Sammy Seung-min Lee on Turning the Page on Ancient Hanji Paper

photo by Jimena Peck

Artist Sammy Seung-min Lee draws on traditional Korean papermaking processes to create sculptural works and innovative books.

Artist Sammy Seung-min Lee draws inspiration from her Korean heritage and the culture’s traditional hanji paper. “Hanji” translates as “Korean paper,” with “han” meaning “Korean” and “ji” meaning “paper.”

Lee grew up in South Korea, surrounded by hanji, which she used for writing and drawing. Her grandparents handed down old books bound with the paper. Lee noted that hanji’s strong nature makes for excellent archival durability. She cited as a case in point a copy of the Buddhist scripture The Great Dharani Sutra bound more than 1,300 years ago.

Lee, based in Denver, is currently studying in South Korea as a US Fulbright Scholar. She noted that paper was introduced to Korea from China in the first century BCE.

She discovered the sculptural potential of hanji while mending books, and she went on to create her own art books with the paper.

“I love the soft touch and how the pages drape when bound,” Lee said. “In my book Unfolding Each Day, I chose to print on hanji because I wanted to convey humility and resilience from the story’s narrative.”

The artist also used hanji for the art book Mammorial to create its book boards and cover material. But hanji is not only used for books, writing, or drawing. “Koreans use hanji everywhere: for flooring material, wallpaper, window screens, furniture liners, clothes, and there is even funerary clothing,” she said. “You are born and live surrounded by this material, and may be dead wrapped in it, too.”

Sammy Seung-min Lee
courtesy Sammy Seung-min Lee

Sammy Seung-min Lee used hanji paper for her 2017 book Mammorial, examining the physical and psychological changes of women through birthing and nursing. 

Lee’s 2022-23 exhibition Taking Root
courtesy Sammy Seung-min Lee and Denver Botanic Gardens

Lee’s 2022-23 exhibition Taking Root at Denver Botanic Gardens included cast paper sculptures highlighting the immigrant experience. 

Mammorial book
courtesy Sammy Seung-min Lee

Mammorial’s pages include microscopic anatomical images of breast cells and tissues to explore transformations in the body like seasonal cycles.

In Denver, Lee founded Collective SML | k, an artist-run project space promoting Asian and Asian American art and narratives. Recently, she exhibited her hanji-inspired art in a solo show at Denver Botanic Gardens and in a group show at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art. She also participated in a two-person show at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles, celebrating 120 years of Korean immigration history.

The history of hanji includes the traditional harvesting of mulberry bark, a communal Korean winter pastime. “Before agricultural activities got into full swing, villagers would use this slower working period to participate in the laborious process of papermaking,” Lee said. Mulberry bark is a renewable resource, making hanji a “green” paper. “The trees are bountiful in Korea, thriving on the country’s rocky mountainsides,” Lee added.

In addition to using hanji paper in her art books, Lee casts the paper into sculptures.

“My starting point is putting handmade hanji back into the water, agitating fibers, layering multiple sheets, and pounding to create a thicker, leather-like substrate that can take form as a sculptural material,” she said. “My undoing, multilayered, and transformational process resembles my immigrant identity.”

Lee emphasized that the hanji-making process lends strength to the paper. “The single cord-forming method, or oebalddeugi, is a derivation uniquely devised in Korea,” she said. “This approach allows fibers to move freely and overlap. The fibers often crisscross at ninety-degree angles as a result, contributing to the paper’s rugged nature.”

The process inspired one of hanji’s nicknames: “yin-yang paper.” Lee said, “I like challenging people’s perception that the paper is weak.”