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FairfaxTotem poles celebrate Korean heritage, craftsmanship

Totem poles celebrate Korean heritage, craftsmanship

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Four freshly carved wooden totem poles – representing a king, queen, bride and groom – now stand guard over the Korean Bell Garden at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in the Vienna area.

NOVA Parks officials held an installation ceremony for the poles Nov. 8. The new totem poles, with smaller ones placed at their bases, replaced ones originally installed at the garden a decade ago.

The original poles were weathered and a hole in one of them had become home to a family of birds, said Jules Maloney, program manager at the park.

Traditionally placed at the entrances of Korean villages, the totem poles symbolically protect residents from misfortune.

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To ensure the new totem poles were as authentic as the rest of the garden, NOVA Parks officials brought in master craftsman Kim Jong Heung from South Korea to carve the poles out of cherry logs that were about 20 feet long and twice the diameter of telephone poles.

Outfitted in the traditional white-cotton artisan’s clothing and slip-on shoes, Heung worked on the poles last week using chisels and a hammer.
“He’s doing it in a way that they would have done 1,000 years ago,” said NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert.

During final preparations last week, Kim Jong Heung supervised as Seijoong Kwon, minister and consul-general at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), painted the planed center sections of three of the totem poles with Korean symbols labeling them General of the Earth, General of the Heavenly World and the Korean Bell Garden.

Gilbert also painted “Korean Bell Garden” on the fourth pole, his lettering in English, and filled in the pupils of one of the pole’s faces with black paint.

The craftsman selected people nearby to tie bows made from green, blue, yellow, white and red ribbons below each pole’s face. The ribbons symbolized elements of good fortune, such as longevity, health, children and prosperity.

Kim Jong Heung invited people who had been watching him work to roll and knock together the king and queen poles, then the bride and groom ones, in a fertility ritual.

Kim Jong Heung has been carving totem poles for more than four decades and said it takes at least 10 years to become proficient at the art. He can carve about one per day if he’s fully focused and typically makes about 200 poles per year.

The craftsman proudly displayed photos of him with world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth II, President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, and their son, President George W. Bush.

NOVA Parks opened the Korean Bell Garden in 2011 after beginning work on it four years earlier. The 4.5-acre garden, designed by University of Michigan professor Y. David Chung, cost about $1 million and was financed using funds raised by the Korean-American community, Gilbert said.

The facility, which includes a wooden pavilion made without using nails or screws and a 7-foot-tall, 3-ton bronze bell cast in Korea, is the only authentic Korean palace garden in the Western Hemisphere, he said.

NOVA Parks tries to make each of its facilities welcoming and unique and give visitors a sense of belonging, Gilbert said.

NOVA Parks Executive Director Paul Gilbert, under supervision from master craftsman Kim Jong Heung (left), paints the eye pupils of a new totem pole, which will be installed at the Korean Bell Garden at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in the Vienna area. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
Master craftsman Kim Jong Heung watches as Seijoong Kwon, minister and consul-general of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, paints part of a traditional totem pole Nov. 5, 2021 at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in the Vienna area. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
Master craftsman Kim Jong Heung carved these new totem poles, which were installed Nov. 8, 2021, at the Korean Bell Garden at Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, to symbolize a queen, king, bride and groom. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)
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