Because of their significant population growth, Fairfax County’s Korean-American residents have been in the spotlight a lot lately.
The third largest immigrant community in the county, according to the 2010 U.S. census, the Korean-American population grew by more than 40 percent during the previous decade.
Despite this newsworthy growth, Korean-American residents have long made important contributions to life in the metro region — including its rich cultural life.
For example, the nonprofit Han-Mee Artists Association of Greater Washington has been bringing together members of the region’s Korean-American arts community and showcasing their works since its founding in 1975.
According to Komelia Hongja Okim, a sculptor and one of Han-Mee’s founding presidents, the association was formed when it was discovered just how many Korean artists lived in the area — artists who wanted the camaraderie and encouragement and to enhance their development as professionals.
Its artists, Okim explained, are now “not Korean, not American but Korean-American.”
Han-Mee’s current exhibition at the Workhouse Arts Center at Lorton, “Blurring Boundaries,” underscores the fact that Korean-American artists, while sharing a strong cultural heritage, like other artists also are exceedingly diverse in their approaches and thinking.
Adding another blur to the boundaries of the works on exhibit, the 34 participating artists also were encouraged to break away from the usual forms of their artistic expression, to play with their artistic and cultural identities in new and perhaps unexpected ways.
The exhibition’s curator, Julie Jungsil Lee explained: “The show challenges artists and viewers to break out of various boundaries — Asian vs. Western, abstract vs. figurative, live vs. artificial. … Society should be open to anything. … Blurring boundaries between races, genders, disciplines. [The exhibition] is a reflection of that cultural trend.”
An adjunct professor at the Corcoran College of Art + Design and the director of ArTrio, a company involved in global art exhibition, education and art exchange, Jungsil Lee added: “The exhibition will be a showcase of how these Korean artists respond differently to American visual culture. … These artists are trying to liberate their art from stereotypes, from the institutionalized artistic paradigm and categorization as non-western art.”
The exhibition — running through Sept. 23 in the workhouse’s McGuire Woods Gallery — is not confined to any one medium and features paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, ceramics, metal and fiber art, mixed media, installation, and video art.
For Grace Sunsook Shin, trained as a traditional oriental brush painter, the whole experience was creatively exhilarating. A Montgomery County resident, Sunsook Shin created two large mixed-media collages.
She enthused, “I felt free. … I loved it! … There were no rules.”
Using acrylic paint on rice paper, Sunsook Shin divided a medley of images into segments. Titling her works “Voyage I” and “Voyage II,” while her approach was new, her subject matter was rooted in a treasured past experience — a journey to a vacation island in her native homeland of South Korea.
On the other hand, Vienna artist Yeong-Hi Paik’s two figurative and symbolic oils on canvas — notable for their vivid flat fields of color and basic geometric forms — were inspired by the views from the windows of her home.
Fascinated by the interplay of light and shadows, the house and tree imagery in her paintings symbolize both ever-changing nature and her family’s boundary-bending lives in the United States, she suggested.
“My paintings are contemporary but their colors are Korean, and family is very important in Korean culture,” explained Paik, Han-Mee’s fourth president whose long list of credits include inclusion in several Smithsonian group shows.
Okim, a Montgomery resident, is exhibiting three of her elegantly abstract “Rainbowscape” sculptures. Both painted with dry pigments and sculpted in metal, including copper and brass, their media “boundaries disappear.”
Si Joe Byun, who came to this area from South Korea only six months ago is both a mixed-media and video artist. In addition to blurring the boundaries between her identities as an artist, her current abstract works explore touching the boundaries of her images and harmonizing different spaces into one.
The work of master calligrapher Myoung-Won Kwon, one of the few male artists in the show, also epitomizes the show’s central theme. Kwon — whose works are in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery and was featured at a May 2011 Smithsonian event celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month — blurs the boundaries between the arts of ancient calligraphy and modern painting.
John Mason, the Workhouse’s president and CEO and former mayor of the City of Fairfax, said he hoped the Han-Mee exhibition might be the archetype for future Workhouse exhibitions that also will showcase the arts of the region’s increasingly diverse populations.
And the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton may be the perfect place to celebrate this diversity. According to a Sept. 7 story in The Washington Post, a Penn State University study of census data found that “Lorton is one of the most diverse places in the entire country.”
Lorton’s 19,000 residents, Morello reported, “are roughly a third white and a third black.” It also counts “significant numbers of Asians, Hispanics and multiracial residents.”
All living together “Blurring Boundaries.”