Born as the son of a poor Najeon Chilgi craftman, Song Bang-ung’s young life revolved
around his father’s wood lacquer work. The Korean War, which erupted when he was 11
years old, left a damaging effect on his family’s finances that were already dire. After
the war, his father had to close his own wood lacquer workshop to work for a local factory to
support the family, and Song had to give up his dream of advanced learning at an art college.

When he was 19 years old, he became a full-time student of Najeon Chilgi, with his
father as his teacher and mentor. Not only did he want to help his father, an aged factory
worker, ease the burden of supporting the whole family, but also he was attracted to his
father’s view that Najeon Chilgi was as valuable as any art taught in college. But most of all, he
didn’t want the legacy of the lacquer art to die with his father. A dedicated student, Song spent his
20s learning his father’s skills and techniques, sacrificing his social life for the art and his family.

The painful decade of apprenticeship began to pay off as his reputation grew along with his income. By this point,
he decided to raise the level of his wood lacquer work from producing house wares to creating lacquer art. Another learning
process ensued, during which he made extensive tours to museums and galleries across the country to learn from surviving
masterpieces of Najeon Chilgi. He also read countless art books to study the forms, colors, patterns and techniques,
and made numerous experiments in his wood lacquer workshop to create his own style. His 30s were spent this way.

Najeon Chilgi is often called a comprehensive art as it involves a number of crafts including woodwork and metalwork,
in addition to making mother of pearl strips. Therefore, a craftsman must spend many years studying Najeon Chilgi
as well as to be proficient in many other different crafts. When Song Bang-ung was in his 40s, he began entering national
craft shows and competitions and gained a nationwide reputation as an exemplary craftsman. He received several prizes
and awards, including the President’s Prize, the highest honor any artist can get in a national arts and crafts competition
in Korea. However, his most special award was the Culture Minister’s Prize at the 1981 National Folk Craft Show; 1981
was the year his father passed away and he felt the award honored the man who taught him everything he knew. In 1990,
his artistic achievement of 40 years was officially acknowledged when the Korean government honored
him to succeed his father as a Master Craftsman of Najeon Chilgi (Kkeuneumjil), and listed his art
as ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 10.’

Today, his love of Najeon Chilgi deepens as he spends more time and energy developing
the art, and teaching it to young people. Like his father, he believes in the importance of
education and bequeathing this wonderful lacquer art to future generations.

The Korean traditional art of Najeon Chilgi, or “lacquerwares inlaid with mother of pearl
designs,” is often compared with similar arts in China and Japan. There are, however,
significant differences. In Korea, for example, they use only the iridescent interior lining
of abalone shells after grinding and cutting the lining into paper-thin strips. Chinese artists,
on the other hand, use thicker strips from various shells to inlay into wooden objects, while Japanese craftsmen consider
the mother of pearl inlaying as a subsidiary part of the Makie Kobako art. Many believe Najeon Chilgi is unique not only
because the Korean artisans have mastered the technique to extract the brilliant iridescence from the abalone shell,
but also because they have used the resplendent colors of the mother of pearl to their fullest extent to create such
exquisite designs.

Another key element of Najeon Chilgi is lacquering. Archaeological evidence proves that the use of the lacquer
paint in Korea dates back to the Bronze Age, and by the time Korea was in the Three Kingdoms Period
(57 B.C.-668 A.D., the period when the three ancient Korean kingdoms, Koguryo, Baekje and Silla, rivaled each other)
lacquerware making had become a national importance. In the Silla Kingdom, for example, a special government agency
was set up to control the production of lacquerware. In the Goryeo and Joseon dynasties, planting ‘lacquer trees’ and
managing ‘lacquer forests’ was an important duty of the central government. Koreans were attracted to lacquerware
because of its glossy beauty as well as its practicality for being strong, watertight and antibacterial. As some archaeological
artifacts prove, a well-made piece of lacquer art can maintain its original condition for more than 2000 years.

View the master's works