Staying outside the lines

When Sewon Kim moved to the United States last July with his wife and two children, the Korean artist was looking to utilize his expertise in industrial and textile design during his stint as a visiting scholar in Portland State’s art department.

When Sewon Kim moved to the United States last July with his wife and two children, the Korean artist was looking to utilize his expertise in industrial and textile design during his stint as a visiting scholar in Portland State’s art department.

Kim’s specialties are popular with students in Korea, and he received strong institutional support at the University of Ulsan, where he works as an art professor. However, here at PSU, there is little demand and zero dedicated space for his disciplines.

So instead, Kim picked up a metal stylist and meticulously carved lines into a metal plate for nine months, creating images of fish, nails and nature. The result is a 20-piece art exhibit that opened last Thursday at PSU’s MK Gallery, which features the artist’s first foray into etching, a craft that Kim seems to have quickly mastered and enjoyed.

“Threaded Lines” is Kim’s reflection as an expat adjusting to life overseas, a meditative experience in art where East meets West and where the structured dogma of Catholicism is woven into the simplistic Zen-like state espoused in Buddhism.

 “My art is about my daily life,” Kim said. “I got the image for this one from my visit to a mountain.”

Kim referred to his work called “Illusion,” a black-and-white image that resembles a rambutan—a sweet, gelatinous fruit native to southeast Asian countries—in mid-flight with its smeared shadow in the foreground.

The image is Kim’s vision of seeing chestnuts falling down from a tree during his stay at Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon, a secluded monastery where guests are encouraged to spend time in prayer and reflection.

It was here that Kim, a Catholic who has a strong interest in Buddhism, reflected on how the two religions are similar to one another.

“[Buddhism and Catholicism] are similar in thinking,” Kim said. “Buddhism emphasizes goodness, and love for each other.”

In Ulsan, Kim teaches a class in textile arts with a focus on contemporary weaving techniques that utilize softer materials like fabric. He said he encountered difficulty with etching because it uses harder materials like zinc, and a metal stylist to puncture through the rough surface. Each piece takes him somewhere between three weeks to a month and a half to finish.

Eleanor Erskine, a professor in printmaking who helped Kim with his initial attempts at etching, said the work requires the artist to be both delicate and strong in their technique.

“There is a nice tension in his works between strong and soft,” she said.

According to art history Professor Junghee Lee, Kim often works in the printmaking lab until 3 to 4 a.m. every day. Kim admitted that his wife, who works as an art curator in Korea, was not very happy at first.

Lee is responsible for bringing Kim over and helps him present himself as an artist to an American audience. Kim is the latest artist to visit PSU and is part of a 15-year ongoing artistic exchange between PSU and the University of Ulsan.

Originally built in 1969 with initial funding from the Hyundai Corporation, the University of Ulsan, like PSU, has its identity forever linked to an industrialized, urban landscape, according to Lee.

“A lot of their faculty had contracts with Hyundai designing cars,” Lee said. “Their university has a lot of international

students from other countries like Russia and China.”

When Lee first arrived in Portland in 1994, PSU and the University of Ulsan officially became sister universities. Since then, Lee, along with Erskine and current art department Chair William Lepore, worked to maintain a relationship between the two universities.

The first exhibition was sent from the Ulsan College of Design in 1996, and in June 1997, PSU followed up with its own exchange exhibition in Korea. Since then, every two years, faculty members from PSU are invited to Ulsan, and

vice versa.

In addition, the Korean university sends its students to PSU during the summer. Lepore has also taught classes in Ulsan.

According to Lee, there are several benefits to these exchanges. First, it broadens the cultural horizons between the two universities, he said. In a catalog commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the relationship between the two schools, Lee observed that many Korean artists are now incorporating western approaches into the traditional interpretation seen in

their works.

Kim said he finds the works of western artists to be freer, whereas in Korea, there is more emphasis on tradition and conservative interpretations.

Second, Lee said the exchange trips allow artists more time to explore previously overlooked territory in the art field.

Kim said when he returns home, he will try his hand at printmaking again, after getting a taste for it during his time here.

Third, faculty members benefit from learning and teaching each other. Also, by overcoming the language barrier, the art world becomes more global.

“We do a lot of drawing together with the students watching this exchange taking place,” Erskine said. “Very clearly we don’t understand each other, but we’re figuring out how to understand each other and to have students witness that in the classroom is just exceptional.”

According to Lee, in October, faculty members from PSU’s art department will travel to Ulsan for an art exhibit. In the meantime, Kim’s works will be on display until May 27 in the MK Gallery. ?