Chunghi Choo: The Energy Qi

Chunghi Choo captures her joyful creativity in sensuous forms and beguiling surfaces, but, despite this sumptuousness, simplicity harmony and tranquility are always integral to her work.

Born in Korea, she took a B.F.A. at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, majoring in Oriental painting while also studying philosophy of Oriental art and Chinese brush calligraphy. Both of these became important for her creative work and lifestyle, as Choo explains that it is imperative in both to concentrate on essentials. The artist avoids mere surface appearances, aiming not for beauty but for the inner reality; if one gets rid of superficiality beauty will be there.

Chunghi Choo: The Energy Qi
Decanters, electroformed copper, silver-plated, copper and silver electro-appliqué, 5½ x 5 x 5″, 1979
Collection: American Craft Museum, NY. “I do not work with preconceived final images in mind. These two small decanters evolved from a plasteline ball held in my cupped hands. I began playing with the soft material, and the response of the plasteline to my hand suggested an emerging form. This rudimentary shape was refined into these organic vessels. I like the intimacy and feeling of holding and pouring from these pieces. The lines on the surfaces echo the flow of the forms.”

Choo says, “I believe that the sweeping movements of the brush in calligraphy have influenced my work and give it a flowing line of energy.” Brush calligraphy involves the intuitive mastery of proportion, spacing and placement of individual elements to create a unified and satisfying composition. A calligrapher first envisions the work, then gathers energy and concentrates it. The Chinese call the energy qi (pronounced “chee”). This energy galvanizes the movements producing the work, giving it life. Choo approaches her designs in the same way.

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Choo often speaks of harmony in life and art, and she ultimately has the ideal of musical harmony in mind. The music of Mozart and Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms, and the operas of Verdi and Puccini have always nurtured her spirit. “Good music elevates me to a plateau that lets me explore creative and productive hours. Music helps me to make my work harmonious, joyous, and flowing – like the music. My work is never produced without music.”

Chunghi Choo takes great pleasure in surrounding herself with art objects and using them in daily life. She also delights in the beauty of nature, and in the cooking and enjoyment of delicious food (she is a superb chef). She is a wonderful host to her numerous friends, colleagues and students. Her house is the perfect environment for Choo, for there she is able to bring together all her various interests in the most triumphant way.

Saucière, electroformed copper, silver-plated, fabricated silver ladle, 6 x 9¾ x 4″, ladle 12″, 1987
Photo: Peter Krumhardt. “I like to see qualities of simplicity and grace in my holloware. I like for each piece to be used and thus to add pleasure to daily life through heightened sensuousness and a feeling of celebration.”

Choo’s design for her own house was accomplished through her great feeling for color and design, but also with common sense. She consciously applied the principles of feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of arranging buildings and rooms in ways to achieve harmony and efficiency. The house is placed with its back to a south-facing hill. Its windows open its spaces to a panoramic view of the river valley below so that it is filled with light and air.

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Chunghi Choo came to the United States in 1961 to study metalsmithing, weaving and ceramics at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she received her M.F.A. in 1965. She began teaching smithing and fiber art at the University of Northern Iowa, and, since 1968, she has been teaching at the University of Iowa in Iowa City where she is head of the Jewelry and Metalsmithing Department in the School of Art and Art History.

Some of Choo’s early masterworks are in silver, functional objects that appear as fluid organic forms inspired by nature. As with all flawlessly crafted works, their visual elegance dominates the viewer’s first impression. Each of her vessels is delightfully comfortable to handle and their esthetic attractiveness never overshadows function. Her tea-servers, for instance, are as efficient as pourers as they are pleasing as art objects. “I like to see in my work simplicity and grace, and I like for each piece to appear sensuous and celebratory, a pleasure to use.”

Teapot, electroformed copper, silver-plated, wood, alkyd enamel, 17½ x 6 x 10″, 1990
Photo: Peter Krumhardt. “This teapot combines the elements of surprise and tradition. The handle and knob are three-dimensional transcriptions of strokes from my brush calligraphy.”

Silver, however, is not the whole story. From the mid-1960s through the 70s, Choo was the prime exponent of the ancient tritik technique, with which she began producing monumentally scaled tie-dyed works. The most spectacular of these silks are her lyrical and brilliantly colored hangings, which have been compared to abstract-expressionist paintings. Examples of her textile art are in the American Craft Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which selected their hanging by Choo for their “Notable Acquisitions 1965 – 1975” spotlight.

Fortunately, Chook textile work caught the eye of Jack Lenor Larsen when he was judging the “Young Americans 1969” show. Larsen presented a solo exhibition of Choo’s work at his New York showroom in 1971. This exhibition was one of a series that he has mounted to promote outstanding artists. Larsen opened doors for her to the professional art world both as a textile artist and a silversmith.

Despite her productions in different mediums, Choo has not stopped working in metal. “Although I was intimidated at first by the tools, techniques, and time-consuming hard work of metalsmithing, my discipline, my attraction to the beauty of precious metals and gems, and the joy I receive from the results of silver work, all made me continue in this field. The appeal of silver outweighs the difficulties.” Choo’s metalsmithing nevertheless has evolved through progressive stages in which she was seeking ever greater ease of expression for the artist. During the 1960s, while using the traditional techniques of raising and forging, fabrication and casting, she reached a point where the organic forms that she wished to create were difficult to achieve using traditional methods. Choo turned to electroforming, studying the processes with Stanley Lechtzin at Tyler School of Art in 197l. In 1973, she obtained a grant to install a plating tank at the University of Iowa metalsmithing studio. Since then, she has further developed and refined the potentials of electroforming. Most of Choo’s recent metal pieces were produced using this method.

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Creamer and sugar bowl, electroformed copper, silver-plated, 10 x 8¾ x 4½”; 3 x 4 x 4″, 1987
Photo: Peter Krumhardt. “The design of these works was developed from experiments with paper folding. Anodized niobium gives color accents to both the creamer and sugar bowl. The rising handles emphasize an effect of soaring and commanding space.”

Electroforming allows for unlimited expression in forming metal with relative ease. Usually, Choo makes molds of plastoline and then casts them in wax; she makes the molds directly in wax. Both plasteline and wax permit direct and spontaneous work. The finished objects in metal have a fluid appearance usually obtainable only with softer materials.

Choo also produces her limited-edition multiples through electroforming. By making a silicon-rubber mold from an original piece, and then casting multiple wax molds for electroforming from this master mold, production of identical pieces is possible, thus making the work more affordable for a wider public for whom unique pieces are prohibitively expensive.

She has also developed the possibilities of what she calls “electro-appliqué.” By applying resist and leaving areas of metal open to plate relief, a variety of intricate patterns can be produced on the surface of the object.

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Another technique Choo has evolved is a previously unnamed process she calls “convolution forming.” This method is simple and direct; it involves the shaping of a three-dimensional form from a single fat piece of sheet metal by rolling and bending, mostly by hand or with a minimal use of tools. Choo’s inspiration for this method was the intriguing mathematical model known as the Moebius Strip. Both convolution forming and electroforming greatly reduce the noise pollution associated with traditional methods of metalsmithing and help ease artists’ work.

Each metalsmithing technique has inherent characteristics, advantages and limitations. The artist can choose the technique best suited for the immediate purpose. “Creating a teapot is not an unfettered process,” says Choo. “Even electroforming is time-consuming and requires painstaking labor. I am sure that computer-assisted machines will be developed soon.”

Vessel, electroformed copper, acrylic lacquer, 8¼ x 7½ x 6½”, 1987.
Photo: Peter Krumhardt. “One day I was folding and overlapping a sheet of wax and it suggested a flowerlike form. I allowed it to become this vessel. Copper-electro-appliqué lines on its surface accentuate the wrapped shape and the upward thrust of the floating bud.”

Choo’s creativity is nowhere more evident than in her most recent series of works, which draw on several areas of her expertise. She was struck by the malleability and transparency of various kinds of fine metal screen-mesh, which she first found at a hardware store. Minutes after bringing some wire mesh to her studio, she was instinctively folding a square of the material in the same way as in classic Japanese origami paper folding. She folded the square diagonally into fourths, then bent two opposite corners together and fastened them; then she bent the two remaining corners over the fastened ones, creating a basketlike enclosure. She saw immediately that this simple procedure was open to a wide variety of permutations and she was overjoyed by the seemingly unlimited possibilities. “When screen mesh is bent or stretched beyond what is called its elastic limit, it retains its new shape; if bent below the elastic limit, it will spring back to its original shape. When screen or sheet metal is convoluted, various combinations of bending above and below the elastic limit can be utilized to create dynamic tensions which support and retain the desired shape. The wire mesh can be anodized, painted, or left as is. The characteristic appearance of screen is like a woven fabric, but it can be formed, since it is metal.” To date Choo has worked with aluminum, bronze and brass, as well as gold and silver meshes.

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Remarkably, Choo’s screen sculptures and room dividers are related to her textile work of the 70s and 80s, with many of them having dyed or acrylic-painted images applied to two or more layers of silk cloth. Hanging or mounting these layers one in front of another, with space between, resulted in constantly shifting effects of color and image. With her screen sculptures, Choo has produced similar effects. For example, when a gold or silver form is placed within one of darker color, a variegated iridescence results, thus enlivening and enriching the total effect.

Choo’s mesh sculptures are airy buoyant and elegant. They have a look that is not so much high tech as high fashion. Some pieces have been embellished further with the addition of such objects as pieces of antique Oriental fabrics or samples of Chinese or Korean calligraphy, all of which add layers of associations to the pure forms.

Vessel, electroformed copper, 8 x 8½ x 4¾”, 1980
“This vessel also evolved from folding sheet wax. It looks pliable, like pasta dough. The surface is given character by the strongly contrasting textures and radiant colors.”

Characteristically, Choo almost immediately began to share her new-found enthusiasm for working with wire mesh with her students. She urged them to begin experimenting along with her, to push the limits of the medium and to explore all possibilities. This sharing is typical of Choo’s teaching and it contributes to her outstanding success as a teacher. Her hope is to stimulate students’ creativity by kindling an interest in searching our new concepts as well as new techniques.

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For her, teaching must be open, direct and very giving. She observes: “Of course, it is essential to teach techniques and esthetics, but I believe that a teacher should be intuitive and respond to different styles in order to inspire students. The teacher can suggest how to refine each individual style, making each piece more sophisticated and bringing to life the student’s personal expression.”

It should be no surprise that Choo’s students have frequently received recognition in major competitions. This recognition gives her great satisfaction and fuels her own creative energies. Choo was recipient of the student-nominated Amoco Excellence in Teaching Award in 1987.

Chunghi Choo can look back upon a record of enviable achievements. Fortunately for us all, she is looking forward, to her next creation, her next breakthrough, and to furthering her standards of excellence.

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Robert A. Rorex teaches in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa, Iowa City and holds a Ph. D. in Chinese Art and Archaeology from Princeton University.

By Robert A. Rorex
Metalsmith Magazine - 1991 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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