Hyung Chong Kim became an artist when Korea could still be called “the land of the morning calm.” As a young man he learned to paint beautiful landscapes in his country’s 1,000-year-old style: spare studies of mountains, orchids, and young pink-cheeked women. After his family survived the Korean war, Kim gave his son, Sung Ho, two rules to live by: You must go to church every Sunday, to thank God for sparing us. And you must paint as I paint, so Korean art will survive for one more generation.
Half a century later, Sung Ho Kim sat pensively in Art Zone, his gallery for Korean artists at 3238 W. Bryn Mawr. The grand opening was four days away. Everything was in its place: the low table where old men could kneel and paint on rice paper with bamboo brushes, the coffee bar, the oil portraits by this month’s featured artist, Harry Ahn. Kim–a slight, mustachioed man with a cell phone clipped to his tightly cinched belt–drew on a cigarette and talked about his father.
“After the war my father was a schoolteacher, so he make a little bit better money,” Kim said. “He doing job, and then after, he doing drawing. That’s why I respect. My father taught me basic arts. I graduate from college after he taught me traditional Korean art. When I came here I learned Western-style art, oil painting, installation. My other job is traditional Korean art. I work half-and-half.”
To earn his living Kim designs restaurant dining rooms and makes contemporary sculpture. His business cards say Art Kim, the English name he adopted to remind people of his profession. Art Zone is crowded with his Western-style work, including a mound of driftwood that looks like a mass of writhing worms; there’s also a helmet, an artillery shell, and a 48-star American flag, relics of the Korean war. All day he works on his dining rooms and his sculptures, but at night he sits down to meditate, then lifts his bamboo brushes and paints like a Korean master.
“I show you something,” Kim said. “It’s not finished yet.”
He led the way into the basement, where he lifted a sheet of butcher paper from an easel. Underneath was a painting of two Korean women kneeling in front of a mountain landscape. He lifted bubble wrap from another easel to reveal a Nativity scene featuring a Korean Jesus attended by three wise men.
“It’s not many that are doing like that,” Kim said. “I have to continue. It’s my duty, because a lot of Korean painters, it’s too much Western, but someone has to continue our things, even for a second generation.”
The grand opening was on a Friday night. Kim tied streamers to the potted plants in front of the doors. His fiancee, In Young, had just arrived in Chicago and had spent the afternoon fixing platters of sushi and dumplings. As the guests arrived she stood behind the bar slicing cantaloupe and watermelon. Kim has been married twice before, but once the women came to America they did not respect him as he thought a Korean wife should. His 21-year-old daughter Karen, a college student, was also behind the bar, pouring glasses of Coke.
Harry Ahn, a slim, gray-haired man in a business suit, sat at a table, legs crossed, discussing his paintings. Ahn works in the style of John Singer Sargent, specializing in luminous portraits of homeless people.
“Do you have the patience to listen to me?” Ahn asked a visitor, putting politeness before self-promotion. But before he could begin his story he received a tap on the shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” the man behind him said. “Let’s pray. The pastor is here.”
Reverend Chan Oh, of Our Lord’s Church in Arlington Heights, gathered everyone into a circle and delivered a homily in Korean. He spoke of creativity as a gift from God and prayed that through these paintings, people could see “the hands of God, the gifts of God.”
Ahn sat again. He talked about the aftermath of the Korean war, and how those years of starvation had made him an artist.
“The U.S. soldiers take us to South Korea,” he said. “Eventually, I just became a beggar. You have to beg to survive. I’ve seen so many people who lost their friends, lost their families. They’re sick. There’s no reason to live. Then when I come to the Western world, I see all the homeless people on the street. It reminds me of the past. That is my mission, you see. I want to talk to them. There’s the nicest people there. Very humble. Some of them very educated. When you put into canvas people, they become friend.”
Kim stood beside the bar, observing the success of his grand opening. A reporter from the local Korean newspaper was there. In the courtyard behind the building a group of Korean artists sat cross-legged on mats, eating cake with chopsticks. A man from an art gallery in Michigan approached Ahn and expressed an interest in showing the painter’s work.
Kim put on a CD by his brother, who is a musician back in Korea. It was light jazz guitar.
“Next year I’d like to invite, have him play, have my father’s drawings, my drawings, family event,” he said.
Like everything else in his life, the work shown in Kim’s gallery will be divided between the Western and the Korean. He may live in America, but he has not forgotten his duty. The opening ended at midnight, which was one o’clock Saturday afternoon in Seoul. It was late here, but Kim called his father to tell him that Chicagoans had come to see a Korean’s paintings.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Audrey Cho.