Peek Inside a Mask Maker’s Workshop

For more than 40 years, Kim Dong-pyo has been creating Hahoe maskerpieces in his humble workshop.

During that time, he has met the Queen of England, shaken hands with American Presidents, appeared on television, been featured in countless publications and reached the zenith of the Hahoe mask making field.

Kim Dong-pyo works on creating the Nobleman in his workshop
Kim Dong-pyo works on creating the Nobleman in his workshop

. . .

A Brief History of Hahoe Masks

Spiritual in nature, Hahoe masks are an integral part of the Korean Shamanistic dance drama called Pyolshin-Gut.

Part gut (religious ceremony and exorcism) and part entertainment, this performance has been held regularly since the 12th century.

Today, the tradition lives on in the touristic Korean village of Hahoe Maeul in Andong, South Korea, which is where I met Kim Dong-pyo.

A selection of Pyolshin-Gut masks for sale in Hahoe village, Andong, South Korea
A selection of Pyolshin-Gut masks for sale in Hahoe village, Andong, South Korea

 . . .

An Interview With South Korea’s Master Hahoe Mask Maker

Unfazed by fame, Kim Dong-pyo prefers to spend his days in a humble workshop with a cigarette between his lips and a woodcarving tool in his hand.

That’s exactly how I found him; hard at work with a huge smile on his face and an infectious excitement to share his passion.

Below are his paraphrased words, as I needed three interpreters for our interview.

A wide angle view of Kim Dong-pyo's workshop at the Hahoe Mask Museum in Andong, South Korea
A wide angle view of Kim Dong-pyo’s workshop at the Hahoe Mask Museum in Andong, South Korea

. . .

Q. How many masks have you made in your lifetime?

A. SO MANY!!!!

When I started, it took me about a day to make a mask. Today, it takes me five.

I was much more rushed back then and the work was not as good. The masks I make today are of a much higher quality and well-worth the extra time and effort.

Kim Dong-pyo works on creating the Nobleman in his workshop
Kim Dong-pyo works on creating the Nobleman in his workshop

. . .

Q: What is the purpose of  a Hahoe Mask? 

A. Going back to the old centuries, people believed the masks were spiritual. When they wore them in the Pyolshin-Gut play, it was their way of connecting with the spirits.

. . .

Q. What makes these masks so special?

A. With the nobleman [the mask he carved during our interview], the face and mouth are separate pieces that move individually according to the motion of the actor.

Kim Dong-Pyo demonstrates the mouth movement of his work-in-progress Nobleman mask
Kim Dong-Pyo demonstrates the mouth movement of his work-in-progress Nobleman mask

When the actor moves his head upwards, the mask seems to smile or express glee.

Similarly, when the actor’s head points downwards, the mask’s mouth forms an angry face that also can be described as a frown.

These emotions allow the audience to relate to each character in the performance. It also makes the masks more spiritual.

The only way to truly experience this is to put the mask on yourself. It’s meaningless without the actor behind it.

[at this point, I tried on the nobleman mask. You can see it this fall on TV]

. . .

Q: Who smiles the most?

A. The nobleman; he has no worries and lots of free time, so he’s always smiling.

. . .

A master's hands hard at work
A master’s hands hard at work

. . .

Q. What is the process of making a mask?

A. Each mask starts as a log from an Ori tree. From there, I whittle it down until it begins to take the shape of a face.

These are the tools used to create Hahoe masks
These are the tools used to create Hahoe masks

Next, I use these tools [see right] to carve the details of the face.

Every line I carve has to look like it’s connected and harmonized; even though the eyes and mouth are far away from each other. This is done by creating an imaginary circle between the two.

Faces usually are a bit sharp; but, these lines help make the mask softer.

Finally, I sand the rough mask down, shellac it and apply paint.

Three distinct phases in the journey from Ori tree to Nobleman mask
Three distinct phases in the journey from Ori tree to Nobleman mask

. . .

Q. Who is your favorite character to make a mask of?

A. It’s impossible to choose one and I don’t want to either. Each mask has its own personality and each is the best in its own way.

If I favor a certain character, I might spend more time or attention on that one and neglect the rest in some way. By not having a favorite, I can give each mask equal love and respect.

Even the random dusty masks laying around Kim Dong-pyo's workshop are incredible works of art
Even the random dusty masks laying around Kim Dong-pyo’s workshop are incredible works of art

. . .

At this point, the interview came to an end and Kim Dong-pyo gave us all miniature Hahoe masks.

When asked if he made them, Mr Dong-pyo smiled and said, “no; these are just replicas made out of plastic.”

We all had a good laugh, exchanged handshakes and said goodbye. It was time to get back on my bicycle and explore more of Hahoe village.

While in Hahoe Village, we had a chance to see Kim Dong-Pyo's masks in action during a Pyolshin Gut mask dance ceremony
While in Hahoe Village, we had a chance to see Kim Dong-Pyo’s masks in action during a Pyolshin Gut mask dance ceremony

Have you ever worked with wood?

What did you build?