinate. There would be three long pieces, one depicting ‘Their relationship with the sea’, the second on ‘The strength of the feminine’, and the third, ‘The haenyeo in harmony with her environment’.

Brenda sent me 40 photo transfer images on Lutradur, Silk and Organza, and a few transferred onto galot - persimmon dyed fabric. We found the media. She contacted her friend Soonja Yang in Jeju for her galot fabric who immediately mailed me almost 20+ meters of five variations of color of her exquisite Jeju persimmon dyed silk.

The first work is 'JEJU GRANNIES OF THE SEA' with persimmon silk and images on lutradur. The media is absolutely crucial to its life.

The second is 'FORMIDABLE WOMEN'. Stark on one side - SURVIVAL. Celebration of life FAMILY on the reverse. Brenda's fabric from Jeju: dual colored poly silk, mosi (korean ramie), images on organza and silk

​The third, 'DESCENT INTO THE DEEP', represents The Haenyeo in her environment – The Ocean. On flowing silk

organza, it reflects hope for a pristine future.

I created the bojagis, but Brenda and Soonja gave life to them with their materials. I have grown as an artist with their generosity. It has been a gift.

Passion for an issue crosses international boundaries. I am an American from New York/New Jersey, born in India. Brenda is a third-generation Korean-American from California and Jeju. Soonja is Korean from Jeju Island who spent many years of her career in New York.

I have gratitude for this Bojagi Collaboration which is imbued with passion, serendipity, generosity, friendship and magic.

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