American mothers publish book on traditional Korean handicrafts

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Apr 29, 2014 - 19:55
  • Updated : Apr 29, 2014 - 19:55

After adopting children from Korea more than 20 years ago, two American mothers and longtime friends, Debbi Kent and Joan Suwalsky, were both determined to raise their children in an environment that would expose their families to their kids’ native culture as much as possible.

Making regular visits to the country over the past two decades, the two mothers fell in love with all things Korean culture, and more specifically, were fascinated by the tradition and history of Korean arts and crafts.

“We started collecting things ourselves for our own homes so that our children can, as we like to say, literally bump to their heritage,” said Suwalsky during a round interview at the Seoul Selection office in Jongno-gu on Tuesday.
Authors Joan Suwalsky (left) and Debbi Kent speak during an interview at the Seoul Selection office in Jongno-gu on Tuesday. (Robert Koehler/Seoul Selection)

Having an already deep-rooted interest in learning about traditional Korean handicrafts and then discovering the shocking lack of English resources on the subject, Kent (mother to two Korean daughters) and Suwalsky (mother to a Korean son and daughter) decided to combine forces with the goal of educating people. Earlier this month, the two published “100 Thimbles in a Box: The Spirit and Beauty of Korean Handicrafts” with Seoul Selection ― the first English-language book that features descriptions of all the country’s major handicrafts.

“Our motivation for writing the book was after traveling here for 20 years ... we have come to know Korean art, Korean handicrafts,” Kent said. “And we were shocked that back home, there was no evidence that this beautiful artwork existed.”

The authors claimed that in the States, they noticed many people’s knowledge of Asian art is largely limited to Chinese and Japanese culture, while Korean traditional art goes virtually unknown.

“...we wanted the children to know the beautiful heritage from which they came that they weren’t exposed to in the U.S.,” Kent added.

The two also said they had past encounters with a number of teachers, including an art teacher friend of Kent’s, who expressed a desire to teach their students about Korea, but were at a loss with the lack of readily available English materials.

“We realized, in addition to adoptive families, there’s a whole world full of people out there who don’t know about Korean art and crafts.” she explained.

“We also found when we were doing our research that the books that we could find tended not to have beautiful pictures of Korean art,” said Suwalsky. “A major decision we made early on is that we wanted this book to be visually dazzling.”
The cover of “100 Thimbles in a Box: The Spirit and Beauty of Korean Handicrafts.” (Seoul Selection)

Rather than delving into too much depth, especially considering the book is meant for introductory readers, “100 Thimbles in a Box: The Spirit and Beauty of Korean Handicrafts” provides page after page of vividly colored and visually stunning photographs alongside brief and succinct descriptions of 44 traditional crafts.

“We are not scholars of Korean art and we didn’t pretend to be,” Suwalsky added. “The main thing that we want to do is communicate through our books with people about Korean culture, Korean art and Korean sensibility to the extent that we can understand them, because we are not Korean.”

The two friends added that they have already started on their next project, which looks to target children. With more than a half dozen stories written already, Kent and Suwalsky have their eyes set on publishing a children’s book that focuses on using animal figures and proverbs from Korean folklore and using them modern, non-traditional folktale approaches.

By Julie Jackson (