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Creativity Growing Stronger with Age

Creativity Growing Stronger with Age

When Lee Sang-il, 66, a hairdresser to celebrities retired he hinted that he was about to embark on a very big project. And about five years ago, Sang-il unveiled his latest project, an epic resort almost 90 percent complete.  

Soon after he sent invitations to an opening party to celebrate spring. An hour and a half on a highway and winding countryside roads, an incredible scene unfolded. A massive concrete building stood at the foot of a gently sloping mountain across a babbling stream. Standing guard near the entrance to the resort -- L’art de la vie, meaning “the art of life” -- were the stone pillars that had once stood tall inside Lee’s cafe in Sinsa-dong, one floor below his hair salon.  
The imposing building at the entrance to L’art de la vie is an art exhibition hall dedicated to Lee’s works -- large-scale installations and giant panels of pencil drawings. It is part of the resort that has eight private lodgings, three hanok lodgings, as well as an Italian restaurant, a cafe and a soon-to-open Korean restaurant.  

Wine flowed freely at the garden party, where Lee’s old friends and clients gathered to congratulate him on the opening of a new chapter in his life. 
“More than 400 came to my parties,” says Lee when I return to L’art de la vie in Moga-myeon, Icheon, Gyeonggi Province, on June 7 for an interview. He said he was grateful and touched that so many people had accepted his invitation. After all, it had been quite some time since he retired at the end of 2012, ending his celebrated career as a hair designer after more than 30 years. 
The decision to retire, somewhat early, was made after showing “Last Beauty,” his large-scale installation work depicting his death and funeral, at Seoul Living Design Fair in 2012. By that time, he had been drawing for some years, living in an old hanok in Oeam village in South Chungcheong Province for part of the week, where he drew day and night.  
Drawing was a newly discovered passion, occasioned by his wife’s departure for Europe to study jewelry design. At home alone after a long day at work, he one day picked up an eyebrow pencil from his wife’s dressing table and began drawing on the back of a used piece of paper he found in the living room. 
Work on the resort began in 2014. The land had been purchased several years before that. “I was instantly attracted by the peach blossoms, the gentle mountain slope and the valley. When I turned over a rock in the stream, I found a freshwater crawfish. It brought back memories of my younger days,” he says.  

The original plan was to build a small house where the couple would grow old, Lee spending his days drawing. His wife, Kim In-sook, however, had a different idea. It would be a selfish luxury to have this beautiful place all to themselves, she told him. “Let’s open a cultural space,” he recalls his wife urging him. 

For two years, Lee went about preparing the land, removing rocks and clearing fallen tree trunks, all by hand. 
His art is everywhere around the resort. He gets up well before dawn, he says. “I draw from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.,” he says. His works are mostly large-scale pencil drawings requiring hours and hours of painstaking work. At 7:30 a.m., he begins working on the resort grounds.  
“To keep the grounds looking natural actually requires a lot of labor,” he says, explaining how the flowers in the meadow were planted to look as natural as possible. The red poppies were strategically planted among other flowers, for example. “A garden is another way of expressing one’s self,” says Lee, whose salon always had a lavish arrangement of fresh flowers. 
Preserving nature and incorporating the buildings naturally into the environment was the major focus of Lee’s work. Lee designed all the buildings, including the brick lodgings and hanok. He drew the buildings first, built them working with local builders and carpenters and then had the blueprints drawn up after everything was completed so that the buildings could be certified by the authorities. He not only provided the vision for the project but executed the project as well. 

“The rocks, the stones, the trees, the earth, the water. They are the ‘owners’ of this land,” Lee says, explaining his philosophy in building. L’art de la vie reflects that philosophy well.  

Of course, there were difficulties along the way. “I nearly gave up three or four times because I was having difficulties realizing my vision,” he says, crediting his wife for pushing him on, encouraging him. 

Source: Incheon, Korea Herald (June 27)

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