On Sunday, the second day of our trip, we went to the studio of Brian Barry, a Buddhist Temple painter. I must admit that with all of the walking we had done the day before, my feet were still hurting all the way up to my bellybutton. So I was grateful that we hopped into a taxi for the journey across Seoul to Brian’s home and studio. It was a glorious fall day and the trees were flaunting their most perfect colors for us as we drove along the winding roads through some of the wealthiest and most scenic residential areas of northern Seoul.
It’s thought that Seoul’s earliest settlement may have been as long as 6,000 years ago and the geomancy of the mountains that ring the city were considered auspicious by the Chosun dynasty rulers, who chose the site as their capital. Modern Seoul has become home to over 10 million people, forcing an urban spread up the slopes of those surrounding mountains. Despite differences in the architecture and signs in a language I couldn’t read, the topography of our route reminded me of driving through parts of Marin county in California.
Brian’s studio is on the third floor of an apartment building nestled against a hillside that has been designated a national park. Thus on the one side he faces the immediate glories of the natural world and on the other the great urban sprawl, a perfect perch from which to reflect on cosmology in the modern world.
Initially, Brian came to Korea with the Peace Corps. In 1967, he was assigned to public health work, fighting TB in an underdeveloped country still reeling from the devastation of the Korean Civil war. As his love for the Korean people and culture grew, he stayed to study Buddhism, supporting himself as an interpreter. And decades later, one of those interpreting jobs for an American architect led him to focus on dancheong (colorful cosmic design patterns) painted on Korean temples.
Thereafter, Brian sought out Master Manbong (1910-2006), a dancheong specialist who had been designated transmitter of Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 48 of Korea, and then to this master artist, Brian expressed his ardent desire to learn Buddhist painting.
Although Master Manbong accepted this strange blue-eyed foreigner as one of his students, there was much doubt that a foreigner would ever be able to endure the hardships of the training regimen to learn the intricate skills of temple painting. Indeed, learning Buddhist painting proved to be extremely demanding, but Brian stuck it out for more than 20 years, continuing to learn from and serve Master Manbong until the Master’s death in 2006.
Over the years, Brian’s paintings have come to grace not only Korean temples, but also those in Thailand, Bangladesh, Russia and the U.S. His modern Buddhist paintings are also sold to private collectors. A fantastic story of an amazing life, you can read it in more detail by clicking on the link to his name above or by visiting Brian’s own site: www.bbbudart.com
And to glimpse the world of dancheong that has so inspired Brian Barry for 20 years, I offer below a small collection of images from Buddhist temples in Korea. Who could fail to be inspired by dancheong? I can foresee that even my humble sewing projects will have a future influence reflected in shades of teal and turquoise, richly punctuated by coral, gold and navy.