think big spelled out in adhesive letters, a 9 standing in for the G, hangs above the cash register of Kim’s Corner Food at 1371 W. Estes in Rogers Park. On many surfaces throughout the aging bodega, proprietor Thomas Kong has hung the small collages he’s been crafting for the last four years using Black & Mild containers, Coffee-mate packaging, and other scraps of stray paper and cardboard destined for the Dumpster. Kong’s colorful, sometimes odd works adorn walls, endcaps, even the interiors of beverage coolers.
“Every day I make,” says Kong, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea nearly 40 years ago. “Big and small, large and narrow, wide ones, high ones, low ones, different colors. I can’t remember how many I’ve made—maybe a couple of thousand.” He began making the collages simply to pass the 12 hours a day he spends working in the store, but it quickly blossomed into a passion.
Daniel Miller, an artist and grad student at Northwestern University, and Nathan Smith, who codirects Rogers Park gallery Roman Susan, became interested in Kong’s work last fall after wandering into his store. The two helped Kong make a website on which he can promote his art, and have begun to organize years’ worth of Kong’s pieces stashed in a back room of the store. With Kong’s blessing, Miller and Smith plan to turn the room into a mini exhibition space, allowing Kim’s Corner Food shoppers to browse the artist’s work just beyond the densely packed aisles.
Avondale gallery Night Club will feature Kong’s art, alongside artist John Neff’s photographs of Kim’s Corner Food, in an October exhibition.