Asheville Art Talk: Pamella O’Connor of Hanji Home

photo by Thomas Calder

There is a magical and surreal quality to the lamps Pamella O’Connor creates at Hanji Home, her shop and business, located at the Wedge Studios in the River Arts District. Flower lamps line the shelves, windows and walls, in a seemingly permanent state of the windblown sway. The dark stems twist and curve their way up toward illuminated tulip and cotton ball flower shades, creating an odd contrast of darkness and light. These lamps would be at home on a Tim Burton film set.

It’s important not to to overlook the material used in creating such works — material that lends itself to the shop’s name. Hanji is a paper made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry. It is also an ancient South Korean tradition.

So how does a woman born in Iowa, who spent the first 35 years of her professional career in theater and puppetry, wind up in the mountains of North Carolina carrying on a tradition based in a country over 7,000 miles away? In 2008, “I was in need of a retreat,” O’Connor says. She had spent the previous two decades touring the world with various puppetry companies. Her initial break came after she was hired on as a vocal talent with Janie Geiser’s Jottary Theater. Over time, her roles and responsibilities including producing, directing, narrating and working as a puppeteer.

In 1998, O’Connor worked as a puppeteer on Ping Chong’s collaboration with the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. That same year, Chong’s group performed at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C. Before arriving in Charleston, O’Connor submitted an original piece to the nearby Piccolo Festival’s theater series. For the next two weeks, she directed and performed her own debut during the day and worked in Chong’s production. It was first time that a puppeteer performed in both festivals within the same year.

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From 2003 to 2008, O’Connor created, workshopped and toured with what she considered her life’s work in puppetry, The Anatomy of Melancholy. But after five years, she had grown weary of the road and in need of new inspiration.

“I read somewhere that God speaks the language of silence,” she says. So when the opportunity arose to teach English in South Korea, O’Connor went.

“I wanted to leave by the end of that first year,” O’Connor admits. “But that was right when I discovered hanji.” The form immediately enthralled her. She found Young Sang Soon, a teacher who guided her through the lamp-making process. “That first time felt like I was all thumbs,” O’Connor says.

Overtime, she learned how to manipulate and stretch the paper, saturating it with rice glue in order to create rough ridges by marrying the fibers. She spent nine months under Sang Soon’s guidance and, by the time she left South Korea, O’Connor had completed her first hanji lamp.

A former colleague once told O’Connor, “If you want to create good work, you must eliminate distraction.” This advice is what first brought her to Asheville in 1996, for a two-year stint, and led to her return to the mountains in 2010. She’s since focused on perfecting the craft of hanji. In 2012, O’Connor won a merit award that afforded her the chance to participate in the Buyer’s Market of American Craft in Philadelphia — orders from that show filled Hanji Home’s calendar for the next year.

These days, O’Connor seeks new ways to challenge her work. Her latest passion is incorporating natural elements such as driftwood into her creations. Some of O’Connor’s pieces can be seen at Woolworth Walk  and her work is also available studio in the Wedge building or online.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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